25 Years of Developmental Assets

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By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D.

This blog is excerpted from a longer essay: 25 Years of Developmental Assets: Personal Reflections (and a Little Data).

Twenty-five years ago, in December 1990, I received a just-published report from my soon-to-be mentor and colleague, Peter Benson. (I started at Search Institute the following April.) Titled The Troubled Journey, the report introduced Search Institute’s groundbreaking framework of Developmental Assets®. The assets were described then as “a good starting point for naming the ingredients necessary for positive youth development.”

Breakthrough Ideas

Ideas that were novel when introduced in 1990 have become widely assumed (though not consistently operationalized) in youth development and related fields. For example:

  1. An emphasis on understanding and building strengths. The Developmental Assets framework recast the conversation to emphasize young people’s strengths, even when they were facing important challenges, as building a strong foundation for growing up well.
  2. The cumulative power of assets. Since the first study, we have consistently found that the more assets young people experience, the better off they are. This association has been shown to be true across every population studied, from major cities in the United States to rural villages in Uganda.
  3. Alignment around a shared vision. From the beginning, the assets framework implicated all parts of communities. As Benson wrote in The Troubled Journey: “One sector alone (e.g., family or school) cannot by itself provide all the ingredients necessary for positive youth development” (Benson, 1990, p. 72).

A Changing World

Neither the world nor Search Institute has remained where it was in 1990. In the quarter-century that followed, our work on Developmental Assets grew and changed:

  • The asset framework evolved to 40 assets in 1996, rather than the original 30.
  • Up to 600 community coalitions adopted the assets as an organizing framework, particularly in the 1990s. Many have continued their efforts across two decades.
  • Assets have been measured in more than 5 million young people. We have been able to examine assets with different cultural groups, urban and rural youth, young people from grades 4 through college, and, in analyses currently underway, LGBT youth.
  • Like so many other parts of society, the Developmental Assets have globalized. Surveys have been conducted in more than 30 countries around the world, in 30 languages other than English, involving more than 25,000 youth outside the United States.

Moving Forward

Our question as we begin the New Year: How do we both learn from the transformative work of the past while constantly integrating fresh perspectives based on new learning and new (or previously overlooked) realities in the world around us?

At Search Institute, we continue to support use of the Developmental Assets through focused partnerships with communities and organizations nationally and internationally. At the same time, we are introducing new frameworks, tools, and approaches that integrate new insights and emphases in response to what we’ve learned and what has happened in the world around us.

For example, our emerging work on developmental relationships echoes many of the themes in the external assets. But where the external assets provide a broad view of developmental resources in communities, developmental relationships focus on the one-to-one interactions that, we hypothesize, are catalysts for growth and thriving.

Similarly, our emerging work on character strengths, which we’ve emphasized in workshops on perseverance, integrates new insights from a growing body of research and practice grounded in education, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology.

Finally, we increasingly understand that transformative, measurable change requires disciplined improvement and behavior change processes. Those efforts at the individual, organizational, and community levels can, we believe, yield improvements at scale in the lives of young people.

That change will not come quickly or easily. The next 25 years will likely see even more change than we saw in the past quarter century. Those changes will call us to adapt, learn, and innovate in what we do and how we do it. But the task is too important for our future to shirk. Peter’s call to action in 1990 remains our challenge today:

“Our highest national priority should be to mobilize our collective energy, commitment, and ingenuity to ensure a bright future for each and every child.” (Benson, 1990, p. 1)

Download the full reflection >>

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., is vice president of research and development at Search Institute. He joined Search Institute’s team in April 1991.

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Publish Date: 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

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