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4-H: Positively developing youth

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development was born out of the assumption that adolescents are broken, in danger of being broken or display deficits.
“A new perspective, that of positive youth development, tries to counterbalance the assumption of broken youth with the perspective that youth are developing individuals who display considerable assets, and who can be guided to develop to become positive and constructive contributors to society,” says the Advisory Board of the study, which includes members from universities around the country.
“The 4-H Study is a landmark investigation,” says Alexander von Eye of Michigan State University. “If the researchers continue on their scientific path, they will have produced a study of truly historic importance. The study will be able to provide compelling information about the special and vital role that 4-H may play in the lives of America’s young people.”
The 4-H Study began with fifth-graders in the 2002-2003 school year, known as Wave 1, which included 1,719 fifth-graders and 1,137 of their parents from 13 states and 61 schools in rural, suburban and urban areas in different parts of the country. They represented a variety of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. By the end of Wave 4 a total of 4,404 adolescents from 34 states were involved.
“We explored whether each young person could select positive life goals, optimize what he or she needed to achieve those goals, and compensate for obstacles that stood in the way,” say the researchers. “We found that for both boys and girls, combining sports and youth development programs such as 4-H, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouting, etc., was one of the most effective ways to promote positive development and to prevent problems.”
Those findings led the researchers to compare 4-H youth with youth in similar programs. Among sixth-grade participants it was found that those children in 4-H programs had consistently higher scores on PYD, Contribution and SOC (Selection, Optimization, Compensation), as well as lower scores on measures of depression and risk/problem behaviors.
The 4-H youth were 10 percent higher on the Contribution. On educational measures, participants in 4-H programs had higher school grades, greater emotional engagement in school and were more likely to see themselves as going to college. In Grade 6, the odds that 4-H youth expect to go to college are 1.3 times higher and in Grade 8, the odds that 4-H youth expect to go to college are 1.6 times higher. Measures of school grades and emotional engagement in school were also higher among 4-H participants.
The study concludes, “The true value of 4-H programs comes not from short-term results or even the effects over a few years. It comes from the programs’ influence on lifelong pathways of development.”
The researchers say there’s a possibility they’ll continue the study through Grade 12, and beyond, to gather additional information on the benefits of 4-H involvement.
Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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