An Ecological Systems Theory Perspective on Youth Programming


  • Mat D. Duerden
  • Peter A. Witt


Youth development, best practices, ecological systems theory


Youth programs have the capacity to make major developmental impacts on participants. Youth who engage in structured activities (e.g., sports, clubs, youth programs, etc.) are more likely to experience positive outcomes than those who spend their time hanging out with their friends (Mahoney & Stattin, 2000). However, youth programs differ in their design and quality, suggesting that practitioners should identify and implement best youth development practices. While a fairly extensive body of research has identified practices associated with efficacious programs (e.g., Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2002; Eccles & Gootman, 2003), the amount of time it takes to track down, process, and implement this information may prove overwhelming. Practitioners need ways to succinctly identify, synthesize, and apply the insights of youth development research. While a full review of the literature is beyond the scope of this paper, we do present a selection of key findings organized within a practitioner-friendly, theoretical framework based upon ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). This theory focuses on the importance of interactions within and between life contexts (e.g., work, school, family, etc.). The organization of key youth development best practices within this framework should assist practitioners in their efforts to identify ways to improve their own programs as well as encourage them to establish collaborative relationships with other contexts that also play key roles in their participants’ lives.





Programs That Work