There is increasing global awareness of the need to improve life chances for all young people. Life chances relate to having autonomy, engaging in positive social and community networks, accessing education and employment opportunities, being economically stable, experiencing health and well-being and living in a safe environment.

Over the last ten years the UK government’s social inclusion agenda, informed by well-being and positive psychology research, has brought about a more proactive approach to addressing the needs of young people. The emphasis has shifted from simply fixing what is seen to be wrong with them, to promoting their strengths and potential contribution to society.  In 2007, the UK government launched a national initiative entitled “Aiming High for Young People: A Ten Year Strategy for Positive Activities” which has seen an investment of over £800m in youth work programs. These have been designed to include targeting some of the most ‘hard to reach’ young people. They aim to build resilience and develop the emotional and social resources required for successful physical and psychological development during the challenging transition to adulthood.

Now it looks like Australia may be heading in a similar direction. On 11 September 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that the Australian Government is currently ‘developing a plan for young Australians – with young Australians – so that all young people are safe, healthy, confident and resilient, with the skills and supports they need to build their own futures’. This first step in the creation of a National Youth Strategy follows the establishment in 2008 of a youth portfolio at ministerial level within the federal government and the establishment of both the Office for Youth and the Australia Youth Forum. Together these are indications that there is a real commitment to bringing youth policy to the heart of the Australian Government. Investing in young people’s futures is finally being promoted as of national interest.

So what actually helps to make young people more resilient and resourceful? Resilience has been defined as the capacity of individuals, groups and systems to cope successfully in the face of risk and adversity. Most theories of resilience are based on the premise that some children and young people, despite the serious challenges they face, continue to flourish and achieve positive developmental outcomes. Resilience theory focuses on the presence of internal assets of strengths, temperament and social skills. It’s also about the ability to experience positive emotions which build physical, intellectual, emotional and psychological resources that are vital for overcoming adversity.

But research shows it’s not just the personal assets of young people that make them resilient. It’s also the external protective factors around young people that impact on their ability to overcome setbacks and challenges. However we know that what many of us might take for granted as protective factors, such as families, schools, communities, and even the economic, political and cultural context within which we live, are sometimes the very things that place some young people most at risk.

What can we learn from resilience research to apply through strategies that benefit young people, their families, and the wider community? We require interventions that promote young people’s strengths through positive, goal focused, social and educational activities at the same time as initiatives to actively reduce the effects of risks such as family breakdown, substance abuse, crime, poverty or deprivation. It is argued therefore that high quality youth work, delivered as a key part of government social strategy, can become an important protective factor and contributor to building resilience in young people and improving later life outcomes.

The Australian Government can learn from thousands of examples of effective youth work activity. Youth work inspections in the UK highlight increases in young people’s confidence, decision-making, social responsibility, citizenship, skills development and educational achievement. Wider recorded outcomes relate to increased social capital and community cohesion.  In Australia, community driven youth work training, recreational and cultural programs have been shown to be effective in increasing resilience, community respect and connectedness and result in corresponding reductions in substance misuse, violence and cultural discontinuity within the community.

Lessons can also be learned from the positive psychology field. A recent meta-analysis of empirical positive psychology research has shown numerous practical interventions, including evidence-based coaching, to significantly increase well-being and alleviate depressive symptoms. Evidence-based coaching studies at Sydney University have resulted in high school students increasing levels of well-being, resilience, hope and goal attainment. Resiliency programs for 11-13 year olds in the US, at Geelong Grammar School here in Australia and through the UK Local Well-being Project show improvements in young people’s psychological well-being achieved by building emotional resilience, teaching optimism and promoting positive thinking.

Therefore as new youth strategies are being developed and implemented it is timely to reflect on and recognize the role of the youth service and the potential of applied positive psychology to enhance the quality of youth work and to create resilient and resourceful young people. Positive psychology and evidence-based coaching approaches can add value to youth work in 3 main ways:

  1. Through the application of simple and effective activities and coaching conversations as part of the youth work curriculum.
  2. Supporting youth workers and managers by inclusion in youth workforce training, development and leadership programs.
  3. Helping to build capacity within the Not-for-Profit and voluntary sectors upon which so much local youth provision depends.

It is no coincidence that the theme for the 2009 UK National Youth Work Week is ‘Resilient & Resourceful’. This is in recognition that in the current climate of social, political and economic upheaval young people need to be resilient more than ever. It is also true that, for many young people, the youth service remains a vital protective factor within their day to day lives and for their future life chances. Let’s hope Australia takes note.