Youth Development & Youth Leadership

Supporting Evidence & Research

The Youth Development & Youth Leadership standards and indicators are based on sound evidence and research that supports their utility in the field. The information below identifies and presents research, federal government documents, commissioned reports, and other sources that serve as the foundation upon which these standards are based. This compilation should not be viewed as all-inclusive, but rather as illustrative of the range of research and expert analysis currently available. See more about the research.

Youth Develop Skills, Behaviors, and Attitudes That Enable Them to Learn and Grow

Standard 3.1
Youth acquire the skills, behaviors, and attitudes that enable them to learn and grow in self-knowledge, social interaction, and physical and emotional health.

Ferber, Pittman, and Marshall (2002) identified five areas in which youth development should be promoted: learning (developing positive basic and applied academic attitudes, skills, and behaviors), thriving (developing physically healthy attitudes, skills, and behaviors), connecting (developing positive social attitudes, skills, and behaviors), working (developing positive vocational attitudes, skills, and behaviors), and leading (developing positive civic attitudes, skills, and behaviors). While noting the limited amount of quality research on youth development and leadership (Benson & Saito, 2000; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Edelman, Gill, Comerford, Larson, & Hare, 2004), a number of studies and program evaluations have identified components of effective youth development programs and curricula. These components include: strong relationships with adults (Boyd, 2001; James, 1999; Moore & Zaff, 2002; Woyach, 1996); training in mediation, conflict resolution, team dynamics, and project management (Edelman et al., 2004); new roles and responsibilities based on experiences and resources that provide opportunity for growth (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003); teamwork and peer networking (Boyd, 2001;Woyach, 1996); and opportunities to practice communication, negotiation, and refusal skills (ACT for Youth, 2003).

Youth development is best promoted through activities and experiences that help youth develop competencies in social, ethical, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). The Konopka Institute (2000) identified components of effective youth development programs, including: decision-making; interaction with peers; acquiring a sense of belonging; experimenting with their own identity, with relationships to others, and with ideas; and participating in the creative arts, physical activity, and health education. The American Youth Policy Forum conducted a national review of 50 evaluations of youth interventions and identified nine basic principles of effective youth programming and practice, including: (a) high quality implementation; (b) high standards and expectations for participating youth; (c) participation of caring, knowledgeable adults; (d) parental involvement; (e) taking a holistic approach; (f) viewing youth as valuable resources and contributors to their communities; (g) high community involvement; (h) long term services, support, and follow-up; and (i) including work-based and vocational curricula as key components of programming (James,1999). The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS) Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education (1997) included: (a) providing accurate information about human sexuality; (b) providing an opportunity for young people to question, explore, and assess their sexual attitudes; (c) helping young people develop interpersonal skills, including communication, decision-making, assertiveness, and peer refusal skills; and (d) helping young people exercise responsibility regarding sexual relationships.

Youth Understand the Relationship between Their Strengths and Their Goals, and Have the Skills to Act on That Understanding

Standard 3.2
Youth understand the relationship between their individual strengths and desires and their future goals, and have the skills to act on that understanding.

Research on social-emotional learning has found that instruction in self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making results in greater attachment to school (Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002; Eccles & Gootman, 2002). Greater attachment to school, in turn, leads to less risky behavior, more developmental assets, better academic performance, and improved long-term outcomes such as higher graduation rates, higher incomes, lower arrest rates, and fewer pregnancies (Blum, Beuhring, & Rinehart, 2000; Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001).

Youth who participate in organizational leadership roles, planning activities, making presentations, and participating in extra-curricular activities show higher levels of self-efficacy, self-advocacy, and self-determination (Edelman et al., 2004; Larson, 2000, Sagawa, 2003). Other components of effective youth development programs include discussing conflicting values and formulating value systems (Konopka Institute, 2000); developing ethics, values, and ethical reasoning (Boyd, 2001; Woyach, 1996); developing personal development plans; assessing individual strengths and weaknesses; and skill-building in goal-setting, planning, and self-advocacy (Edelman et al., 2004). Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) identified similar self-determination and self-advocacy skills needed by students with disabilities such as communicating interests and preferences, setting achievable goals, planning and time management, problem-solving, negotiating and persuading, leadership skills, and self-monitoring and reinforcement.

Youth development and youth leadership experiences can have positive effects on behaviors and skills including self-efficacy, self-determination, communication, and problem-solving. Each of these skills is linked to higher student achievement, lower dropout rates, and/or better postschool outcomes(Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem & Ferber,2003; Sagawa, 2003). Adolescents involved in community volunteer service-learning programs that featured both community volunteering and classroom activities were less likely to be sexually active and become pregnant than teens not involved in such programs. Combining sex education with youth development activities (such as educational mentoring, employment, sports, or the performing arts) also reduced frequency of sexual activity as well as pregnancies and births (Manlove et al., 2002).

Youth involved in civic engagement programs were more likely “to be more involved in school, to graduate from high school, to hold more positive civic attitudes, and to avoid teen pregnancy and drug use than those who are not” (Zaff, Calkins, Bridges, & Margie, 2002, p. 1). Teens’ relationships with adults outside their families—teachers, mentors, neighbors, and unrelated adults—can promote their social development and overall skills. These relationships can be informal or part of formal mentoring programs (Hair, Jager, & Garrett, 2002; Tierney & Grossman, 1995). Research by Gambone, Klem, and Connell indicates that supportive relationships, particularly with parents, have “strong, positive effects on adolescents’ learning to be productive and to navigate by the end of their high school years” (2002, p.38).

Youth Develop the Knowledge and Skills to Demonstrate Leadership and Participate in Community Life

Standard 3.3
Youth have the knowledge and skills needed to practice leadership and participate in community life.

A study by Woyach (1996) identified 12 principles for effective youth leadership programs, including knowledge and skills related to leadership; the history, values, and beliefs of communities; leadership styles; awareness, understanding and tolerance of other people, cultures and societies; experiential learning and opportunities for genuine leadership; and service to others in the community, country, and world. Boyd (2001) and Ferber et al. (2002) also found experiential learning, such as service-learning projects, to be an effective method for teaching leadership skills and applying academic skills. Additional experiential learning or on-the-job leadership experiences that have proven to be effective include mentoring and counseling, formal leadership training programs, internships, special assignments, and simulations or case studies (James, 1999; Lambrecht, Hopkins, Moss, & Finch, 1997); activities that convey information about life, careers, and places beyond the neighborhood, as well as community service opportunities (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1995); and activities providing a sense of connection to the community, problem solving and social skills, and after-school recreation programs (Komro & Stigler, 2000).

Effective youth leadership experiences identified by research include placement in a variety of challenging situations with problems to solve and choices to make under conditions of manageable risk; and placement in a supportive environment with supervisors who provide positive role models and constructive support, and mentors who provide counseling (James, 1999; Lambrecht et al., 1997). For many youth, leadership skills are developed during structured extracurricular (recreational and social development) activities, such as clubs, service organizations, sports programs, and fine arts (Larson, 2000; Wehman, 1996). Few youth with disabilities participate in these types of activities and groups unless teachers, families, and other advocates facilitate these conditions (Amado, 1993; Halpern et al., 1997; Moon, 1994). Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) found that students with disabilities who have self-determination skills have more positive educational outcomes and have a greater chance of being successful in making the transition to adulthood, including achieving employment and community independence. For youth with disabilities, the importance of developing self-advocacy skills (those skills individuals need to advocate on their own behalf) has been well-documented (Agran, 1997; Sands & Wehmeyer, 1996; Van Reusen, Bos, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1994; Wehmeyer, Agran, & Hughes, 1998).

Research on factors promoting resilience in youth at risk has shown that the consistent presence of a single caring adult can have a significant positive impact on a young person’s growth and development (Garmezy, 1993). Well-designed programs include experiences that promote positive relationships with both peers and adults (National Collaborative on Workforce and Disabilities for Youth, 2004).

Successful youth development programs must be able to adapt to the social, cultural, and ethnic diversity of the young people that they serve and the communities in which they operate (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). Programs that promote understanding and tolerance in their participants have been shown to promote the development of positive social behaviors, attitudes, and skills (Edelman et al., 2004; Ferber, Pittman & Marshall, 2002).

Youth leadership is part of the youth development process and has internal and external components, such as the ability to analyze one’s own strengths and weaknesses, set and pursue personal and vocational goals, guide or direct others on a course of action, influence the opinions and behaviors of others, and serve as a role model (Wehmeyer et al., 1998). Evaluations of youth development programs have demonstrated that young people who participate in youth leadership and civic engagement activities consistently get the supports and opportunities needed for healthy youth development ( Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development, 2003).

Youth Have the Ability to Make Informed Decisions

Standard 3.4
Youth demonstrate the ability to make informed decisions for themselves.

Parents, educators, and researchers agree on the need to promote self-determination, self-advocacy, and student-centered planning. Self-determination, the combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior, has become an important part of special education and related services provided to individuals with disabilities (Abery & Stancliffe, 1996). Self-determination skills include self-advocacy, social skills, organizational skills, community and peer connection, communication, conflict resolution, career skill building, and career development and computer/technological competency (Martin & Marshall, 1996; Wehmeyer, Kelchner, & Richards, 1996). Research has found that helping students acquire and exercise self-determination skills is a strategy that leads to more positive educational outcomes. For example, Wehmeyer and Schwartz (1997) found that one year after graduation, students with learning disabilities who received self-determination training were more likely to achieve positive adult outcomes, including being employed at a higher rate and earning more per hour, when compared to peers who had not received the training. Youth development programs foster self-determination by increasing participants’ capacity for independent thinking, self-advocacy, and development of internal standards and values. (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2002).

Starting with the 1990 IDEA legislation, transition services must be based on students’ needs and take into account students’ interests and preferences. To accomplish this goal, students must be prepared to participate in planning for their future. The IDEA 1997 regulations support students’ participation in planning for their future by requiring that all special education students be invited to their IEP meetings when transition goals are to be discussed. The U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has played a major role in advancing a wide range of self-determination strategies through sponsored research and demonstration projects.

Research indicates that many students are attending their IEP meetings (Hasazi, Furney, & DeStefano, 1999; Johnson & Sharpe, 2000). There remain, however, a significant number who are not involved. This raises questions as to whether these students are not being extended opportunities for involvement, or are simply choosing not to attend. Effective student participation in the IEP process requires that students have the skills to move their lives in the directions they themselves choose, and have the support of their school and family and the adult service system in accomplishing their goals.

A common element of many exemplary self-determination programs is the presence of an individual with a philosophy, and the accompanying motivation, to see self-determination practices implemented or enhanced in his or her school or district. Exemplary self-determination programs also have strong administrative support encouraging the implementation of self-determination programs in schools. Without administrative support, student self-determination programs are often limited to individual classrooms and teachers who are dedicated to doing what they can to further their students’ self-determination despite limited resources and inadequate administrative commitment (Wood & Test, 2001).

Educators, parents, and students consistently recommend that self-determination instruction begin early, well before high school. This recommendation is consistent with published recommendations for self-determination instruction (Wood & Test, 2001). Natural opportunities for making choices occur throughout life, and increased opportunities to express preferences and choices, beginning in early childhood, can heighten an individual’s sense of self-esteem and self-direction. Izzo and Lamb (2002) suggested that schools seeking to encourage self-determination and positive postschool outcomes for students with disabilities should: (a) empower parents as partners in promoting self-determination and career development skills; (b) facilitate student-centered IEP meetings and self-directed learning models; (c) increase students’ awareness of their disability and needed accommodations; (d) offer credit-bearing classes in self-determination and careers; (e) teach and reinforce students’ internal locus of control; (f) develop self-advocacy skills and support student application of these skills; (g) infuse self-determination and career development skills into the general education curriculum; and (h) develop and implement work-based learning programs for all students.

Youth who participate in developmentally appropriate decision making activities and those who have access to meaningful youth development supports and opportunities are better equipped to make a successful transition to adult life (Gambone, Klem, and Connell 2002). Effective practices relating to decision-making include: opportunities for critical thinking and active, self-directed learning (ACT for Youth, 2003); setting goals and solving problems (Boyd, 2001; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1995); and gaining experience in decision-making (Boyd, 2001; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1995; Konopka Institute, 2000).


Abery, B., & Stancliffe, R. (1996). The ecology of self-determination. In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 111-146). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Assets Coming Together (ACT) for Youth. (2003, April). Research facts and findings: Best practices for youth development programs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Family Life Development Center.

Agran, M. (Ed.). (1997). Student-directed learning: Teaching self-determination skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Brookes/Cole.

Amado, A. N. (1993). Friendships and community connections between people with and without developmental disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Benson, P. & Saito, R. (2000). The scientific foundation of youth development. In Public/Private Ventures (ed.), Youth development: Issues, challenges, and directions. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Blum, R. W., Beuhring, T., & Rinehart, P. M. (2000). Protecting teens: Beyond race, income and family structure - Report from the Add Health Survey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Adolescent Health.

Blum, R. W., McNeely, C. A., & Rinehart, P. M. (2002). Improving the odds: The untapped power of schools to improve the health of teens. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Center for Adolescent Health. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Boyd, B. L. (2001, August). Bringing leadership experiences to inner-city youth. Journal of Extension, 39(4). Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1995). Great transitions: Preparing adolescents for a new century. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Catalano, R. F., Berglund, L., Ryan, J. A. M., Lonczak, H. S., & Hawkins, J. D. (2002). Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention and Treatment 5, Article 15. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Eccles, J. & Gootman, J.A. (Eds.). (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council & Institute of Medicine. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Edelman, A., Gill, P., Comerford, K., Larson, M., & Hare, R. (2004, June). Youth development and youth leadership: A background paper. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership, National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.

Ferber, T., Pittman, K., & Marshall, T. (2002). State youth policy: Helping all youth to grow up fully prepared and fully engaged. Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment.

Gambone, M.A., Klem, A.M., & Connell, J.P. (2002). Finding out what matters for youth: Testing key links in a community action framework for youth development. Philadelphia: Youth Development Strategies, Inc., and Institute for Research and Reform in Education.

Garmezy, N. (1993). Children in poverty: Resilience despite risk. Psychiatry, 56(1), 127-136.

Hair, E. C., Jager, J., & Garrett, S. B. (2002, July). Helping teens develop healthy social skills and relationships: What the research shows about navigating adolescence. Child Trends Research Brief. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Halpern, A., Herr, C., Wolf, N., Doven, B., Johnson, M., & Lawson, J. (1997). Next step: Student transition and educational planning. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Hasazi, S. B., Furney, K. S., & DeStefano, L. (1999). Implementing the IDEA transition mandates. Exceptional Children, 65(4), 555-566.

Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development. (2003, December). Lessons in leadership: How young people change their communities and themselves. Takoma Park, MD: Author.

Izzo, M., & Lamb, M. (2002). Self-determination and career development: Skills for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. Unpublished.

James, D. W. (Ed.) (with Jurich, S.) (1999). MORE things that DO make a difference for youth: a compendium of evaluations of youth programs and practices, Volume II. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Johnson, D. R., & Sharpe, M. N. (2000). Results of a national survey on the implementation transition service requirements of IDEA of 1990. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 13(2), 15-26.

Komro, K. A., & Stigler, M. H. (2000). Growing absolutely fantastic youth: A review of the research on “best practices.” Minneapolis, MN: Konopka Institute for Best Practices in Adolescent Health, University of Minnesota.

Konopka Institute. (2000, Spring). Growing absolutely fantastic youth: A guide to best practices in healthy youth development. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Lambrecht, J. L., Hopkins, C. R., Moss, J., Jr., & Finch, C. R. (1997, October). Importance of on-the-job experiences in developing leadership capabilities. Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley, National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Larson, R.W. (2000, January). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.

Manlove, J., Terry-Humen, E., Papillo, A. R., Franzetta, K., Williams, S., & Ryan, S. (2002, May). Preventing teenage pregnancy, childbearing, and sexually transmitted diseases: What the research shows. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Martin, J. E., & Marshall, L. H. (1996). Infusing self-determination instruction into the IEP and transition process. In D. J. Sands & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities (pp. 215-236). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Moon, M. S. (1994). Making school and community recreation fun for everyone. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Moore, K. A. & Zaff, J. F. (2002, November). Building a better teenager: A summary of “what works” in adolescent development. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2004). Organizational and programmatic components of effective youth programs. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Pittman, K.J., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2003, March). Preventing problems, promoting development, encouraging engagement: Competing priorities or inseperable goals? Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment, Impact Strategies, Inc.

Roth, J.L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2003). Youth development programs: Risk, prevention, and policy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32, 170-182.

Sagawa, S. (2003). Service as a strategy for youth development. In Lewis, A. (Ed.) Shaping the future of American youth: Youth policy in the 21 st century. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Sands, D. J., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (Eds.). (1996). Self-determination across the life span: Independence and choice for people with disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (1997). The SIECUS guidelines for comprehensive sexuality education. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Tierney, J., & Grossman, J. B. (with Resch, N.). (1995). Making a difference: An impact study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Van Reusen, A. K., Bos, C. S., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (1994). The self-advocacy strategy for education and transition planning. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises.

Wehman, P. (1996). Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International

Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., & Hughes, C. (1998). Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities: Basic skills for successful transition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M. L., Kelchner, K., & Richards, S. (1996). Essential characteristics of self-determined behavior of individuals with mental retardation. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 100(6), 632-642.

Wehmeyer, M. & Schwartz, M. (1997). Self-determination and positive adult outcomes: A follow-up study of youth with mental retardation or learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 63(2), 245-255. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Wilson, D. B., Gottfredson, D. C., & Najaka, S. S. (2001). School-based prevention of problem behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 17(1), 247-272.

Wood, W., & Test, D. W. (2001). Final performance report, Self-Determination Synthesis Project. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Woyach, R. B. (1996, Spring). Five principles for effective youth leadership development programs. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Zaff, J. F., Calkins, J., Bridges, L. J., & Margie, N. G. (2002, September). Promoting positive mental and emotional health in teens: Some lessons from research. Retrieved May 25, 2005, from

Next > Download Transition Toolkit

Top of Page

Overview | NASET Members | Acknowledgments | Home