Sorting Through Positive Development Frameworks

By: Katherine M. Ross, Ph.D., Clark Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, Virginia Commonwealth University

Patrick H. Tolan, Ph.D., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia


The shifting interest from the longstanding deficit orientation to how healthy, effective development occurs has generated renewed excitement for education, health and wellbeing.  In this new approach, four major frameworks have emerged:  Social Competence, Social and Emotional Learning, Positive Youth Development, and Positive Psychology.  Surprisingly, the literature, contributors, and consumers of each framework have developed with little cross-fertilization.  Within frameworks and among adherents of each, programs, key concepts, and implications for promotion of positive development and prevention of youth problems have been produced separately.


How similar are these approaches and are there meaningful distinctions in how, where, and in what fashion positive development is best promoted?  If so, what are the implications for informing intervention studies and advancing collaboration? And how can we help others understand and compare the approaches?  We compared these four frameworks for their similarities and differences in key constructs, populations of interest, measurement practices, and intervention orientation, design, and prevailing evaluation characteristics.


What defines and differentiates each framework:

The field of Social Competence (SC) arose from studying children as they entered school to understand how social skills such as cooperation, conflict resolution, self-control, empathy, and sharing affected risk and adjustment to the classroom. At the same time but separately, others looked at these skills in relation to positive (goal achievement, popularity) and negative (substance use, delinquency) outcomes for adolescents.


Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) expanded from Social Competence to incorporate additional developmental competencies and areas of importance identified in scientific studies of promotion and prevention. Reviews of empirical literature helped to identify five skills as critical for successful development of children (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills).  Well known among researcher and practitioners who subscribe to SEL, over multiple decades, this framework has been applied to review outcomes studies, guide curricula, and promote school as a central influence on positive development, with empirical link to better school and social adjustment outcomes. One distinguishing feature about SEL is the organization CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), which has integrated advocacy with scientific advancement since its inception.


The Positive Youth Development (PYD) framework applies a developmental systems approach that conceptualizes youth development as dependent on matching youth needs with appropriate resources; identifying processes that result and promote “thriving”, rather than specific forms of skills. The focus of PYD is on capitalizing on or building individual youth assets with environmental nurturance. The building of assets in all domains of the ecological model (personal, social, family, school, and community) leads to youth to success because it promotes or enables five positive developmental processes (e.g., the 5 Cs model which identifies Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring as essential to becoming a contributing member of society).


Positive Psychology (PPsy) arose with an overt interest in countering the traditional focus on risk and problematic influences to emphasize positive experiences and characteristics associated with the optimal human experience. The framework emphasizes individual agency in promoting human growth and achievement through fostering positive emotions, positive experiences, optimism, happiness, and life satisfaction. When fostered, these positive experiences lead to better physical and mental outcomes for adults. Positive psychologists also focus on characterizing and defining optimum human experience as fulfilling individual potential, referring to this as “flourishing”.


Much Commonality Across the Frameworks:

  1. All four frameworks emphasize positive abilities (skills, assets) as opposed to deficits and on promoting optimal development.
  2. All four frameworks identify key constructs related to self-control, positive self-orientation, engagement with others, and societal bonding/moral ethical standards (see Table 1).


Key Distinctions Between the Frameworks:

  1. Central to effective development in PYD and PPsy are personal proclivities such as agency, choice about relationships and activities and personal goals.
  2. SC and SEL interventions tend to be universal and school-based, PYD and PPsy interventions can be universal, but as settings that offer opportunity for aligning need with resources and developmental support within that setting (e.g., after school, recreational, mentoring programs).
  3. SC and SEL seemed to emphasize skills as teachable, with less focus on individual variation while PYD and PPsy are more oriented toward characteristics or individual tendencies
  4. There is overlap in the age spans focused on but in general, they emanate from and primarily focus in sequence from early childhood (SC) to elementary-aged (SEL) to adolescence (PYD) to early adulthood (PPsy). Integrating this variation in understanding their commonality is an important need.
  5. PYD uniquely has a strong empirical basis for the theoretical framework through measurement studies of the factor structure and validity of the model. SEL seems to be following suit with some emerging studies in this area. The role as conceptual or perspective models versus measureable defined multi-factor models needs more attention.
  6. There is a lack of consistency within and across each in measurement focus, methods, and how evaluation is incorporated. This impedes clarity and comparison across studies, popular understanding, and potential impact.
  7. Interventions for SC and PPsy were specifically developed to fit the framework, while SEL (and somewhat PYD) frameworks were developed to organize already established interventions, with PYD trying to fit a model to settings that were thought to enable positive development and SEL applied to connect a large and heterogeneous set of activities and foci. Reconciling and integrating the strengths of each approach deserves attention for improved evaluation.


Key Points and Future Directions:

This blog highlights four frameworks that offer compelling and informative approaches for understanding how capable, engaged, and contributing children develop and how to address problems of development. These frameworks can provide better understanding of what works, for whom, and how demonstration efforts can translate to practical approaches.  There is a need, however, to more fully integrate development into each framework and how they relate across the lifespan.  Most fundamentally, we think there is great benefit in expanded and more intensive attention to how each framework can inform other developmental periods and augment work launched within the other three.


For further discussion of these issues and references related to each framework, please see the following article:

Tolan, P.H., Ross, K., Arkin, N., Godine, N., & Clark, E. (2016). Toward an integrated approach to positive development: Implications for intervention.  Applied Developmental Science, 20, 214-236.

Contact information:

Katherine M. Ross –

Patrick H. Tolan –


Which frameworks are guiding your work?  How might learning more about the others be helpful?

Do we need a “master framework” that pulls these and perhaps others all together? Why or why not?


Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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  1. I love that you are addressing this. I am an EBD teacher (25 years) and also have my EdD which I focussed my research on Positive Psychology concepts and youth with EBD. I also do staff training for increasing and maintaining Well-being. So, all 4 concepts, Social Competence, Social and Emotional Learning, Positive Youth Development, and Positive Psychology are areas of passion for me. I love that these important concepts are in the spotlight and becoming more integrated. Thank you for yoru article.

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