Developing Initiative in Youths

By Jennifer Oden, Loyola Marymount Los Angeles, Masters in School Psychology
Image of girl developing initiative

Developing Initiative in Youth

Positive Psychology requires the practice of targeting children's strengths and positive attributes, as well as developing initiative. In Reed Larson’s research article, “Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth Development,” the concept of initiative is explained and explored as a core requirement for positive youth development.

Positive Psychology requires the practice of targeting children's strengths and positive attributes, as well as developing initiative. In Reed Larson’s research article, “Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth Development,” the concept of initiative is explained and explored as a core requirement for positive youth development.

As youths undergo positive development, they are said to take part in activities that provide creativity, leadership, altruism and civic engagement. According to Larson, initiative develops when children and adolescence participate in structured activities (sports, art, music, clubs, etc.) in which they experience a special combination of three elements: intrinsic motivation, focused attention, and an extended period of time. In order to foster positive youth development, it is suggested that community members involve youth in societal practices, grant youth additional responsibilities in their society, and recognize youth as meaningful members of society who are important and special to those around them.

Unfortunately, depending on the society, students are not always provided with opportunities to learn how to take initiative, act responsibly, and remain motivated. Such societies might not provide opportunities for positive youth development due to cultural views or limited resources. Since opportunities for positive youth development are not always readily available to youth, school psychologists must advocate for students in need and take action to ensure that such opportunities are created.

Analysis of Positive Psychology

In the United States, high school students often report high rates of boredom, alienation, and disconnection from meaningful and challenging circumstances within their schools. Clearly, there is a deficiency in positive development among students who claim to feel this way about their academic environment. If students are bored, unmotivated, and unexcited about their lives, what can school teachers, administrators, and we, the school psychologists, do in order to ignite the fires of passion, excitement and motivation within students? One notion is that positive youth development stems from initiative. Larson believes that in order for youth to become fully propelled into positive development, they need to participate in on-going, positive experiences and opportunities that are both intrinsically motivating and require concerted engagement in the environment. If students experience activities that involve a combination of intrinsic motivation, focused concentration, and extended periods of time, they are highly likely to develop initiative- an important life skill. Adolescence is a particularly valuable time for youth to develop initiative, learn to self-regulate, and create habits that will directly affect how they set and meet personal goals in the future as adults. 

By further examining the context of adolescents in their daily lives, it is easy to see what blocks students from developing initiative and what enhances the positive development of initiative. In his research, Larson discovered that adolescents typically did not develop initiative from either class experiences or from experiences with friends. 

Although students in the United States and Europe typically spend about 25-30% of their daily lives on school work, and 40-50% of their daily lives on leisure activities (hanging out with friends, watching television, etc.), neither of these activities seem to help build initiative (Larson, 2000). Students are not likely to develop initiative when they are not challenged, not focused on what they are doing, or not interested in the activity. However, structured voluntary activities have been shown to create opportunities for youth to build initiative.

Students develop initiative when they are involved in activities that are voluntary (not required for their school or by their parents) and that utilize some structure where students participate in systems that rely on constraints, rules or goals.

By participating in a team sport, choir, club, or organization, students develop a certain language that accompanies their experience with these activities. For instance, studies have shown a dramatic increase in the use of conditional statements among students who are involved in voluntary structured activities; their statements taking the form, “If A, B, and C, then X, Y, and Z” (Larson, 2000). Students also showed an increase in their use of modals such as, “would,” “could,” and “should.”

In addition, students became familiarized with concepts such as setbacks, obstacles, and emerging challenges, in the form of losing games, realizing funding shortages, or sharing limited resources (costumes, uniforms, or microphones).  As leaders and coaches model this operating language, students who are eager to join the group because they are intrinsically motivated to do so, will adopt the language and internalize it. As suggested by Larson, initiative and the acquired language that accompanies it are crucial skills that students must master before they create order, meaning, and action in the world.

The concept of initiative and its importance as a component of positive youth development is primarily a view Western culture. Western cultures see initiative as a concept that is closely tied to ones ability to feel motivated from within and to direct attention and effort toward a challenging goal (Larson, 2000). Interestingly, there is a great disconnect within the Western culture between what is expected from children in school and what is expected from them once they reach adulthood and enter the work force.

Western societies do not typically provide opportunities for students to learn how to take initiative and remain motivated. Contrastingly, many traditional societies provide a progressive set of steps that socialize youth into the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Emerging adulthood is said to only take place among cultures that allow young people a prolonged independent role in the society (Arnett, 2000). According to this notion of emerging adulthood, young people in urban areas of countries such as China and India are more likely to experience emerging adulthood, because they are given more responsibilities as children, marry later, have children later, obtain more education, and have a greater range of occupational and recreational opportunities than young people in rural areas with limited resources.

Regardless of the student’s cultural background, an underlying principle concerning positive youth development remains: youth are destined to fail if they are met with high expectations without high levels of support. The RALLY (Responsive Advocacy for Life and Learning in Youth) approach to success asserts that young people’s development, resiliency and academic success can be facilitated when they establish relationships and opportunities that support resilience (Malti & Noam, 2008).

Also it is important to integrate afterschool programs, community activities and family life in order to create connections for students to become more involved in society. It is absolutely necessary that youth be afforded opportunities to emerge as adults in a supportive environment and to gain life experiences that are meaningful and intrinsically valuable for them. As Paulo Freire described, the starting point for organizing an effective program must be the present and reflecting aspirations of the people (2003). When students are motivated by their inner passions and encouraged to express themselves with guidance from a supportive adult, it is incredibly likely that they will experience positive growth and development.

Best Practice and the Role of School Psychologists

Providing additional opportunities for youth to build initiative and experience positive development within schools requires somewhat of a reform in educational culture. When schools decide that change is necessary, typically the first area to consider is how to strengthen academic support for students. While academic reformation might be necessary, extra curricular reformation should be considered also. As school psychologists, we should be the driving force behind the implementation of change in our schools. Regrettably, bringing about much needed change is not always and easy process. 

Although it is not explicitly suggested, gaining community support is a crucial element in the process of school reformation. When community members become involved in school reformation, additional support and resources are available to students that might not have been accessible within the limited scope of school funding. School psychologists must do our part in expanding our roles to include ways and means for positive change that might otherwise be un-heard of.

School psychology is not all about assessments, scoring and report writing. The role of the school psychologist should not be confined to these conventional duties. We should be the initiators of change within our schools. If there is a deficiency in student opportunities to become involved in voluntary structured activities, it is the school psychologists job to find ways to remediate the problem.

- Help place students in structured voluntary activities, suited to individual student preferences.

- Design and run programs that maximize individual and group growth (clubs, sports teams, organizations, etc.).

- Provide workshops and trainings for teachers and coaches to inform them about how initiative develops and what they can do to encourage positive development among their students.

- Advocate for all students in need of academic, social, or emotional support.

In order for prevention or resiliency programs to be successful in schools, school psychologists must help to create environments and encourage skills that augment the process of positive development (Malti & Noam, 2008). Our chief concern as school psychologists should always be centered on what we can do in order to promote positive development for youth; whether it be simply recognizing individuals with a welcoming smile around campus, or implementing a reform project to build additional voluntary structured activities at school.


Freire, Paulo. (2003). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Continuum International Publishing

            Group Inc. New York. 

Grimes, Jeff., & Thomas, Alex. (2008). Best Practices in School Psychology: Best Practices in

            Implementing School Reform. National Association of School Psychologist, Vol 3.

Jensen Arnett, Jeffrey. (2000). Emerging Adulthood: A Theory of Development From the

            Late Teens Through the Twenties. May 2000, American Psychologist. American Psychological Association, Inc. Vol. 55. No. 5,469-480.

Larson, Reed W. (2002). Toward a Psychology of Positive Youth Development. January

            2000, American Psychologist. American Psychological Association, Inc. Vol. 55, No. I, 170-183.

Malti, Tina., & Noam, Gil G. (2008). New Directions For Youth Development: Where Youth

            Development Meets Mental Health and Education- The RALLY Approach. Wiley Periodicals, Inc. No. 120, Winter 2008. 

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