Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the Encyclopedia of Social Work, accessed online. (c) National Association of Social Workers and Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the applicable license agreement governing use of the Encyclopedia of Social Work accessed online, an authorized individual user may print out a PDF of a single article for personal use, only (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 17 January 2019

Youth Services

Abstract and Keywords

Youth services are programs, activities, and services aimed at providing a range of opportunities for school-aged children, including mentoring, recreation, education, training, community service, or supervision in a safe environment. The current thrust of youth services is an emphasis on positive youth development. Best practices in youth services include the provision of safety, appropriate supervision, supportive relationships, opportunities to belong, positive social norms, support for efficacy and skill building, and integration of community, school, and family efforts.

Keywords: out-of-school time, positive youth development, youth civic engagement

Youth services is an umbrella term for a wide range of programs, activities, and services aimed at youth, typically defined as school-aged children ages 6 to 18 years. Youth services can be targeted to particular populations, defined by neighborhoods or other characteristics, or available to all youth. The goals of youth services may be skill building, networking and support building, character development, physical health, community service, civic engagement, and prevention of at-risk behavior. Services can be delivered through local community centers of national organizations (for example, YMCAs), local groups of national organizations staffed primarily by volunteers (for example, Camp Fire), community-based cultural organizations, religious- or spiritual-based organizations, or even schools.

Service delivery models include mentoring programs, team sports and recreation, education and training, community service, or just a safe place for the after-school hours. Mahoney, Harris, and Eccles (2006) have identified five main reasons youth give for participating in youth services and activities, namely they (a) are enjoyable and exciting, (b) offer encouragement and support, (c) afford opportunities to build skills and to foster self-worth, (d) facilitate interactions with mentors and peers, and (e) provide youth a safe place to congregate.


The first example of a youth services agency is the YMCA, whose full title (Young Men's Christian Association) indicates its original focus as a religiously based community organization for the young men populating major cities in the United Kingdom and the United States during the Industrial Revolution. The first YMCAs were established in London in 1844, but they were quickly exported to Canada and the United States. A parallel organization for young women, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) was founded in 1855 in the United Kingdom to serve similar purposes for young women moving to cities for employment. Although begun as Christian organizations for young adults, they quickly evolved into ecumenical programs serving the health, social, and physical needs of all members of the communities they served.

The settlement house movement in the United States gave rise to organizations such as Hull House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York, founded by Lillian Wald in 1893. Youth services at such organizations included educational programs, recreational facilities including gymnasiums and swimming pools, music and drama programs, and summer camps, among many other programs. In the early part of the 20th century, several national organizations were established largely around the goals of fostering leadership, citizenship, and life skills among youth, including the Boy Scouts of America (1910), the Camp Fire Girls (1910; expanded in 1975 to include boys and changed to Camp Fire USA), and the Girl Scouts of America (1912). Passage by the U.S. Congress of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the Cooperative Extension Service to promote youth skill development in agriculture and homemaking through such programs as the 4-H program (Head, Heart, Hands, and Health). As part of his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded youth services in the 1930s through the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Such programs were primarily aimed at providing opportunities for employment or vocational training.

The post-war period of the 1950s saw a change in attitudes about youth, when public concerns about increases in juvenile delinquency led to federal funding for programs aimed at addressing youth in crisis, including runaway and homeless youth, school dropouts, and teen parents. Over time, the emphasis switched to an appreciation of the importance of prevention of youth problem behavior.

Thus, the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 promoted the development of youth programs aimed specifically at delinquency prevention and that included emphases on potential root causes of delinquency, such as poverty, unemployment, family breakdown, and discrimination based on race and class. Two acts in 1974, namely the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and the Runaway Youth Act, continued funding for such prevention programs but also expanded to a new focus, namely encouraging youth civic engagement. The Runaway Youth Act in particular paved the way for the Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services which was targeted to at-risk youth including runaway and homeless youth. Continuing through the 1980s, the majority of public funding for youth services was targeted at the prevention and control of juvenile delinquency and youth crime.

Trends and Directions

From the mid-1990s to now, the thrust of youth services has changed from an emphasis on prevention of negative youth behaviors to the promotion of positive youth behaviors and development. This new lens for viewing and developing youth services is known as the positive youth development approach. The positive youth development approach is characterized by attention to youths' strengths and assets rather than their risks and deficits. These strengths can be at the individual level, such as self-esteem, leadership skills, motivation, or religiosity, the interpersonal level, such as relationships with parents or peers, or the community level, such as supportive youth-serving organizations, schools, and neighborhoods. The positive youth development approach recognizes that successful development requires supportive elements in youths' social and environmental contexts. This approach is also distinguished by its emphasis on the potential of all youth for positive development (Family and Youth Services Bureau, 2007).

According to Lerner (2004), youth services will be effective in promoting positive youth development if they (a) provide opportunities for youth participation and leadership, (b) emphasize the development of life skills, and (c) involve adult-youth relationships that are both caring and sustained. Traditional programs, such as 4-H and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, are now subsumed under the positive youth development umbrella. Indeed, Lerner (2004) singles out 4-H as an exemplary program, in that it is built upon the contributions of youth to their families and communities and it is concerned with the development of both life skills and leadership skills.

One of the thrusts of the positive youth development approach has been an emphasis on facilitating youth civic engagement. Programs and services that promote youth civic engagement do so by enabling youth to become involved in their communities and encouraging them to envision and work toward tangible improvements in their communities (Family and Youth Services Bureau, 2007). Youth services agencies can promote civic engagement by creating opportunities to be involved in public policy discussions, community coalitions, boards of organizations, social movements, and service-learning projects.

Another recent trend (Bodilly & Beckett, 2005) in youth services has been increased attention to how youth spend their after-school time (also called out-of-school-time). As the number of mothers of school-age children working outside the home has increased over the last several decades, so has the demand for after-school arrangements for their children (Bodilly & Beckett, 2005). Yet after-school programs are not exclusively used by children with working mothers; while 17% of 5–14 year old children with working mothers participate in such organized activities, 11% of children whose mothers do not work outside the home participate in such programs. (Blau & Currie, 2004). The federal and state governments have also increased their support for after-school programs in the last several years. Some of these programs provide mere supervision and recreation, but there is a growing movement to have these programs focus on the promotion of academic achievement and the attainment of life skills through mentoring or other such programs included in the positive youth development approach to youth services. Programs that use evidence-based skill training approaches have consistently been found to yield positive benefits for youth across academic, emotional, and behavioral domains (Durlak & Weissberg, 2007). Despite recent public and media concern that children are being “over-scheduled,” Mahoney, Harris, and Eccles (2006) found no support for this notion and instead found that participation in organized activities was associated with a host of positive outcomes for youth, including better psychological adjustment, higher rates of school completion, and lower rates of risk behaviors.

Best Practices

A recent review of available evaluation research on youth services programs convened by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine (Eccles & Appleton Gootman, 2002) concluded that there is consistent evidence that programs that successfully promote positive youth development tend to share eight key features:

  1. (1) Physical and psychological safety

  2. (2) Clear and consistent structure and appropriate adult supervision

  3. (3) Supportive relationships

  4. (4) Opportunities to belong

  5. (5) Positive social norms

  6. (6) Support for efficacy and mattering

  7. (7) Opportunities for skill building

  8. (8) Integration of family, school, and community efforts.

The report cited as exemplary programs the Teen Outreach Program, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Quantum Opportunities. Despite these findings, the report notes a specific need for more high-quality, theory-based, experimental evaluations of youth services programs.

Roles or Implications for Social Work

Youth services agencies, particularly those working from the positive youth development framework, epitomize the core values of the social work profession as outlined by the National Association of Social Workers' Code of Ethics. Specifically, these programs encourage youth service to the community, promote youth involvement in social change to affect social justice, assume the dignity and worth of all youth, and emphasize and build upon the importance of human relationships. Social workers and youth services professionals should strive to promote these values by facilitating youth participation in all levels of their agencies and by actively seeking out and acting upon youths' own opinions, needs assessments, and strategies for positive change.


Blau, D., & Currie, J. (2004). Preschool, day care, and after school care: Who's minding the kids? (Working paper 10670). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Find this resource:

    Bodilly, S., & Beckett, M. K. (2005). Making out-of-school time matter: Evidence for an action agenda. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.Find this resource:

      Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2007). The impact of after-school programs that promote personal and social skills. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.Find this resource:

        Eccles, J., & Appleton Gootman, J. (Eds.). (2002). Community programs to promote youth development. Washington, DC: National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press.Find this resource:

          Family and Youth Services Bureau. (2007). Putting positive youth development into practice: A resource guide. Washington, DC: Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.Find this resource:

            Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America's youth. Mahwah, NJ: Sage.Find this resource:

              Mahoney, J. L., Harris, A. L., & Eccles, J. S. (2006). Organized activity participation, positive youth development, and the over-scheduling hypothesis. Social Policy Report, 20(4), 3–31.Find this resource:

                Further Reading

                Camino, L., & Shepherd, Z. (2002). From periphery to center: Pathways for youth civic engagement in the day-to-day lives of communities. Applied Developmental Science, 6(4), 213–220.Find this resource:

                  Catalano, R. F., Berglund, M. L., Ryan, J. M., Lonczak, H. S., & Hawkins, J. D. (2004). Positive youth development in the United States: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 98–124.Find this resource:

                    Checkoway, B., Katie, R. S., Shakira, A., Margarita, A., Evelyn, F., Lisa, F., et al. (2003). Young people as competent citizens. Community Development Journal, 38(4), 298–309.Find this resource:

                      Big Brothers Big Sisters

                      Teen Outreach Program

                      Promising Practices Network

                      ChildTrends, What Works A Guide to Effective Programs: Five Comprehensive Tools For Improving Outcomes For Children And Youth