Defining and Promoting Positive Youth Development

    • January 24, 2012

The context. An emphasis on principles of positive youth development differs from the problem-focused culture often inherent in programs for youth. An evaluation of Health Link, an RWJF-funded program designed to ease the transition of incarcerated older adolescents back into the community and prevent re-arrest, had found little positive program effect. By overlaying principles of positive youth development—in particular, competence, connection, and character—onto the Health Link data, a researcher committed to studying the potential of young people hoped to uncover positive outcomes not originally apparent.

A commitment to kids leads to a career in public health. Raphael Travis Jr., DrPH, LCSW, always knew he wanted to help kids. He describes his childhood as "very happy, but very humbling at the same time," growing up on Long Island, N.Y., in "a low-income community within a very wealthy area." It was, he says, "a juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots." Although from a low-income community Travis had a level of personal support—and opportunities that came his way—that he saw others did not have. He was able to succeed where others could not, just as a result of their differing circumstances. "I wanted to help young people who grew up in situations like mine to be able to reach their potential," he says."

Starting college as a psychology major at the University of Virginia, Travis added sociology when he found that "sociology opened the door away from an individual focus on the way things are to the way that society evolves as a whole." In his senior year he was introduced to social work as a profession and "found that this was even better than sociology and something I could do as a career."

Travis went directly from undergrad to a master's program in social work at the University of Michigan. He describes the evolution of his professional interests as "a progression from the individual, to looking at social influences, to social work as a field in which you could actually do something—not just understanding things, but the applied, practical implementation of those ideas. This was really attractive to me."

Emphasizing the positive. After graduate school Travis put his degree to work as a social worker for boys in a residential treatment program of a psychiatric hospital in Maryland. He was part of a treatment team with psychiatrists and nurse practitioners and worked with individual residents, groups of residents, and families.

The position was formative for Travis. While "it was a great environment, staffed by people committed to the well-being of the kids," he says, "the culture was very problem-focused. The kids were seen as needing to be fixed in some way. That was the dominant narrative and that did not resonate with me."

Travis started experimenting with different ways of working with his unit of 14 kids that could speak to the "potential in youth." His premise was: "Instead of preventing things you don't want to see, facilitate the positive things you do want to see by building on kids' strengths and internal competencies that can help propel them through life."

And that, he says "began to be the basic architecture of how I approached my work." He was able to implement these principles in his next position as clinical coordinator in a group home by addressing every aspect of the youths' day "through this lens of positive youth development and considering how each experience was facilitating their growth as individuals."

This experience fed Travis's desire to pursue his ideas through research and teaching and led to doctoral work in community health at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Public Health. He felt that "public health was a little more explicit about wanting to move the needle at the community level."

Travis received his doctor of public health degree in 2007 and moved to Texas State University - San Marcos School of Social Work as assistant professor, where he teaches about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and investigates the positive youth development ideas that are so important to him.

Joining New Connections. The move from California to Texas left Travis without the local community networks that had been essential to his work—work that was different from that of his new colleagues at Texas State. He attended a New Connections meeting prior to the 2007 American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting, applied to the program soon after and was accepted into the 2008 cohort of junior investigators.

New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming brings new perspectives to RWJF grantmaking by supporting researchers from historically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities. These talented early- and mid-career investigators can be isolated from others with similar career trajectories and overlooked for funding. Launching a successful research career is demanding in most cases. For the researcher from an underrepresented group it can be daunting. New Connections scholars are in their early- or mid-careers and are members of ethnic or racial minority or from low-income communities and/or the first in their family to receive a college degree. The program offers research funding as well as career development and mentoring. See the New Connections Progress Report for more information.

In the midst of his whirlwind new life in academia being part of New Connections "calmed everything down," he says. "It was a very positive and encouraging environment. I was part of a network of people interested in the same kind of work, who have the same passion and commitment and who seem to place a value on creating a supportive space for people who are growing professionally. At the same time, to receive funding to do research that I thought was important was a bonus!"

The research project. Travis built his New Connections research project on a data set from the 1997–2002 evaluation of the Health Link Program, an RWJF-funded program designed to ease the transition of incarcerated older adolescents back into the community and prevent re-arrest. For more on Health Link, see the Program Results.

Earlier research on the intervention did not find evidence of much positive effect. Travis postulated that some effects may not have been considered and he set out to overlay principles of positive youth development—particularly competence, connection, and character—onto the data. His research questions were:

  • What role did these youth development factors play?
  • Was there an impact of the Health Link intervention not previously discovered?
  • What roles did peers and families play?

Health Link evaluators had found that substance abuse was associated with re-arrest. Individuals using substances at the second of two time points were significantly more likely to be re-arrested. Thus, those factors having an impact on substance use would indirectly affect an individual's likelihood of re-arrest.

Travis found that the three youth development factors (competence, connections, and character) were important, particularly connections. Individuals with stronger personal relationships were less likely to use illegal substances at the two time points measured. "The nature of people's relationships is very powerful at preventing the things that we don't want to see happen," he notes.

As for the impact of Health Link, Travis's analysis found that youth who participated in Health Link had fewer mental health problems than those who did not—an effect that had not been identified in the original research.

Finally, the research showed that peers and family stability had an impact on re-arrest. Having delinquent peers contributed to mental health problems, while youth with strong family connections were less likely to use substances, reinforcing the importance of relationships.

Travis's "bottom line" conclusions from his study: "Substance abuse problems are a major pathway to re-arrest for this group, and mental health issues must be addressed. My recommendation is to keep adolescents away from substances after discharge from prison, maintain their good mental health, and either create new relationships with family and significant others for those that didn't have them, or preserve those connections for people who did."

Moving forward. "The umbrella of all my research is this idea of positive youth development," says Travis. "I look at defining and measuring it, and at strategies to promote it at both the community and at the program level."

"Another big part of my research is looking at the intersection of hip-hop culture and positive youth development. One key purpose of this research is moving the conversation on media or art influences on youth, away from whether it is good or bad and bringing some nuance through a consideration of both the empowering aspects and the risky aspects of the influence. I am trying to build evidence that art can have a little bit of both and that the more important question is: in what ways can you channel the more empowering aspects and inhibit the risky aspects—framing it all within this idea of positive youth development and how young people's development unfolds over the life course."

Travis's commitment to helping kids continues. "I research potential. That's what I am passionate about. That's what drives me. It's so frustrating to see untapped, unrealized potential."

The impact of New Connections on Travis. The best part of New Connections, says Travis, is the network. The relationships fostered by New Connections have led to new research and publishing opportunities for him. "I have published papers with folks I met through New Connections," he says. "I have also worked on a number of different projects that didn't result in a paper, but which are important career-related projects. These activities have helped lay the foundation for several professional tracks within my overall research agenda. I know I wouldn't have been able to facilitate these relationships on my own."

The training and skills development afforded by New Connections has been "priceless," Travis believes. "A growth area of mine at the time was more advanced quantitative skills and I was able to use grant funds to get in-depth training. At the same time, New Connections, through the coaching clinics and symposiums, does a great job of bringing in speakers to do workshops. Each time there is something new and valuable."

His experience in New Connections has given Travis "the confidence that the work I'm interested in is of value and relevance because there's a whole group of other people who are interested in similar work. The award was very well received in my school and university and the visibility has been very helpful for my career."

Travis is "extraordinarily appreciative of New Connections and the opportunities that have been provided. It's been tremendous for me."

RWJF perspective. "The Foundation has a strong commitment to diversity and recognizes the vital role diverse perspectives have in creating solutions and innovations to address today's most pressing health and health care issues in the communities we serve," says RWJF Senior Program Officer Debra J. Perez, PhD, MPH. The New Connections program is designed to expand the diversity of perspectives that inform RWJF program strategy and introduce new researchers to the Foundation, while providing support and professional development opportunities to a network of more than 1,200 scholars representing historically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities.

Raphael Travis Jr.

Raphael Travis Jr., DrPH, LCSW
New Connections Researcher