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Dale Blyth, Director of the Center for 4-H Youth Development, discusses evaluating strength-based approaches to youth development, which focus on developing desired traits in youth.

In recent years there has been an increasing call to use strength- rather than deficit-based approaches to many issues—but especially those around youth and community development. In part, these reflect efforts to focus work on developing that which is desired rather than preventing or treating that which is undesired—the deficit. Such approaches have great appeal, especially for the audience or client, because they do not emphasize what is wrong but what is helpful and can be built. How do the differences in these two approaches impact the ways in which one does evaluation?

When I was the Director of Research and Evaluation at Search Institute, known for creating the 40 developmental assets that youth need to succeed and the Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth Initiative, my colleagues and I grappled with this question regularly. There are three key aspects to this question: the impact of “moving upstream” in the causal flow, the nature of the populations evaluated, and the perceptions of funders and policymakers.

Impact of Moving Upstream

In large part, strength-based approaches seek to use what we know about the factors that predict deficits (both protective factors and risk factors), often combined with other desirable characteristics of healthy development, to create outcomes that are earlier in the causal flow than the deficit. (e.g., establishing that a caring relationship between youth and adult exists, increasing the constructive use of time.) Such approaches are based on solid research, but they switch, in fundamental ways, the dependent (outcome) variable from the single deficit of concern to the multiple strengths, or assets, that are needed for youth to succeed. For example, they switch from just the level of drug use to the number and nature of positive factors operating in the youth’s life—such as the total number of developmental assets. Furthermore, most strength-based approaches look for assets that have an impact on multiple deficits (e.g., caring connections to positive adults or peers) and which, when combined, have cumulative effects (i.e., the more assets that are built, the greater the likelihood of thriving and reduced risk behaviors). There are three major implications for evaluation of moving upstream in the causal flow.

First, asset approaches recognize that most programs are not, by themselves (given low intensity and a limited time period), going to dramatically alter deficit outcomes. Instead they focus on creating the assets that should, based on theory and logic, reduce those longer-range outcomes. Like positive youth developments, deficits are, to paraphrase Karen Pittman, the result of the accumulation of the everyday people, places, and possibilities that youth experience. For the evaluator, this means that asset outcomes are often closer to interventions and more appropriate for many programs—a desirable feature. However, it also means that there is a dramatic shift from a singular, highly valued, often behavioral outcome to multiple, less recognized variables—variables that by themselves may not be very important to stakeholders.

Second, while the measurement of deficits is not simple, they are often widely understood concepts with clear meaning and value. Assets are less well understood, less often measured carefully, and frequently confused with program outputs as opposed to outcomes. For example, youth who are engaged in constructive time use and play meaningful roles can be said to possess an important asset. Are programs that simply count their participation counting an output or the asset in all its richness? Furthermore, since it is the accumulation of assets, rather than particular assets, that has the greatest developmental value (as well as prevention value), evaluators need to create a mathematics of assets that captures this fact—often a difficult task.

Third, moving upstream in the causal flow means that one never knows if the ultimate goal was reached since the absence of something is harder to document than its presence. This dilemma has concerned prevention research for years and is not very different in asset evaluations except that one focuses on measuring the assets in and of themselves. If stakeholders’ only concerns are deficits that cost them funds or specific positive behaviors such as school achievement, the linkage of assets to these behaviors must be strong and clear—and sometimes empirical. In most youth development models, the linkage is strong but neither clear nor singular, as noted above.

Impact of Who Is Evaluated

Most asset- or strength-based approaches tend to define their target audiences much more broadly and holistically than deficit-based ones. For example, all youth need assets, not just those at risk. While asset proponents believe that assets can and do make a difference in the lives of those at risk, these proponents are less likely to encourage programs that focus just on such youth. This means that evaluators, particularly of community-based initiatives, are often put in the position of evaluating not just at-risk youth but all program youth, or even all youth in a community. Demonstrating such impacts, let alone actually having such impact, is quite hard but can be a necessary component of some strength-based approaches. For example, using an asset-based approach to the development of all youth in a community makes sense since youth in a community affect one another’s development. Evaluators should, when feasible, demonstrate the power of additional assets for different groups.

Another factor is that the number of assets needed to make a significant impact on longer-term outcomes may be differentially higher or lower for some youth. That is, since it is the cumulative number of assets and the health of the developmental contexts that matter in determining long-term outcomes, youth who live in higher risk environments may not be equally protected by the same level of assets as youth who live in a healthier environment. In contrast, it may also be the case that youth who experience a relative lack of assets may be greatly impacted by the addition of any new strengths. We know relatively little about these multiple combinations and interactions among assets, but it is just such factors that may lead to the effective long-term development or prevention of more commonly understood deficit or thriving outcomes. This type of combination effect complicates the work of an evaluator significantly. It also, however, better reflects the reality of development.

Impact of Stakeholder Perceptions

One of the main difficulties evaluators may have in evaluating asset-based approaches is getting stakeholders to agree that more assets, or the presence of particular assets, is a justifiable end in and of itself. Especially where public funds or scarce charitable funds are involved, stakeholders often want to know that programs impact the outcomes that matter most. Since assets are not magic pills that, once built, absolutely affect given deficits or thriving behaviors, it is important but difficult to build clear, empirical linkages between assets and deficits. A potential danger, which evaluators ought to screen for in evaluating strength-based efforts, is that different people hold incompatible views of the program—some strength based, some deficit based, and some a mix of both. The change from known evils to strengths not commonly agreed upon can make evaluation findings, even when positive, less convincing to some. Programs may have a harder time justifying strengths as ends in and of themselves. For example, is a youth better off if he has numerous strengths but still commits a crime or uses drugs? For many leaders, for whom strengths or assets were an integral part of their developmental contexts and everyday lives, the need to use public dollars to build them, or even talk about them may seem unjustified. This separation of costs and investments is critical to evaluating strength-based approaches.

In conclusion, there is much to recommend a variety of the strength- or asset-based approaches that are being used increasingly in community and youth development efforts. Evaluating these approaches requires understanding the approaches and the support they have from previous empirical work, building a chain of logic between what is built and what stakeholders value, and moving to a more complex, cumulative, and often more probabilistic model of causality. I, for one, believe that these difficulties are worth the changes in attitude, energy, involvement, and enhanced contextual reality that they bring with them. Finally, because such approaches are newer, they are less likely to meet a criterion of “proven” effectiveness. Those who use such generally sound criteria must be cautious that they do not throw out promising strength-based approaches that have simply not yet had the time to show they can work effectively.

Dale A. Blyth
Director, Center for 4-H Youth Development and Professor, University of Minnesota Extension Service

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