IV Theory-Predicated Applications of Developmental Science and the Positive Youth Development Perspective

Developmental science seeks to describe, explain, and optimize intraindividual change across the life span and, as well, between-individual differences in such intraindividual change (Bakes, Reese, & Nesselroade, 1977; Lerner, 2018a). Prior to the late 1980s, I had focused most of my theoretical and research attention on the descriptive and explanatory areas of the field. However, from this time on I became increasingly focused on theory- predicated and methodologically rigorous applications of developmental science aimed at promoting thriving across the life span.

I worked to build the field of applied developmental science and to elevate the application of developmental science to scholarly standing commensurate with descriptive and explanatory work. These efforts involved framing the field within dynamic, relational developmental systems-based ideas, and this framing was a key part of the first article I published as an applied developmental scientist (Birkel, Lerner, & Smyer, 1989). In addition, with the collaboration of Celia B. Fisher and Richard A. Weinberg, in 1997, I founded Applied Developmental Science, and argued that the field could help promote civil society and social justice both in the United States and internationally (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000a, 2000b).

In turn, my empirical work, enacted in collaboration with Jacqueline V. Lerner, sought to instantiate a theory-predicated approach to application within the portion of the life span within which I had devoted most of my past research: adolescence. We developed a model of positive youth development (PYD) (Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015) that focused on Five Cs of PYD (Competence, Confidence, Character, Connection, and Caring). The model indicated how youth strengths, when aligned with key resources in the contexts of youth, would result in PYD. We predicted that when the Five Cs were highly developed positive outcomes would increase (e.g., Contribution) and negative outcomes (e.g., risks and problem behaviors) would decrease. Support for the model was found in two major longitudinal studies, one in the United States and the other international. The U.S. research involved the 4-H Study of PYD (e.g., Bowers, et al., 2015; Jelicic, Bobek, Phelps, Lerner, & Lerner, 2007; Lerner, et ah, 2005; Lerner, et ah, 2015) and the international research has been conducted within the Compassion International Study of PYD (e.g., Lerner, et ah, 2018; Tirrell, et ah, 2019).

Within both studies the “C” of Character became a focus of increasing attention (e.g., Lerner, 2018b). This attention was predicated on interest in the links between character virtues and positive and valued contributions to communities and to institutions of civil society (Berkowitz, 2012) and, as well, by a burgeoning focus on character virtue development in programs located both in schools and in out-of-school-time settings (e.g., Berkowitz, Bier, & McCauley, 2017; Vandell, Larson, Mahoney, & Watts, 2015).


Bakes, P. B., Reese, H. W., & Nesselroade, J. R. (1977). Life-span developmental psychology: Introduction to research methods. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Berkowitz, M. W. (2012). Moral and character education. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds.), A PA educational psychology handbook. Vol. 2: Individual differences and contextual factors (pp. 247-264). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Berkowitz, M. W., Bier, M. C., & McCauley, B. (2017). Toward a science of character education: Frameworks for identifying and implementing effective practices. Journal of Character Education, 13(1), 33-51.

Birkel, R., Lerner, R. M., & Smyer, M. A. (1989). Applied developmental psychology as an implementation of a life-span view of human development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 10, 425-445.

Bowers, E. P., Geldhof, G. J.. Johnson, S. K.. Hilliard, L. J., Hershberg, R. M., Lerner, J. V, & Lerner, R. M. (Eds.). (2015). Promoting positive youth development: Lessons learned from the 4-H study. New York, NY: Springer.

Jelicic, H., Bobek, D., Phelps, E., D., Lerner, J. V, & Lerner, R. M. (2007). Using positive youth development to predict contribution and risk behaviors in early adolescence: Findings from the first two waves of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31(3), 263-273.

Lerner, R. M. (2018a). Concepts and theories of human development (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Lerner, R. M. (2018b). Character development among youth: Linking lives in time and place. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 42(2), 267-277.

Lerner, R. M., Fisher, С. B., & Weinberg, R. A. (2000a). Toward a science for and of the people: Promoting civil society through the application of developmental science. Child Development, 71, 11-20.

Lerner, R. M.. Fisher, С. B., & Weinberg, R. A. (2000b). Applying developmental science in the twenty-first century: International scholarship for our times. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24, 24—29.

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V, Almerigi, J., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Gestsdottir, S. Naudeau, S., Jelicic, H., Alberts, A. E., Ma, L., Smith, L. M., Bobek, D. L.. Richman-Raphael, D., Simpson, I., Christiansen, E. D., Sc von Eye, A. (2005). Positive youth development, participation in community youth development programs, and community contributions of fifth-grade adolescents: Findings from the first wave of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 17-71.

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V, Bowers, E., & Geldhof, G. J. (2015). Positive youth development and relational developmental systems. In W. F. Overton Sc P. C. Molenaar (Eds.), Theory and method. Vol. 1: Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 607-651). Editor-in-chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Lerner, R. M., Tirrell, J. M., Dowling, E. M., Geldhof, J., Gestsdottir, S., Lerner, J. V., King, P. E., Williams, K., 8c Sim, A. T. R. (2018). The end of the beginning: Evidence and absences studying PYD in a global context. Adolescent Research Review, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-018-0093-4 Tirrell. J. M., Geldhof, G. J.. King, P. E., Dowling, E., Sim, A., Williams, K., Iraheta, G., Lerner, J. V, & Lerner, R. M. (2019). Measuring spirituality, hope, and thriving among Salvadoran youth: Initial findings from the Compassion International Study of Positive Youth Development. Child & Youth Care Fomin, 48, 241-268.

Vandell, D. L., Larson, R. W., Mahoney, J. L., & Watts, T. W. (2015). Children’s organized activities. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Volume Eds.), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science, Volume 4: Ecological settings and processes (7th ed., pp. 305-344). Editor-in-Chief: R. M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

9 Toward a Science for and of the People

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