Sometimes solving problems requires a new way of thinking. Take, for instance, substance abuse among young people. How do teachers and guidance counselors usually talk to students about drugs? Often the curriculum involves explaining the dangers of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, and the underlying message is, “Don’t do drugs.”
Prevention-related education has value. But it is not enough. What if students were given the tools, with clear guidelines from adults, to make changes to their schools and communities themselves? It’s a simple but powerful concept. Instead of just being on the receiving end of a lecture, what if young people also used their skills to build something positive?
A male student at Sanford High School described in 2011 how “really I had no dreams.” He passed two classes his freshman and sophomore years combined and missed dozens of days. “One little tiny thing would frustrate me to the point where I’d just go, ‘Ugh,’ and I’d push open the front doors and walk out,” he said.
But he had the opportunity to act in a student-driven movie called “April’s Heart,” which premiered in October 2010. The film was based on teens’ real-life struggles, took a year to produce and was directed by students, with student actors. In the end, more than 200 students, staff and community members — with the Safe Schools Healthy Students Initiative, Sanford High School Film Club, Project AWARE and Gum Spirits Productions — helped create a film that went on to win the “ Best Young Filmmakers” award at Litchfield Hills Film Festival in Connecticut.
“It made me actually feel I could be a part of some group. There was actually a purpose,” the student said, describing how the film made him want to complete classes and avoid behavior that could get him in trouble. “I originally had nothing to look forward to, to begin with, but ever since this I actually have a future to look for. This is basically my best hope for the world right here.”
There is a term for what happened to the Sanford students who worked together to achieve a larger goal: positive youth development. Whether it involves film production or younger students and their older mentors helping those in need in the community, positive youth development has been shown to improve behavior, interpersonal skills, self-control, problem solving, commitment to schooling and academic achievement. According to research by the Social Development Research Group, it can reduce drug and alcohol use, violence and high-risk sexual behavior.
Studies point out that there are many different ways to encourage positive youth development, but the most successful projects engage youth over the long-term and combine the resources of families and communities. Educators and parents surely recognize how so many adolescents appear bored and unexcited about their lives. They have also seen how sports, the arts and volunteering can motivate students and build initiative. But participation in standard extracurricular activities is often selective. Long-ranging, positive undertakings, that a large number of students can actually get excited about, can help schools fill the absence of engagement.
For many years, schools have focused their efforts on preventing what can go wrong. They have developed programs to curb drug use, violence and teen pregnancy. While those efforts have their place, more can be done to get young people invested in, and excited about, their future in a larger society. Students have the ability to be their own best resources if given the chance, and the wider world benefits. Young people can learn math, science, reading and writing, but what is the greater good to their communities once they graduate if they are not civically engaged, passionate, creative or kind? Positive youth development has the ability to complement and augment the important academic work of school with training for the soul.