Building Towards Fulfilment: An Introduction to the Value of Developmental Assets

Posted on November 5th, 2018 12:51pm
By: adrian

Written by Nick Mehring.

The purpose of education. That’s a concept that has enthralled me since I sat down in a sparsely populated lecture hall more than 4 years ago for the first class in a course based around the history and philosophy of education. Little did I know that one seemingly simple question would ignite a fascination in me that would end up being so deeply influential on my ideas of what it means to teach and to learn. What is or what should be the purpose of education?

Maybe this is naive, but I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to that question. At best I think we can reach some basic conclusions about what it’s not. As Peter Benson of the Search Institute (an educational think tank based in the United States) puts it, the purpose of education is certainly not to ensure that children ace their next standardized math test or even to create citizens that will make their country more competitive in the global economy [1]. No, no. We have to think bigger! If it’s not these attainments, then what could the purpose of education really be? From what I’ve come to understand so far from my own life, the best answer to that question is that an ideal education sets a child in motion toward living a fulfilled life.

The Greek philosopher Plutarch said something along the lines of, youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit [1]. Assuming this is true, then the central question for myself as an educator becomes: how can we help to set this fire ablaze? I believe that learning about and applying the developmental assets framework is a key contributor to creating healthy children who grow up in an environment where that fire can thrive.

Briefly, the developmental assets are a group of forty traits, values behaviors and social institutions which the Search Institute has determined are key contributors to a person’s well-being and personal development [2,3]. These forty traits are broken into internal and external traits and are then categorized under four pillars. The four pillars under external assets are: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, and constructive use of time. The pillars under internal traits are: commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity [3]. According to several longitudinal studies conducted by the Search Institute, there is a strong connection shown between having thirty or more assets and a child’s likelihood of alcohol abuse in later years [2]. From their sample, only 3% of people abused alcohol at some point in their lives if they possessed thirty or more assets versus 50% of people who had ten or less [2]. Across the board, research shows us that youth who possess more of these assets are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in risky sexual behavior, experience depression or suicidal thoughts, display antisocial behaviors and more [4]. Further studies show that a high number of assets better predicts things like higher grades, positive mental and physical health, civic engagement, a strength of character and a higher overall sense of well-being [5,6].

It seems so obvious. If we raise our children and teach our students in a way that promotes the development of the forty assets, we could substantially increase the likelihood of producing healthy, responsible and well-adjusted adults equipped to follow that fire inside wherever it might lead them. Unfortunately, as data from the Search Institute suggests, youth rarely reach that goal of thirty assets. According to the numbers, only 9% of U.S. students are lucky enough to have thirty or more of these while roughly half have only twenty or fewer [2].

So what can we do about it? First of all, educate ourselves. Read up on some of the research on developmental assets and why they matter for the healthy development of youth. Reflect on some
of these yourself. Do any stand out to you as having positive impacts on your own development? Which ones do you feel are the most important? Are some assets easier for you to implement in a child’s life than others? Once we’ve learned something about these then work to apply them in your own life with the youth who you come in contact with regularly. Personally, as a coach I am drawn toward a few assets in particular: adult role models, high expectations, youth programs, integrity, honesty, responsibility, and resistance skills to name a few. By formulating my practices and approach to teaching I can intentionally work to build up these assets in my players. By being purposeful with my words, expectations and the values I both express and demand in practice and games I can — hopefully — leave a lasting positive effect on the kids that I come in contact with. By being persistent with language and actions, we can help to build up young people so that they can move forward in their lives as high-character, responsible, focused and empowered citizens moving toward their fulfilled life. As educators, coaches and parents, we owe it to the youth around us to do our absolute best at instilling these assets into their lives. As the old adage says, it takes a village to raise a child to make a commitment to the kids in your lives. They will be better off because of it.

As always, below is a list of sources and resources that will help you get started learning about developmental assets. Further, if you have a comment, please let us know! We would love to grow this conversation.

[4] Jayne A. Fulkerson et al., “Family Dinner Meal Frequency and Adolescent Development: Relationships with Developmental Assets and High-Risk Behaviours” (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2006), 337-345.
[5] Peter C. Scales et al., “The Role of Developmental Assets in Predicting Academic Achievement: A Longitudinal Study” (Journal of Adolescence, 2006), 691-708.
[6] Peter C. Scales, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain & Maura Shramko, “Aligning Youth Development Theory, Measurement, and Practice Across Cultures and Contexts: Lessons From Use of the Developmental Assets Profile” (Child Indicators Research, 2016), 1-35.