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Learn how to foster the assets that contribute to the healthy development of children and adolescents.

 

 
  • What is asset development?

  • What are the developmental assets kids need?

  • What are the characteristics of an asset development program?

  • Why (and why not) should you use an asset development approach?

  • How do you use asset development?

Image depicting Asset Development that includes the following phrases in five columns: “(header) RESOURCES; Schools; Homes/Families; Community Representatives and Opinion Leaders; Business Community; Other Community Members; (header) ACTIVITIES; Establish strong youth-oriented relationships; Create Positive Atmosphere; Expand Youth Opportunities in Community; Explore youth Contributions and Strengths; Community Evaluation of Youth and Youth Expectations; (header) OUTPUT; Family support and positive family communication; Caring Neighborhoods; Caring School Environment; Youth Service Programs; Creative Activities; Youth sports, clubs and Organizations; Religious Activities; Youth as Community Resources; Youth as Peer Influences; Youth Personal/Interpersonal Skill Development; Youth Independence, Self-Esteem Building; Future Planning for Youth; Establish Boundaries and Expectations for Youth; (header) SHORT-TERM OUTCOMES; Increased external support; Adolescent empowerment; Develop a positive value system; Constructive use of time; Personal commitment to learning; Strong social competencies; Positive identity and self-esteem; Respect to established boundaries and expectations; (header) LONG-TERM OUTCOMES; Increased success and leadership, Valuing diversity; Increased social behavior and helping others; Overcoming adversity; Reduced substance use/abuse; Reduced violence and increased resistance to danger.”

 

Adolescence is a time of experimentation. Teenagers test themselves physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally, all in the service of learning what it means to be an adult. A majority of kids make it through their teen years without serious problems. They may have some close calls, and have their hearts broken once or twice, but, by and large, they survive. They go on to college or to work, and to raise families and make reasonable lives for themselves.

Then there are the kids that everyone worries about. They’re the ones who chain-smoke, drink to excess, use every drug they can get their hands on, engage in random violence, get in trouble with the law, become parents at 15 or 16, and perhaps even die – frequently by suicide or in a drunk-driving accident.

We often view the kids who have difficulty in a negative way: they have “problems,” or are at fault because they’ve never developed some basic traits – intelligence, self-control, empathy, or persistence, for instance. There’s another way to consider the issue, however: perhaps these teens simply haven’t had enough of the factors in their lives that adolescents need in order to grow into successful, caring, productive adults.

A child needs caring parents, of course, but she’s also helped by having positive parental lessons and values reinforced by what she sees and hears from other adults in the community, and by the behavior of the society as a whole. It really does take a village to raise a child.

Chapter 2 of the Community Tool Box is about models of community change – ways to introduce changes that will continue improving the quality of life for everyone in the community indefinitely. In this section, we’ll discuss using a model of community change that focuses on youth. It assumes that the fostering of those internal and external assets that contribute to the healthy development of children and adolescents is the task not only of parents, but of the whole community, and proposes that communities be organized to accomplish it. And it assumes that improving life for the community’s children will also improve it for the community as a whole.

What is asset development?

Developmental assets are those positive characteristics and factors that form the foundation of the healthy development of children and adolescents. A community engaged in asset development for youth is committed to identifying the needed developmental assets that children and adolescents in the community are lacking, and to work to provide those assets. The Search Institute (SI) of Minneapolis, Minnesota has surveyed over a million 6th-to-12th graders from more than 600 communities since 1993, and has found what it believes are 40 crucial developmental assets for adolescents (the 40 assets are listed and explained in greater detail later in the section).

SI’s studies show that the more of these assets an adolescent has in his life, the less likely he is to engage in risky behavior or experience situations that put him at risk.  The risky behaviors and situations in question are:

  • Substance use/abuse (alcohol, drugs, tobacco).
  • Sex. Being sexually active, although it’s common teen (and even pre-teen) behavior in many communities, can take an emotional and physical toll on adolescents. That toll is compounded when their sexual activity is indiscriminate or promiscuous and/or unprotected.
  • Violence. This can mean anything from being a victim of bullying and abuse to carrying and using a gun.
  • Anti-social behavior, acting out. The range here extends from defying teachers to serious trouble with the law.
  • Depression/suicide. Not all depression leads to suicide, of course, and not all depressed teens consider suicide. But teens do commit suicide in alarmingly large numbers, and adolescent depression is much more widespread than is commonly realized.
  • School problems. Academic difficulties, truancy, absence, etc.
  • Driving and alcohol. A mixture that can lead to arrest, destruction of the driver’s and others’ property, and the deaths of the driver and others.
  • Gambling. In addition to the possibility of losing large sums of money, gambling can put teens and their parents in harm’s way if they can’t pay their debts.  Loan sharks and bookies are notoriously unforgiving when they don’t get their money.

Thriving indicators are the traits or conditions that indicate positive development. Search Institute studies also show that the more developmental assets an adolescent can claim, the more thriving indicators she is likely to have. The thriving indicators measured:

  • School success. Good grades, mostly A’s or A’s and B’s.
  • Helping others. Spending at least one hour a week helping others not in your own family.
  • Valuing diversity. Having friends from different ethnic and racial groups, and interest in their experiences and cultures.
  • Good health. Engaging in behavior – exercise, adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular medical and dental attention – that promotes and maintains good physical health.
  • Leadership. Taking a leadership position at school, in extracurricular activities, or in the community.
  • Resistance to danger. The ability to resist both your own impulses and the pressure of peers in order to avoid dangerous behavior and situations.
  • Delaying gratification. The ability to save for a future (large) purchase, or to otherwise put off immediate pleasure in favor of a larger or more important gain later.
  • Overcoming adversity. The capacity to keep going after a failure, or to continue a task or effort in the face of difficulty.

The original list of developmental assets SI compiled numbered 30, but it was increased to 40 as a result of the information received in the first 350,000 or so surveys. The list was derived both empirically – i.e., as a result of information gathered directly by the Search Institute itself – and from the theories and research of others.

While SI’s studies seem to show that the ideal number of assets for adolescent success on the educational, social, and personal development fronts is 31 or more, fewer than 10% of adolescents actually have that many. The average number that teens in most communities have – regardless of such other factors as the community’s socio-economic status or level of education – is only 18-20, and over 60% of youth surveyed report 20 or fewer. (The 600+ communities surveyed were largely white – about 80 percent – but varied in economic status, education, types of employment, urban/suburban/rural characteristics, etc.)

The survey itself consists of 156 items, each meant to elicit information about a specific asset, risk behavior, or thriving indicator. It is meant to be administered only to students (or non-students, in some cases) in grades 6-12. While SI estimates the average completion time at 50 minutes, it emphasizes that allowances should be made for age/grade level, reading skill, fluency in English, and any other factors that might argue for a longer administration time. The point is not to finish in a particular amount of time, but to provide accurate information, and participants should be allowed as much time as necessary to do so.

Half of the 40 assets are labeled external, provided directly by parents, teachers, the community, or environmental factors. The rest are considered internal, coming from within the adolescent herself. In reality, however, the distinction is less clear. Internal assets are often specifically taught by parents and other significant adults, for instance, or are fostered by community norms and attitudes. External assets may have much to do with the child’s or adolescent’s effect on others, or with her natural tendencies.

External assets are further divided into four categories:

  • Support. People significant to the adolescent encourage, help, and respect her.
  • Empowerment. The adolescent has the opportunity to exercise responsibility, and to feel in control of important parts of his own life.
  • Boundaries and expectations. The adolescent is expected to adhere to clear rules and meet high standards.
  • Constructive use of time. The adolescent has opportunities to engage in meaningful and productive activity.

Internal assets are also divided into four categories:

  • Commitment to learning. The adolescent understands the value of learning and education, and can apply herself in school and other areas of learning.
  • Positive values. The adolescent has developed and internalized a positive value system.
  • Social competencies. The adolescent possesses the personal and interpersonal skills to conduct his own life and to engage in positive relationships with others.
  • Positive identity. The adolescent sees herself in a positive light, and has good self-esteem.

What are the characteristics of an asset development program?

The Search Institute’s participation in asset development is limited. A community organizes to conduct the SI survey (usually through the schools), purchases (from SI) and administers the survey, sends it off to be analyzed by the Search Institute, and receives a written report of the analysis. SI’s involvement ends with the analysis, and it’s up to the community to figure out how to meet its own needs. Many communities use their initial organization to mount a participatory effort to act on the analysis.

Communities that have surveyed their students have placed their resulting plans on the Internet. Among these are Benton County, Oregon and Wayne County, OH.

Once a community (or, more likely, a school system, community-based organization, parents’ group, or community official or governing body) has decided to try to establish an asset development approach, what should that approach look like? There are some specific characteristics that are common to a careful asset development effort.

  • The effort demands a commitment from the whole community. The Search Institute believes that, to resolve youth problems, it isn’t enough to focus on individual teens at risk. A community must make a commitment to developing the 40 assets for all its youth. In broadest terms, that commitment includes
    • A commitment to administering either the Search Institute survey, or to a similar study that questions children and teens themselves – and, in some cases, the adults important in their lives and in the community – about the assets they believe they possess.
    • A commitment by community leaders – elected and appointed officials, school personnel, the business community, opinion leaders, etc. – to support an asset development effort, both with their voices and their resources.
    • The acceptance by the community of the idea that asset development is a community-wide activity that demands a commitment from all adults, whether they are parents or not.
  • The effort should be participatory. As with most types of community efforts, asset development works best if it is conceived, planned, and implemented through a process that involves all sectors of the community, particularly those most directly affected (youth, in this case). A participatory process often involves the formation of a coalition or other leadership body that includes representation from all sectors of the community, including youth, to plan, coordinate, monitor, and oversee asset development efforts.
  • The effort should be based on what’s actually needed in the particular community. The SI survey or some other assessment should be conducted to determine which assets the community already provides for most of its youth, and which are lacking. Then strategies can be devised to develop those assets that are missing, while maintaining those that are already strong.
  • The effort should focus on the positive. Like the other health and community development models we’ve discussed so far in this chapter, asset development has a proactive, positive thrust. It is based on building assets, rather than fixing deficits. An asset-developing community is engaged in positive actions that are meant to become an integral part of the life of the community, and to affect the quality of that life for generations to come.

At the same time, it must be understood that needed assets may reflect deficits – uncontrolled youth violence, poor school performance, adolescent substance abuse, etc. Asset-building may be accompanied by, or expressed through, strategies that seek to correct problems as well as keep them from recurring. While appropriate assets may drastically cut the incidence of youth violence over time, for instance, it’s also important to control it now, so that more young people don’t die in the meantime. You can keep a positive and future-oriented spin on the overall effort and still deal with immediate concerns. Don’t let ideology steer you away from reality.

  • Asset development demands a coordinated, community-wide effort. This means something slightly different from community commitment, although that commitment is probably necessary for a community-wide effort to be mounted. An asset development effort needs to be carefully coordinated so that all sectors of the community – concerned youth and adults, health and human service and other community-based and nonprofit organizations, community officials and agencies, businesses, etc. – are working together toward the same goals and sending the same messages.

A community-wide effort also implies that everyone in the community is taking responsibility for asset development, and, by extension, for the community’s children. It means adults speaking up in some way – either directly, or calling a teen’s parents or the police, for example – when they see a youth doing something likely to get him in trouble. It may also mean parents and non-parents alike volunteering time with adolescents or younger children as coaches, supervisors of after-school activities, community-service mentors, etc.

In the working-class urban neighborhood where the author grew up, for instance, the adults knew all the kids, and wouldn’t hesitate to yell at you or call your mother if they caught you doing something wrong. While that made childhood mischief a problem, it also meant that children felt fairly safe. They knew that adults would intervene to keep them from getting hurt, and they also knew that the rules would be enforced equally throughout the neighborhood. In that environment, virtually all the adults felt responsible for the children, even if they themselves weren’t parents at all.

What are the developmental assets that kids need?

The following list of the 40 developmental assets, divided into their categories, with their brief descriptions, comes directly from the Search Institute (1997).

External Assets

  • Support
    • Family Support – Family life provides high levels of love and support.
    • Positive Family Communication – Young person and her or his parent(s) communicate positively, and young person is willing to seek advice and counsel from parents.
    • Other Adult Relationships – Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults.
    • Caring Neighborhood – Young person experiences caring neighbors.
    • Caring School Climate – School provides a caring, encouraging environment.
    • Parent Involvement in Schooling – Parent(s) are actively involved in helping the young person succeed in school.
  • Empowerment
    • Community Values Youth – Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
    • Youth as Resources – Young people are given useful roles in the community.
    • Service to Others – Young person serves in the community one hour or more per week.
    • Safety – Young person feels safe at home, in school, and in the neighborhood.
  • Boundaries and Expectations
    • Family Boundaries – Family has clear rules and consequences and monitors the young person’s whereabouts.
    • School Boundaries – School provides clear rules and consequences.
    • Neighborhood Boundaries – Neighbors take responsibilities for monitoring young person’s behavior.
    • Adult Role Models – Parent(s) and other adults model positive, responsible behavior.
    • Positive Peer Influence – Young person’s best friends model responsible behavior.
    • High Expectations – Both parent(s) and teachers encourage the young person to do well.
  • Constructive Use of Time
    • Creative Activities – Young person spends three or more hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater, or other arts.
    • Youth Programs – Young person spends three or more hours per week in sports, clubs, or organizations at school and/or in the community.
    • Religious Community – Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution.
    • Time at Home – Young person is out with friends “with nothing special to do” two or fewer nights per week.
    • Internal Assets
  • Commitment to Learning
    • Achievement Motivation – Young person is motivated to do well in school.
    • School Engagement – Young person is actively engaged in learning.
    • Homework – Young person reports doing at least one hour of homework every school day.
    • Bonding to School – Young person cares about her or his school.
    • Reading for Pleasure – Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.
  •  Positive Values
    • Caring – Young person places high value on helping other people.
    • Equality and Social Justice – Young person places high value on promoting equality and reducing hunger and poverty.
    • Integrity – Young person acts on convictions and stands up for her or his beliefs.
    • Honesty – Young person “tells the truth even when it is not easy.”
    • Responsibility – Young person accepts and takes personal responsibility.
    • Restraint – Young person believes it is important not to be sexually active or to use alcohol or other drugs.
  • Social Competencies
    • Planning and Decision Making – Young person knows how to plan ahead and make choices.
    • Interpersonal Competence – Young person has empathy, sensitivity, and friendship skills.
    • Cultural Competence – Young person has knowledge of and comfort with people of different cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds.
    • Resistance Skills – Young person can resist negative peer pressure and dangerous situations.
    • Peaceful Conflict Resolution – Young person seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.
  • Positive Identity
    • Personal Power – Young person feels he or she has control over “things that happen to me.”
    • Self-Esteem – Young person reports having a high self-esteem.
    • Sense of Purpose – Young person reports that “my life has a purpose.”
    • Positive View of Personal Future – Young person is optimistic about her or his personal future.

Why would you (and why would you not) use an asset development approach?

Advantages to the asset development approach

  • It’s based on extensive research. The asset development concept, as well as the contents of the asset list, are the result of research conducted on over a million adolescents, as well as the latest research and theory by others in the field.

As mentioned above, SI has given its survey to over a million adolescents. It has found that most have far fewer than the 31 or more assets estimated to be necessary for optimal development. It has also found connections between the number of assets an adolescent possesses and both high-risk behavior and thriving assets.

While the average number of assets seems to be fairly steady across communities, the particular assets present or lacking for most of the youth in a given community is a function of the nature of that community. Thus, although the teens in five surveyed communities chosen at random may all possess an average of 19 of the 40 developmental assets, the actual assets in question are likely to be significantly different for each community. By the same token, teens in each community may exhibit different risky behaviors, and different thriving indicators as well. The survey will allow each community to understand exactly which assets, risky behaviors, and thriving indicators are common among its youth.

What the research doesn’t seem to explain is which assets are connected to which risky behaviors and which thriving indicators, although common sense can probably point a community toward at least some logical connections.

  • Its participatory approach to planning and implementing the effort encourages community buy-in, and puts many minds to work. The emphasis on an inclusive and widespread process increases the chances that the community will see the effort as its own, and thus work as hard as possible to make it succeed.  Including all sectors of the community, particularly youth, in planning and implementation affords a broad range of knowledge and ideas to work with, and increases the ultimate effectiveness of any action.

Including youth, and especially those at risk, reduces the probability that the effort will be seen by those youth as just another lame attempt by clueless adults to reach at-risk kids who already distrust adults and other teens who don’t share their culture. If they’re involved from the beginning, and if they’re treated with respect and their opinions are valued, they’re more likely to respond.

  • Placing the accent on positive asset development makes tackling youth issues seem more possible. Often, a community faced with rampant youth violence, drug use, or pregnancy sees no clear solution to the problem. If the issues are multiple, they seem even more difficult to address. A positive approach – the active building of assets and the engagement of adolescents by adults – allows the community to exercise some control over the situation, and to feel that there are positive steps it can take to effect change.
  • Each community develops its own scheme for asset development, based on the assets it needs, and other factors unique to it. Rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach, asset development encourages the examination of each community as a unique entity. Each community examines its own situation, and comes up with asset-building strategies designed specifically for its own needs.
  • Data can be analyzed in numerous ways. It may be that a particular school draws students whose asset needs are greater than those from other schools in the community. It may be that students from a particular neighborhood or population have different needs than others. SI can break down survey data to bring out these differences, allowing a community to strategize accordingly.
  • Asset development aims at long-term social change. With its focus on the next generation, and on a change of attitudes and behavior on the part of all community members, an asset development approach can have long-term and lasting positive effects.
  • Asset development can address a broad range of issues. School failure, the dropout rate, youth crime, adolescent substance abuse, teen pregnancy – all of these and more can be positively affected by the current and ongoing provision of more assets for youth, and by the resulting changes in community attitudes and behavior.
  • Asset development can increase community cohesiveness. Because it concentrates on continuity and on preparing the next generation, an asset development approach can pull in virtually the whole community to work toward preparing for its future. That not only heightens the awareness of the meaning of a community among those involved, but creates a sense of purpose as well. People aren’t just solving a problem – they’re moving forward into the future as a community.
  • Healthy Youth helps to foster a Healthy Community. SI calls its asset development approach Healthy Community/Healthy Youth. If you focus on the ideal development of all youth in the community, you’re focusing on the ideal development of the community as well. A healthy community is one where all children and adolescents get what they need. If that happens, the chances are that equity is being nurtured in other spheres as well.

Despite these excellent reasons to pursue asset development, there are also some cautions before proceeding with it.

Potential disadvantages to the asset development approach

  • The data that assets are based on are limited to a largely white population of only youth. The fact that the over 1,000,000 SI survey participants are almost 80% white is hardly representative of a country whose “minority” population is fast approaching 50%. Furthermore, surveying only youth creates a number of problems:
    • First, although the survey attempts to correct for intentionally false answers, it can’t necessarily correct for false perceptions. An adolescent’s view of her own life and situation may not necessarily mirror objective reality, or may at least be enough at odds with others’ perceptions to raise questions.
    • Second, the fact that most of those surveyed seem to be in-school youth, when dropouts are likely to be the kids with the fewest assets and the greatest needs, raises a red flag. Are dropouts – who may account for a large percentage of youth 16 and over in some urban school systems – simply to be ignored?
    • Finally, do adult perceptions count for nothing? CADY (see #3 below) also surveys the adults who are significant in most adolescents’ lives, and thus may receive a more balanced view of the situation in a community.
  • There’s no real guidance as to how to develop assets. While the ability of each community to plan for its own unique needs is definitely an advantage, having no guidance to best practices or other how-to information is definitely not. If you use the Search Institute survey, all you get is the analysis. There’s no follow-up or consultation about how to proceed from there, and no advice about how to develop the specific assets you’ve chosen to concentrate on.
  • The community is dependent on SI (or another entity, if you use a different system – see box below) to analyze the surveys. That means paying fees, which may be a problem for some communities, and waiting as much as three months before survey results are available. The larger the community – or the more detailed analysis it needs – the greater the cost.

CADY (Community Asset Development for Youth), a Michigan State University program, attempts to address some of these issues. It focuses more narrowly, concerning itself specifically with reducing substance abuse and violence and bullying among youth.

CADY has identified a number of assets, fewer than but similar to those named by SI, but joins them with 11 deficits that communities might seek to correct. Its survey pinpoints deficits, and links them to the assets that seem to correct them.

It surveys school personnel, parents, community leaders, and community members as well as youth, and promises technical assistance for the life of the asset development project. Furthermore, it posts its survey analysis on line, and provides one-click access to such information as which assets seem to affect which deficits, and best practices for developing particular assets.

At the same time, CADY’s model, unlike SI’s, leaves out any input by youth in the planning or coordination of an asset development program, and is generally top-down. Leadership comes from the schools and/or agencies, officials, and organizations, not the community as a whole. And, like SI, CADY requires a financial investment from the community, which may make it an unrealistic choice for some. (Information about CADY) The program doesn’t seem to have its own website, but another possibility is to contact its designer, Prof. William Donohue, donohue@msu.edu.)

  • Small communities or small schools may not have large enough populations to identify assets and gaps accurately. Statistics demand a certain number of participants in order to come up with a reliable analysis. SI warns that analyses of groups of under 100 will probably have gaps in them, and won’t analyze surveys from groups of fewer than 50. Rural communities, particularly, may have to join with others in order to produce enough surveys to be analyzed. The problem with this, of course, is that a small community or school may only be able to obtain reliable information about the whole group, and not about itself alone.
  • There is no guarantee that asset development will address current problems. Asset development is largely a future-oriented approach. The kids who are currently experiencing difficulties – or causing them – may not be reached by it, although it may have great effects on younger children, and therefore on the community’s future.
    • When is it too late in an adolescent’s life for the addition of assets to mean anything? Can seniors in high school benefit? 20-year-olds? At what point have the results of asset deprivation simply become part of someone’s personality? In other words, there’s probably a point when asset development has become irrelevant for particular adolescents, and is unlikely to affect their attitudes or behavior.
  • Most adolescents do all right despite the fact that they don’t have the ideal number of assets. Even though only about 8% of all adolescents have the 30 or more assets that SI sees as necessary for optimal development, that certainly doesn’t mean that the other 92% are non-functional or at risk (or that that fortunate 8% are necessarily all happy and doing well). Are these 40 developmental assets really the key to success in life, or do they simply show that most of those with fewer than 30 assets may have a tougher adolescence, but ultimately turn out OK as adults?

The SI picture of an adolescent with all the desired assets often seems like one of an ideal kid from an adult’s point of view (good grades, likes school, helps others, doesn’t experiment with anything potentially harmful). Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that teens need to rebel, to question, to flounder – that that’s the job of adolescence, and is necessary for building identity. The ideal is to provide a way for them to do that safely...but not all adolescents are willing to do it safely, assets or not.

Then there are the poets, the dreamers, the rule-breakers who refuse to be bound by convention. They may spend their adolescence in torture, often because they don’t have support for who they are from either their families or society. Some of them grow up to frustration and failed lives – and others of them literally change the world. They may not fit the ideal asset profile, but they may be developing internal assets that point them toward great achievement and influence later.

There is no question that children and adolescents need and benefit by these 40 developmental assets, particularly the support of caring adults. But the internal assets that SI sees as so important may simply develop later, as older adolescents test themselves against the adult world. The fact that they don’t yet seem to have them may be a function of that testing, and may be a necessary part of many kids’ adolescence. It’s not entirely clear that the asset development approach addresses the adolescent need for rebellion and testing – and occasional failure – that creates an adult identity.

  • When they are considered together, the advantages listed here seem to outweigh the potential disadvantages. Perhaps an overriding reason to consider asset development as a means of community building is that the raising of the next generation is one of the most important functions of a community. An argument can be made that an inclusive, participatory community effort to provide youth with support and internal ideals and self-discipline will sharpen citizens’ focus on what a community is and does. The result should improve the quality of life, not only for youth, but for the whole community.

How do you use an asset development approach?

A note about asset development approaches:

This section examines a specific logic model – that of addressing the 40 developmental assets necessary for adolescents’ growth and success – proposed by the Search Institute. SI’s conception of that model includes engaging its services by purchasing the necessary number of copies of its survey and purchasing as well the analysis and reports of the results of administering the survey. The problem here is that not all communities have the resources – or the desire – to approach asset development in so formal a way.

There are ways around this. One – perhaps the best (and the most common, judging by the number of community websites that seem to reflect it)  – is to focus on developing and/or strengthening all developmental assets. Another is to focus on a particular area that you know represents a gap for your community – recruiting youth to participate in town government and community service (empowerment), for instance, or creating or strengthening mentoring programs for parents and teens (support). Still a third is to develop your own method of identifying assets and gaps – more likely if you have the help of a university, but not beyond the bounds of possibility for a community with the right resources.

A fourth possibility is that you can employ asset development as part of a larger healthy community initiative. You may want to take SI’s 40 fundamental assets into account, but not use them as the foundation for your effort.

Much of what follows assumes you’ll use SI’s methods, and perhaps its services as well. It’s important to realize, however, that that’s not necessarily the only way to address developmental assets in your community.

Once you’ve decided to employ an asset development approach in your community, how do you go about it? Because a successful effort has to involve the whole community, it’s not just a matter of starting and picking up support as you go along.

Someone has to take the initiative. Whether or not you plan to use SI’s survey, the community has to be educated about developmental assets and prepared to focus on them. Existing efforts seem most often to be spearheaded by the schools, but one could be led by other entities as well:

  • A pre-existing coalition
  • Civic officials or a civic agency – the mayor or the police department, for instance
  • A parents’ group
  • A community-based or other non-profit organization, particularly one that works with, or is concerned with, youth
  • A community-wide non-profit, such as United Way
  • A faith-based organization or clergy association
  • A business or a business group, such as the Chamber of Commerce

Form a coalition or other group to introduce asset development (and the idea of the survey/asset assessment) to the community. The group should contain people from all sectors of the community, including youth, and should be participatory, involving everyone in decision-making.

Whoever takes the initial lead should expect to be a collaborative leader, and allow for the possibility of sharing leadership with or relinquishing leadership to a community member or group.

Good communication by this group – in speaking, in writing, and through the media – is crucial to the success of an asset development effort, especially if the SI survey is to be part of it. (Please see Communicating Information about Health and Community Issues and Promoting Awareness and Interest Through Communication) People are often suspicious of surveys, and question what will be done with their results. In order to dispel any suspicion, the coalition or group here has to make sure that it provides all the information people need, that it’s absolutely candid and straightforward in answering questions, and that it tries to anticipate and answer most questions before they’re asked. Some questions people in most communities might have include:

  • Who’s behind the survey? What is the Search Institute, what are their credentials, where are they from?
  • What other communities have used the survey, and what did they do with it?
  • Is the survey anonymous and confidential?  What will happen to the results after they’re tabulated? Can kids, or their parents, opt out?

This last question, if not carefully considered, can cause huge problems. Assuming that you go through the schools, the school system may have its own rules regarding parental permission, and/or research on human subjects, and may also be subject to laws regarding the process. Will parents be asked to take some positive action to allow their children to participate, such as signing a permission form (active permission)? Or will they be informed that their children will participate unless they formally request otherwise (passive permission)? This may seem like a minor issue, but it’s just the kind of thing that can stall or even prevent a community effort if it’s not handled well.

  • What will this cost the community and how does that translate to the tax rate?
  • Who will be responsible for setting up the survey and transmitting, receiving, and publicizing the results?

Once the community agrees to pursue use the survey, its logistics have to be worked out. Will the survey be carried out in school? Will all youth be surveyed, or just those in certain schools or at certain grade levels (SI’s survey is valid for students in grades 6-12 only), or just a random sample?  Remember that you need a certain number of surveys (a minimum of 100 for any one group about which you want information – e.g., a particular school or neighborhood) in order for the results to be statistically accurate and complete. SI won’t prepare a report at all for a block of fewer than 50 surveys.

  • If the school system isn’t able or willing to actually administer the survey, it could perhaps be done in school by a local organization, members of the coordinating coalition, or some other group. SI strongly urges that a single coordinator be chosen to act as administrator and contact person for the survey process.

Implement the survey. The survey now has to be administered, collected, and sent off for scoring. If you’re using the SI survey, you’ll almost undoubtedly need at least the cooperation, if not the leadership, of the school system. Although you may want to administer surveys in other ways as well – to contact dropouts and home schoolers, for instance, or those in private and parochial schools – going through the public schools is by far the easiest way to reach most children and adolescents in a community.

Analyze the report of the survey results. SI, within ten weeks of receiving all surveys from a community, returns an 80-page report for each group requested.  This details not only which assets are available and which are lacking to how many youth, but also the incidence of 24 risk-taking behaviors, 10 high-risk behavior patterns, and 8 thriving indicators, and how they interact with different asset levels. Results are reported by gender and grade, as well as for the total group. SI also includes an executive summary, a bibliography, and other information and suggestions.

  • It’s now up to your community to analyze the report. While CADY provides some consultation and technical assistance with and after the submission of its report, the Search Institute doesn’t, except as contained in its report. It provides some pre-survey help, and also offers – separately, at a cost – various workshops and trainings to help organizations and communities prepare for and respond to the survey. It also includes with survey reports a list of its resources. Information on all of this can be obtained on the SI website.

By this point, more people may want to be part of your coordinating or planning group. It’s probably a good idea to keep the group open to new membership in some way, although a group that’s too big can become unwieldy. The formation and use of subcommittees or task forces may be one way to keep the planning group to a reasonable size and still accommodate nearly everyone who wants to help.

Depending on how and whether you split up the population surveyed for reporting purposes, an examination of the report can tell you:

  • Which assets are most often lacking for youth in your community.
  • Which risk factors are greatest for youth in your community.
  • Which groups of youth (by socioeconomic status, neighborhood, school, age, gender, etc.) are at greatest risk in which areas.
  • Which thriving indicators are most often found, and among whom.

Communicate your findings to the community. If this is to be a community-wide effort, the community has to have as much information as possible. The coordinating group or individual should communicate the results of the survey through the media, through public meetings, through gatherings in citizens’ living rooms, through handouts in the supermarket – by whatever means will get the information to as many people as possible. The goal here is to prepare members of the community to take part in planning the next steps if they so choose, and to think about their eventual participation in an asset development program.

Plan your next steps. The character of your plan will depend on which developmental assets your community decides to address, but there are some general steps that can be helpful in any planning process.

  • Convene a diverse, inclusive, and participatory planning group (or, as mentioned above, a number of task forces or committees, perhaps one for each related group of assets you plan to address), representing all sectors of the community, including youth. It might be the same group that has guided the process so far, that group with members added, or an entirely different group. Some people may be invited to join because of their skills or influence; others may volunteer solely out of interest and dedication to the community.
  • Determine what assets you’ll focus on. A community with considerable resources – money, people, space, available expertise, etc. – might decide to tackle all the assets, or all of the assets most of its youth seem to be lacking. Another with fewer resources might choose to focus initially on only one area – support, for instance – and/or on only a portion of the youth population.

Many communities feel that the appropriate target here is all adolescents and/or children in the community. A “community,” however, could be a relatively homogeneous neighborhood as well as a diverse city or a whole rural county. How the community is defined may have a great deal to do with where its focus lies.

CADY, as part of its technical assistance, connects communities with information on best practices and other research. Links to research in various areas of asset and child/adolescent development are also available on the Search Institute’s website. In addition, there is a great deal of information in various SI publications, also available on the website.

  • Develop a strategic plan for building assets. The strategic plan is long-range, and should serve as a guide to what may be a decades-long process of community change.  This is your conception of how you’ll build and maintain developmental assets in your community over time, including which you’ll approach first, how you’ll keep the community involved, how you’ll measure your success, etc. It should include a timeline, with benchmarks to check your progress against.
  • Design an action plan. In general, each benchmark will require some kind of action – often an effort or program designed to address a particular developmental asset or group of assets. Each of these actions will need its own action plan, describing exactly what you’re going to do and how. Issues to consider here are cultural differences in the community and the actual practice of promoting the development of various assets. The Community Tool Box, deals with the specifics of interventions and initiatives in a number of different areas, many focused specifically on youth.

Strategic and action plans can be devised regardless of whether you choose to use SI’s survey or not. Developing and strengthening all 40 assets should be seen as a goal even if many or most are already strong among the community’s youth. They won’t stay strong unless you continue to support parents and adolescents, teachers and other adults significant in kids’ lives, and community members in general, in focusing on the needs and futures of youth in the community.

Present the plan to the community. Communication is again the key here. Citizens should have a chance to digest, discuss, and react to the plan. Their feedback should then be incorporated into a final version.

Implement your initial action plan. Once you’ve finalized how you’re going to approach developing assets, it’s time to get to work. The first phase of your plan may, as we’ve discussed, involve only one small group of assets, or it may address changing your community in many ways.

Continue to monitor, evaluate, and adjust your action plan. As with any type of intervention or action, it’s vital to make sure that you’re doing what you planned, and that it’s having the results you aimed for. If either of these is not the case, or if circumstances in the community change, you may need to alter what you’re doing, or even rethink it completely. Even if it’s working well, careful monitoring and evaluation can often show you ways to make it better.

Continue to form, implement, monitor, and adjust new action plans, and to maintain the gains you’ve made. As you make progress in asset development, remember that the goal is to transform the community over the long term. Once assets have been made available to most adolescents and children in the community, that availability has to be maintained indefinitely. The work of making your community a place where all children are valued and successful has no end.

In Summary

Asset development is the fostering of the developmental assets that children and adolescents need to become healthy, caring, productive, successful adults. The Search Institute of Minneapolis has identified 40 assets that are necessary for proper adolescent development, and linked the presence or absence of these assets to both high-risk behavior and “thriving indicators” in surveys of more than a million 6th to 12th graders over 15 years.

Assets are divided into eight categories. Four are external (support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time), and four are internal (commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity).

While the Search Institute’s research indicates that the ideal number of assets for an adolescent is 31 or more, fewer than 10% of adolescents actually have that many.  The average number is between 18 and 20 in most communities, and more than 60% of all youth surveyed report 20 or fewer.

Asset development is a community enterprise that demands commitment from everyone in the community, from school and civic officials to businesses, institutions, and organizations to private citizens to youth themselves. An asset development effort, because it has to be seen as the responsibility of everyone in the community, should be inclusive and participatory, to foster community ownership. It should be focused on the actual needs of the particular community (asset needs are different in different places, even if the average number of assets available to youth is similar), and emphasize the positive – the proactive building of assets as opposed to the reactive fixing of a problem. The effort should also be community-wide, so that it takes in everyone.

Advantages of an asset-building approach:
  • A strong base in both empirical research and theory.
  • Community ownership and diverse, broad-ranging input stemming from a participatory process.
  • An accent on positive asset development making youth issues seem more resolvable.
  • The ability of each community to design its own asset-building solutions.
  • The ability to analyze data in numerous ways and by different populations.
  • An emphasis on long-term social change.
  • The capacity to address a broad range of issues.
  • The possibility of increasing community cohesiveness.
  • The emphasis on what’s best for youth leading to what’s best for the community.

Disadvantages to the asset development approach:

  • A data base that’s 80% white and all youth for the Search Institute’s 40 assets.
  • No real guidance as to how to develop assets.
  • Community dependence on the Search Institute or CADY to analyze the surveys.
  • Statistical limitations that may make accurate analysis difficult for small communities or schools.
  • The lack of any guarantee that asset development will address current problems.
  • The question of how necessary assets actually are for eventual success for most youth.

In sum, the advantages of focusing on youth seem to far outweigh the disadvantages, but the disadvantages still shouldn’t be ignored.

Although each community’s approach to asset development will be different, based on the needs and resources of the community, there are some basic steps that can be used to structure the process. (These steps are based on the assumption that a community will use either the Search Institute or the CADY survey.)

  • Someone has to take the initiative.
  • Form a coalition or other group to introduce asset development (and the idea of the survey/asset assessment) to the community.
  • Once the community agrees to pursue asset development, work out the logistics of the survey.
  • Implement the survey.
  • Analyze the report of the survey results.
  • Communicate your findings to the community.
  • Plan your next steps.
    • Convene a diverse, inclusive, and participatory planning group (or, as mentioned above, a number of task forces or committees, perhaps one for each related group of assets you plan to address), representing all sectors of the community, including youth.
    • Determine what assets you’ll focus on.
    • Do your research.
    • Develop a strategic plan for building assets.
    • Design an action plan.
  • Present the plan to the community.
  • Implement your initial action plan.
  • Continue to monitor, evaluate, and adjust your action plan.
  • Continue to form and implement new action plans, and to maintain the gains you’ve made.

Online Resources

Asset-Based Community Development is an excellent guide provided by the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center that includes useful examples, sample worksheets, and real-life scenarios as well as tips.

An Asset-Based Approach to Skills-Banking within Respond! Communities. A research working paper prepared by Respond!

Building from Strength: Asset-Based Community Development is an article by John E. Walker from the Northeast Assets Leadership Project.

The Family Leadership Connection, and organization started in California, based on both SI’s 40 Developmental Assets and on the asset-based community development work of John McKnight and others at Northwestern University.  FLC offers both parent training and training in becoming a parent trainer.

Community Asset Development for Youth (CADY); A report to the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Office of Drug Control Policy on the Genesee County Pilot Test.

The Search Institute: information on asset development, the 40 developmental assets, links, resources, etc.