Skip to main content
Log in

Toward a Measure for Assessing Features of Effective Youth Development Programs: Contextual Safety and the “Big Three” Components of Positive Youth Development Programs in Rwanda

  • Original Paper
  • Published:
Child & Youth Care Forum Aims and scope Submit manuscript



When delivered in a safe space, programs effective in promoting positive youth development (PYD) involve key features termed the Big Three: (1) Positive and sustained adult–youth relationships; (2) Life-skill-building activities; and (3) Opportunities for youth contribution and leadership. However, no measures exist in the literature for assessing the Big Three.


The present study sought to develop a quantitative measure of program quality.


Using data collected from Rwandese participants from the Compassion International (CI) Study of PYD, we developed a youth-report measure with two groups: 603 youth enrolled in CI-supported programs, and 320 youth not enrolled in CI but involved in other youth development programs (total N = 923, Mage = 11.81 years, SD = 1.68). We used exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses to refine the item pool. Using a propensity-score matched subsample, we added a measure of youth contribution to assess predictive validity of the measure, and tested for between-group measurement invariance across age, gender, and CI-enrollment status. We then compared CI-supported and non-CI-supported youth as an initial assessment using the measure.


We established a parsimonious and robust measure of the Big Three demonstrating strong psychometric properties. CI-supported-youth reported higher levels of each of the Big Three features.


These results provide information about the usefulness of a measure assessing the Big Three attributes of effective PYD programs. We discuss how future research using this approach to understanding the content of youth development programs may provide evidence of how PYD may be promoted.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Aisenberg, E., & Ell, K. (2005). Contextualizing community violence and its effects: An ecological model of parent–child interdependent coping. Journal of Interpersonal Violence,20(7), 855–871.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, S., McDermott, E. R., Elliot, M. C., Donlan, A. E., Aasland, K., & Zaff, J. F. (2018). Youth-serving institutional resources and neighborhood safety: Ties with positive youth development. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry,88(1), 78–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Benson, P. L., Leffert, N., Scales, P. C., & Blyth, D. A. (1988). Beyond the “village” rhetoric: Creating healthy communities for children and adolescents. Applied Developmental Science,2, 138–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bentler, P. M. (1990). Comparative fit indices in structural equation modeling. Psychological Bulletin,98, 588–606.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blum, R. W. (2003). Positive youth development: A strategy for improving health. In F. Jacobs, D. Wertlieb, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of applied developmental science: Promoting positive child, adolescent, and family development through research, policies, and programs (Vol. 2, pp. 237–252). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bornstein, M. H. (2017). The specificity principle in acculturation science. Perspectives in Psychological Science,12(1), 3–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, T. A. (2006). Confirmatory factor analysis for applied research. New York: Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, M. W., & Cudeck, R. (1993). Alternative ways of assessing model fit. In K. A. Bollen & J. S. Long (Eds.), Testing structural equation models (pp. 136–162). Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Card, N. A. (2017). Methodological issues in measuring the development of character. Journal of Character Education,13(2), 29–45.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cattell, R. B. (1966). The scree test for the number of factors. Multivariate Behavioral Research,1, 245–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cheung, G. W., & Rensvold, R. B. (2002). Evaluating goodness-of-fit indexes for testing measurement invariance. Structural Equation Modeling,9, 233–255.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DeSouza, L. M. (2017). Success in a career-technical education program: The role of individual strengths and contextual assets. Doctoral dissertation, Retrieved from ERIC (ED575207).

  • Duncan, G. J., Engel, M., Claessens, A., & Dowsett, C. J. (2014). Replication and robustness in developmental research. Developmental Psychology,50, 2417–2425.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eccles, J. S., & Gootman, J. A. (Eds.). (2002). Community programs to promote youth development/committee on community-level programs for youth. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fauth, R. C., Roth, J. L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007). Does the neighborhood context alter the link between youth’s after-school time activities and developmental outcomes? A multilevel analysis. Developmental Psychology,43(3), 760–777.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Greenberger, E., & Bond, L. (1984). User’s manual for the psychosocial maturity inventory. Irvine: University of California.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hershberg, R. M., Chase, P. A., Champine, R. B., Hilliard, L. J., Wang, J., & Lerner, R. M. (2015). “You can quit me but I’m not going to quit you”: A focus group study of leaders’ perceptions of their positive influences on youth in Boy Scouts of America. Journal of Youth Development,10(2), 5–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Horn, J. L. (1965). A rationale and test for the number of factors in factor analysis. Psychometrika,30, 179–185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hu, L. T., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cut-off criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. Structural Equation Modeling,6, 1–5.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • King, P. E., Kim, S.-H., Forrow, J. L., & Clardy, C. E. (2017). Preliminary exploration of the measurement of diverse adolescent spirituality (MDAS) among Mexican youth. Applied Developmental Science,21, 235–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Learning, Youth Power. (2017). A systematic review of positive youth development programs in low- and middle-income countries. Washington, DC: Making Cents International.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among American youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Almerigi, J., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Gestsdóttir, S., et al. (2005). Positive youth development, participation in community youth development programs, and community contributions of fifth grade adolescents: Findings from the first wave of the 4-H study of positive youth development. Journal of Early Adolescence,25, 17–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Bowers, E., & Geldhof, G. J. (2015). Positive youth development and relational developmental systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. Molenaar (Eds.); R. M. Lerner (Editor-in-chief), Theory and method. Volume 1 of the handbook of child psychology and developmental science, 7th edn. (pp. 607–651). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

  • Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Geldhof, G. J., Gestsdóttir, S., King, P. E., Sim, A. T. R., et al. (2018a). Studying positive youth development in different nations: Theoretical and methodological issues. In J. J. Lansford & P. Banati (Eds.), Handbook on adolescent development research and its impact on global policy (pp. 63–68). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lerner, R. M., Tirrell, J. M., Lerner, J. V., Geldhof, G. J., Gestsdottir, S., King, P. E., et al. (2018b). The end of the beginning: Evidence and absences studying PYD in a global context. Adolescent Research Review.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Little, T. D. (1997). Mean and covariance structures (MACS) analyses of cross-cultural data: Practical and theoretical issues. Multivariate Behavioral Research,32, 57–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Little, T. D. (2013). Longitudinal structural equation modeling. New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. O. (1998–2017). Mplus user’s guide. Eighth edition. Los Angeles, CA: Muthén & Muthén.

  • Overton, W. F. (2015). Processes, relations and relational-developmental-systems. In W. F. Overton & P. C. M. Molenaar (Eds.); R. M. Lerner (Editor-in-chief), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science, 7th edition. Volume 1: Theory and method (pp. 9–62). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

  • Rhodes, J. E., & DuBois, D. L. (2008). Mentoring relationships and programs for youth. Current Directions in Psychological Science,17(4), 254–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rojas-Flores, L., Herrera, S., Currier, J. M., Lin, E. Y., Kulzer, R., & Foy, D. W. (2013). “We are raising our children in fear”: War, community violence, and parenting practices in El Salvador. International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation,2, 269–285.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roth, J. L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2003). What exactly is a youth development program? Answers from research and practice. Applied Developmental Science,7, 94–111.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, D. B. (1976). Inference and missing data. Biometrika,63, 81–92.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sim, A. T. R., & Peters, M. (2014). Compassion international: Holistic child development through sponsorship and church partnership. In B. Watson & M. Clarke (Eds.), Child sponsorship: Exploring pathways to a brighter future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steiger, J. H. (1990). Structural model evaluation and modification: An interval estimation approach. Multivariate Behavioural Research,25, 173–180.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tirrell, J. M., Gansert, P. K., Geldhof, G. J., Dowling, E. M., Lerner, J. V., King, P. E., et al. (2019b). Using the specificity principle to go inside the black box of program evaluation: The sample case of an El Salvador PYD program. In S. Verma, A. Petersen & J. Lansford (Eds.), Sustainable human development: Challenges and solutions for implementing the United Nations’ goals (Special issue): Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 227(2), 121–128.

  • Tirrell, J. M., Geldhof, G. J., King, P. E., Dowling, E., Sim, A., Williams, K., et al. (2019a). Measuring spirituality, hope, and thriving among Salvadoran youth: Initial findings from the Compassion International Study of Positive Youth Development. Child & Youth Care Forum,48(2), 241–268.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vandell, D. L., Larson, R. W., Mahoney, J. L., & Watts, T. W. (2015). Children’s organized activities. In M. H. Bornstein & T. Leventhal (Eds.); R. M. Lerner (Editor-in-chief), Handbook of child psychology and developmental science, vol. 4: Ecological settings and processes, 7th edn. (pp. 305–344). Hoboken: Wiley.

  • Wang, J., Ferris, K. A., Hershberg, R. M., & Lerner, R. M. (2015). Developmental trajectories of youth character: A five-wave longitudinal study of Cub Scouts and non-Scout boys. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,44(12), 2359–2373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This study was funded by grants from Compassion International and King Philanthropies.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan M. Tirrell.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Data Integrity

The authors take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tirrell, J.M., Dowling, E.M., Gansert, P. et al. Toward a Measure for Assessing Features of Effective Youth Development Programs: Contextual Safety and the “Big Three” Components of Positive Youth Development Programs in Rwanda. Child Youth Care Forum 49, 201–222 (2020).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: