I had the great pleasure of interviewing Positive Youth Development (PYD) expert Marilyn Price-Mitchell PhD. She is a developmental psychologist, educator, researcher, and writer who studies how today’s youth grow into healthy, successful, and engaged adults.
She synthesizes multidisciplinary research in psychology, education, sociology, child & adolescent development, social psychology, and neurobiology to bring evidence-based research to parents, teachers, civic leaders, mentors, coaches, and all those who support positive youth development.
She was kind enough to provide her insight and wisdom on this ever growing and valuable field. Whether you are completely unfamiliar with PYD or a proponent and advocate for it’s expansion, there is a great deal of knowledge to be gained below.
1. What unique value do you feel positive youth development offers society?
It gives us the opportunity to view children and adolescents more holistically. Child psychology, much like medicine, focused on a disease model, looking at ways to treat deficiencies in development instead of how to achieve well-being.
When preventive medicine gained momentum, people became more aware of ways to live healthier lifestyles. In a similar manner, positive youth development offers society evidence-based practices that build internal strengths in children and improve their ability to thrive in life. It doesn’t replace traditional psychology but rather adds balance to the field.
2. What led you to become passionate about positive youth development?
I spent 20 years working in corporate America as a practitioner in the field of organization development. I slowly realized that an organization’s ability to innovate was greatly dependent upon a collective set of intellectual, interpersonal, emotional, and ethical skills that should be developed in individuals by late adolescence. Yet, many adults do not have these foundational skills because they are not an integral part of K-12 education.
Parents and teachers pay the greatest attention to academics, leaving the development of internal strengths to chance. These strengths include how young people discover purpose, meaning, initiative, creativity, resilience, empathy, and compassion. It takes into account how young people learn to respectfully collaborate with others and critically think about the world around them. These human qualities drive innovation, social change, and positive outcomes for the public good.
I wanted to be part of a movement to bring a strengths-based approach to youth development. As a parent, I was exposed to the strengths and weaknesses of our educational system. I began to bring collaborative, systems-oriented practices used in corporations into schools, helping parents develop positive practices to support children. I co-founded the National ParentNet Association in 1996, a nonprofit whose mission is to build family, school, and community partnerships that help kids thrive.
3. The family is such an integral part of PYD. What can families do to bring the philosophy of Positive Youth Development into their everyday life?
Yes, the family is integral to positive youth development. But it must be a shared responsibility between parents, teachers, and community programs that support youth. It cannot be accomplished by families alone.
The simplest way to transfer this philosophy to everyday practice is to think about ways to build on children’s strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. This takes intentionality. As parents and educators, we are so absorbed on fixing what may be wrong with kids that we forget about what is right with them. Then we wonder why more than 50% of today’s teenagers are not hopeful, engaged, or thriving.
4. What are a few suggestions for parents to help them raise children to be thriving adults?
Two parenting practices that come to mind and are quite easy to implement are in the areas of praise and learning from mistakes. First, general praise is not helpful to kids. Instead of saying “great job,” think about how you can give praise with more specificity. Help them understand their character strengths by praising their kindness, teamwork, fairness, or enthusiasm.
Second, children learn from mistakes. Parents should help kids understand that you don’t expect them to be perfect and that you love them unconditionally, regardless of their errors, lapses in judgment, or school grades. If parents rescue children from mistakes, kids never get practice in overcoming obstacles and solving problems. This is an important process that develops initiative, critical thinking, and creativity.
5. I believe in focusing on strengths. How can we get schools and social institutions to begin realizing the power of a strengths based approach?
Put simply, we need to stop focusing on testing as the ultimate measure of student success and start measuring success in more qualitative ways. There is a place for testing, particularly when it is used to assess curriculum and improve education. However, the emphasis on testing today has become an obsession that undermines a strength-based approach to development.
I believe parents will be the driving force of change. Eventually, they will force schools and social institutions to pay attention to what matters most – how their kids thrive in life rather than how they perform on a standardized test.
6. It seems that PYD is tough to implement because it takes major systemic change in regions where it is lacking. What are some of the biggest obstacles to overcome in order to make PYD a “household” concept?
You’re right. It does take systemic change. And it is lacking for all children, rich and poor. One of the biggest obstacles is the lens through which schools view themselves. Originally founded as mechanistic organizations, they often function like automobiles. Many believe that if all the parts of their internal systems are running smoothly, then the student will excel.
The problem is that today’s schools need to be more like the World Wide Web, not an automobile. They need to be connected — to parents, communities, civic leaders, social service organizations, virtual communities, and students. And they need to understand that learning occurs at the boundaries of all these parts, not just within the confines of the school. When they begin to think this way, they will become 21st century learning communities that build on strengths. It’s a big obstacle but I think schools will eventually respond to this environment. If they do not, they will not survive in their current form.
7. What trends and transitions do you foresee taking place with Positive Youth Development in the near future? Or, what exciting trends are actually taking place in the field?
There are many exciting trends in the field. Three come immediately to mind. First, research has recognized that out-of-school-time programs are a major contributor to positive youth development. The Harvard Family Research Project has been a leader in conducting and synthesizing this research.
Second, research has long supported the need to create family-school-community partnerships that foster the academic, social, and emotional development of children, particularly those who are the most disadvantaged. The National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education has provided valuable research and collaboration, driving many successful partnership efforts.
Last, technology is part of 21st century learning. But computers are more than machines and software applications. They can help children learn to think, create new ideas, and find meaning in their work. Therefore, technology can be used to support positive youth development. Exciting research in Positive Technological Development (PTD) is being conducted by the Developmental Technologies Research Group at Tufts University, exploring ways that technology can play a positive role in children’s development and learning.
I’m very hopeful and optimistic about these trends and excited to be a part of them. Thanks for asking such great questions and for inviting me to be a part of this dialogue.