Positive Youth Development

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Positive youth development builds up youth skills, connects youth to positive adults and peers, and supports them to contribute to their communities.


Empowerment Theory suggests that to promote youth health, youth need to develop skills, have positive qualities, and be motivated to apply these skills to create change for themselves and their communities. Programs that use Empowerment Theory focus on building positive qualities in youth, connecting them with resources and supportive mentors, and engaging youth in community service.

Positive Youth Development Theory (PYD) aims to support youth by focusing on their strengths. PYD approaches consider how social and contextual factors affect youth lives and help them develop competence, confidence, connection, character, and compassion. Once youth have demonstrated these capabilities, they move on to making a difference in their communities, where they learn how they can take action to improve conditions in their communities.

Key Findings

Our key findings to date are drawn from evaluations of the Youth Empowerment Solutions Program.

  • Youth who participated in positive youth development programs reported increased empowerment and reduced exposure to and involvement in violent behavior
  • Participation in a positive youth development program was associated with increased prosocial outcomes, such as academic effort, readiness to help others, responsible decision-making, and less violent/delinquent behaviors.
  • Participating in empowering activities can help youth avoid risky behaviors
  • Communities where positive youth development programs were implemented were shown to have visible community improvements, such as decreased vacant properties and boarded windows

Related Resources

Key Publications

Hsieh, H.-F., Lee, D. B., Zimmerman, M. A., Pomerantz, N., Cunningham, M. C., Messman, E., Stoddard, S. A., Grodzinski, A. R., & Heinze, J. E. (2022). The Effectiveness of the Say-Something Anonymous Reporting System in Preventing School Violence: A Cluster Randomized Control Trial in 19 Middle Schools. Journal of School Violence, 0(0), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/15388220.2022.2105858
Lee, D. B., Hsieh, H.-F., Stoddard, S. A., Heinze, J. E., Carter, P. M., Goldstick, J. E., Cunningham, M. C., Cunningham, R. M., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2020). Longitudinal pathway from violence exposure to firearm carriage among adolescents: The role of future expectation. Journal of Adolescence, 81, 101–113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2020.03.009
Eisman, A. B., Hicks, M., Kernsmith, P. D., Rupp, L., Smith-Darden, J. P., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2019). Adapting an evidence-based positive youth development intervention to prevent sexual and teen dating violence. Translational Behavioral Medicine, 11(1), 74–86. https://doi.org/10.1093/tbm/ibz156
Schmidt, C. J., Zimmerman, M. A., & Stoddard, S. A. (2018). A Longitudinal Analysis of the Indirect Effect of Violence Exposure on Future Orientation Through Perceived Stress and the Buffering Effect of Family Participation. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62(1–2), 62–74. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12254
Morrel-Samuels, S., Rupp, L. A., Eisman, A. B., Miller, A. L., Stoddard, S. A., Franzen, S. P., Hutchison, P., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2018). Measuring the Implementation of Youth Empowerment Solutions. Health Promotion Practice, 19(4), 581–589. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839917736511
Zimmerman, M. A., Eisman, A. B., Reischl, T. M., Morrel-Samuels, S., Stoddard, S., Miller, A. L., Hutchison, P., Franzen, S., & Rupp, L. (2018). Youth Empowerment Solutions: Evaluation of an After-School Program to Engage Middle School Students in Community Change. Health Education & Behavior: The Official Publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 45(1), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198117710491
Zimmerman, M. A., & Eisman, A. B. (2017). Empowering interventions: Strategies for addressing health inequities across levels of analysis. In M. A. Bond, I. Serrano-García, C. B. Keys, M. Shinn, M. A. Bond (Ed), I. Serrano-García (Ed), C. B. Keys (Ed), & M. Shinn (Ed) (Eds.), APA handbook of community psychology: Methods for community research and action for diverse groups and issues. (2016-09984-011; pp. 173–191). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/14954-011
Eisman, A. B., Zimmerman, M. A., Kruger, D., Reischl, T. M., Miller, A. L., Franzen, S. P., & Morrel-Samuels, S. (2016). Psychological Empowerment Among Urban Youth: Measurement Model and Associations with Youth Outcomes. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(3–4), 410–421. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12094
Stoddard, S. A., & Pierce, J. (2015). Promoting Positive Future Expectations During Adolescence: The Role of Assets. American Journal of Community Psychology, 56(3–4), 332–341. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-015-9754-7
Stoddard, S. A., Varela, J. J., & Zimmerman, M. A. (2015). Future Expectations, Attitude Toward Violence, and Bullying Perpetration During Early Adolescence: A Mediation Evaluation. Nursing Research, 64(6), 422–433. https://doi.org/10.1097/NNR.0000000000000127
Fuentes, V. E., Goncy, E. A., & Sutherland, K. S. (2015). Cross-Cultural Perspectives After Participation in the YES Program: A Pilot Study. Journal of Youth Development, 10(3), 64–73. https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2015.8
Morrel-Samuels, S., Zimmerman, M. A., & Reischl, T. M. (2013). Creating Safe and Healthy Futures: Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 22(3), 31–36.
Stoddard, S. A., Zimmerman, M. A., & Bauermeister, J. A. (2011). Thinking about the future as a way to succeed in the present: a longitudinal study of future orientation and violent behaviors among African American youth. Am J Community Psychol, 48(3–4), 238–246. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-010-9383-0
Reischl, T. M., Zimmerman, M. A., Morrel-Samuels, S., Franzen, S. P., Faulk, M., Eisman, A. B., & Roberts, E. (2011). Youth empowerment solutions for violence prevention. Adolesc Med State Art Rev, 22(3), 581–600, xiii.
Zimmerman, M. A., Stewart, S. E., Morrel-Samuels, S., Franzen, S., & Reischl, T. M. (2011). Youth Empowerment Solutions for Peaceful Communities: Combining theory and practice in a community-level violence prevention curriculum. Health Promotion Practice, 12(3), 425–439. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839909357316