Monday, June 10, 2024

Reed Larson’s Research on Youth Development

Source: Reed Larson, The Youth Development Experience

Kate Walker
By Guest Blogger Kate Walker, Extension Specialist, Youth Development, University of Minnesota Extension. This blog was originally published by the University of Minnesota Extension.

I recently attended the annual meeting for the Society for Research on Adolescence where my mentor Reed Larson was invited to reflect on his influential research career in youth development. Reed first got interested in adolescence because he saw it as a critical period of awakening. Yet he noticed that most research focused on problems more than development, and he discovered that youth programs were powerful spaces for this awakening and development to occur. These insights propelled an impressive body of research that has tremendous implications for our work with and on behalf of young people. 

Young people’s daily experiences and emotions

With his mentor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Reed began by studying adolescents’ daily experiences and emotions, pioneering the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) where young people were prompted (with beepers back then!) to report on their feelings and the dynamics of their experiences in different domains in their daily lives. He explored their media use, time alone, experience with friends, and school experience.  

Reed Larson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

He discovered that during their typical experiences in school, young people were challenged (deep attention) but not engaged (intrinsically motivated). Conversely during unstructured leisure time, they were engaged but not challenged. The one unique context where young people reported experiencing the rare combination of high levels of challenge and engagement was in organized youth programs (arts, STEM, leadership, sports). He was intrigued.

Youth programs as developmental contexts

This led Reed to develop a series of studies focused on young people’s developmental experiences in youth programs and how staff facilitate these experiences. His research teams identified the types of key experiences that young people have in high-quality youth programs that facilitate their development of skills for teamwork, solving problems, managing emotions, and sustaining motivation in challenging work. He found that project-based youth programs are settings in which Csikszentmihalyi’s "flow" experience serves as a powerful catalyst for developing vital adult skills.

These findings are widely used to design programs and train program staff. They were the basis for a researcher-practitioner collaboration that resulted in a field guide of key youth experiences and staff practices that build valuable social and emotional skills. His groundbreaking research on the lives of young people and the developmental role of youth programs helped to both launch and legitimize the field of positive youth development. 

I most appreciate how respectfully rooted Reed’s research is in the direct experiences and accounts of young people. Throughout he has always emphasized that youth are agents or producers of their own development. Are there aspects of his research that speak to or influence you and your work? 


Kate Walker, (she/her), is the Extension Specialist, Youth Development at University of Minnesota Extension. Kate provides leadership to the understanding and development of youth work practice. She studies the role that adult program leaders, staff and volunteers play in supporting youth development in programs. She also leads professional development efforts aimed at supporting and improving youth work practice. This includes trainings on social and emotional learning and on the dilemmas that practitioners face in their everyday work with young people. 

The University of Minnesota Extension has a long history of youth development leadership. They are best known for running Minnesota 4-H for more than 100 years. The 4-H program also serves as their laboratory of learning, in which they are constantly improving. Their mission is to improve the lives of all Minnesota young people - no matter where they live or which youth program they choose to join.

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Reed Larson’s Research on Youth Development

Source: Reed Larson, The Youth Development Experience Kate Walker By Guest Blogger Kate Walker, Extension Specialist, Youth Development, Uni...