Exploring positive development among Zulu youth

The view of children and youth from many perspectives is that they are pervasively “at-risk” and embarking on developmental trajectories that are defined by weakness, deficit, and even mere survival. For those youth living in densely populated, lower income, and unsafe communities, discussion has been further limited to the narrow parameters of how resilience factors can assist these youth to simply cope with or adapt to challenging social and environmental factors.

Rather than looking only for deficits and what students are lacking, Positive Youth Development (PYD) is an approach which focuses on how diverse youth can thrive in all settings via their self-reported assets and strengths. Highlighting the strengths of youth in difference contexts can direct attention and resources to areas which support positive development, including both internal strengths (their character, personality, identity, etc.) and external supports (e.g. supportive relationships and environments).


Dr. Kelly Schwartz and his colleagues surveyed 505 isiZulu-speaking adolescents from three rural township communities and schools outside of Durban, South Africa. While these townships are deeply affected by poverty, violence, communicable disease, and poor schooling, the researchers were interested in what contextual and developmental assets – personal, social, family, school, and community – promote these students’ positive development. The team also looked to the students’ academic success, school confidence, health-seeking behaviours, and community engagement to measure these assets.

The results of the survey revealed a number of context-related strengths that make it possible for these Zulu youth to thrive in their development. Importantly, the youth in the study showed significant strengths, comparable and sometimes even higher than their peers from middle-class backgrounds. This is important for framing how we see students in disadvantaged contexts: while they certainly face many challenges, they also possess notable assets.

The students in the study had a very secure understanding of themselves, and they also self-identified a strong moral and ethical grounding that guided their positive development. These personal traits were strong predictors of positive development. Although students in a high school that was identified as having an extreme lack of resources and services reported drastically lower developmental strengths overall, the school context was also found to be a particularly important site for promoting positive outcomes. This speaks to the need to equip schools with better resources, and to promote effective functioning within the school, as it could help to both mitigate risks and contribute to thriving outcomes.

Focus on strengths

When compared to youth in other developing countries, the study’s participants showed similar strength patterns. While they may share similar needs and negative factors, seeing these trends in strength and the potential for positive outcomes can help governments and communities capitalize on these opportunities.

Interestingly, each context demonstrated statistically significant power to predict various positive development outcomes. This means that these contexts, both individually and in combination, have the potential to influence positive development. While the existing economic, academic, and social problems in these communities require attention and intervention, understanding how to build on existing strengths and assets can support children and youth living in these contexts. Addressing each of these influences is therefore important for enabling and nurturing positive youth development.

See more from Dr. Kelly Schwartz on his profile

Connected Citations

Schwartz, K. D., Theron, L. C., & Scales, P. C. (2017). Seeking and finding Positive Youth Development among Zulu youth in South African townships. Child DevelopmentAvailable Online.