Reframe Podcast: Episode 14

Thriving, Not Just Surviving: The Spiritual Side of Positive Youth Development

Anthony James

In this episode, we talk about a prosocial movement called positive youth development, its role in helping teens thrive in challenging environments, and the work of EHS professor Anthony James, who is exploring the role spirituality can play in this process.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami university.

In this episode, we talk about a prosocial movement called positive youth development, its role in helping teens thrive in challenging environments, and the work of EHS professor Anthony James, who is exploring the role spirituality can play in this process.    

Growing up can be tough for almost anyone. But for some youths, especially those struggling to thrive in environments fraught with adversity, inequality and poverty, the path to adulthood can be exceptionally difficult. 

For these teens, life’s challenges can be nearly insurmountable. And without proper support or guidance, many will find hopeful futures as contributing members of society increasingly out of reach.

Anthony James:

There is an imbalance. There is a huge imbalance, and if we look, you know, who are the youth that aren’t developing on the trajectory that we like? It is usually youth in poverty. It is usually the youth who come from communities that lack. They have a harder time focusing on these long-term goals like education because their stomachs are grumbling. Because there is more violence in their community. Because people have lost hope.

James Loy:

That’s Dr. Anthony James. An assistant professor of family science, James is deeply concerned with these issues. His mission is to help families and their children overcome barriers to prosperity that are so often caused by economic disparity, racial oppression, and discrimination. 

But first, this means we must also understand the wider contexts that these families are embedded in across our broader social systems. 

Anthony James:

When we talk about why some kids aren’t doing as well as they should, we have to consider context. We have to consider the families that they come from. We have to consider the resources that they have available to them. And how do we actually compare them . . . Or, to whom do we compare them? Do we compare a kid growing up in poverty and their scores to kids growing up with abundance? Or whose needs are met? If you live in a community where it is destitute, then what are your thoughts about what can I be? How do I make positive and meaningful connections to the social institutions in my environment?

James Loy:

For James, context matters greatly, and it is part of an ongoing thread of inquiry that runs through his research on positive youth development. Here, his focus is largely on spirituality, and the role it plays in the lives of youth, how it helps build productive identities, and its potential to encourage positive connections to their social worlds. 

As the name suggests, positive youth development is focused on the positive, not the negative. That is, it’s not about “fixing” youths. It is, rather, more about helping adolescences move toward a more promising future. It’s about nurturing meaningful relationships with the caring adults and social institutions in their lives. It’s giving the proper tools to optimize their development.

A leading framework of modern positive youth development research is known as the Five Cs, which includes competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. Originally advanced, largely, by developmental scientist Richard Lerner, this model posits that as youths build and acquire these characteristics, they move along a trajectory that ultimately leads to the sixth C, which is contribution.

Once this final C is reached, youths are considered to be thriving. And James is interested in how spiritualty might be connected to this process. 

Anthony James:

One thing I have noticed is, for many families, this is a pathway for helping their children thrive. And the language of thriving is certainly not unique to literature on positive youth development, but it is key. That is what we hope from youth - is that they develop certain qualities that allow them to successfully move throughout adolescence and become contributing adults in society.

James Loy:

It is pretty clear that the praises of spiritually are often sung. Among those who consider themselves to be spiritual typically claim it offers a sense of purpose and meaning. For others, it also informs morals and values, and it can even provide a framework for navigating the complexity of an otherwise very confusing world. 

And while spirituality can mean very different things to many different people, it is most often commonly described as transcendence, which means having a sense of connectedness to some larger purpose, or having a concern with a greater good beyond simply selfish desires.

So this intrinsic value that spirituality purports to carry has made it of interest for many PYD scholars and practitioners. However, until recently, the direct connections were not clear at all. 

Anthony James:

For years, people just relied on anecdotal information regarding whether or not it is a good thing for youth to be spiritual. I mean, it is a term that we find a lot just generally in society, but very little empirical evidence showing that, hey, this was conducted on all of these youth and it generally finds that it is true. That when youth are spiritual, they tend to also have these other qualities that lead to thriving. So that is important just for parents who are interested in knowing what can I do to make sure, or increase the chances that my kid thrives?

James Loy:

So with access to eight years of data, collected during a comprehensive national PYD 4-H study that included multiple assessment waves of over 1800 adolescences, James began to look into this potential link more closely. 

And some strong connections emerged. 

In his first study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science with coauthors Mark Fine and Linda Jo Turner, James found that spirituality was, in fact, positively correlated with increases in all six Cs. 

This means that as someone’s self-perceived notions of spirituality rose, so too did their levels of competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring, as well as their overall contributions to external social environments. Additionally, the research also established a long-term link between spirituality and the character “C” in particular. And this strengthened the idea that spiritually can be an internal asset that stays with youth as they continue to mature.

Anthony James:

Then we said, well, if this is that important, we should know what are the contextual factors that help grow spirituality in young people. And one of the, maybe, consistent findings of positive youth development is that youth need really a champion. They need a positive and caring adult in their lives. If you say, “What is one thing that we can do to help youth?” Get them someone who cares about them and that is going to help them through the questions they have throughout adolescence, as many of us do, right? And so we found that the communities that youth live in. But really mediated by family relationships. So when families produce an environment that is conducive to communication about spirituality, then youth tend to have higher scores on spirituality.

James Loy:

This, then, provided the basis for the second study published in the Family Relations Journal. Beyond just anecdotal speculation, it provided specific empirical evidence that the presence of positive caring adults within a supportive community was an important part of fostering youth spirituality. 

And even more recently, James, again with his colleague Mark Fine, also published a third study in the Journal of Adolescence, which further explored how adolescences themselves conceptualized their spirituality. 

To explore this topic, the researchers developed three broad categories of spiritualty. These included establishing meaning in life. This was youth who found spiritually to be a way to transcend the self. The second was being a good person, which was youth who used spirituality for moral guidance and pathway to positive social connections. The third was ambiguous spirituality, which were youth who reported being spiritual but couldn’t articulate what that meant). 

Then each category was tested against the Five Cs model. And, again, a distinct pattern emerged. 

Anthony James:

For each of the 5 C’s, there was a consistent pattern that the more articulate youth, the youth who could better articulate their sense of spiritualty, scored higher on these Cs of positive development compared to youth whose spiritualty was more ambiguous. And then that tells us that the better youth are able, to not only internalize a sense of spiritualty, but be able to articulate it, the higher they are going to score on these measures or indicators of positive development.

James Loy:

Going forward, this research will have implications for parents, teachers, community leaders, anyone who hopes to nurture the positive growth of teens and adolescences either at home, in school, or through any number of development programs.

Talking about spiritualty, helping them understand and think through it, provides an opportunity for youth to develop an identity that can help them transition through adolescence and into adulthood.

For those concerned with helping teens not just survive, but to actually thrive, there’s a few key ways to think about positive youth development. And it is becoming clear that spirituality is an additional pathway.

Anthony James:

You know, youth spirituality is important as well. And so for, again, parents and practitioners that they make that their focus, they have empirical support to move forward with that type of work and help youth be placed on that trajectory to where they’re gonna, again, be contributing members of society.

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