Positive Development in a Disorderly World


  • Presidential Address, delivered at the Meetings of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Philadelphia, PA, March 12, 2010. The research described in the address was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation—to whom I am extremely grateful. Thanks also to Hyeyoung Kang, Aisha Griffith, and Sharon Irish for assistance with this paper, as well to Kate Walker, Dave Hansen, Nickki Pearce Dawes, Patrick Sullivan, Natasha Watkins, Dustin Wood, Jenell Kelly, Vikki Rompala, Robin Jarrett, Jodi Dworkin, Rachel Angus, Aimee Rickman, Colleen Gibbons, Philip Hoffman, and many others who worked on the project. Copies of our articles are at http://www.youthdev.uiuc.edu. This address is dedicated to my father, Curtis L. Larson, a “farm kid” and professor of civil engineering, from whom I learned to think strategically about complex real-world problems.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Reed W. Larson, Department of Human and Community Development, University of Illinois, 904 W. Nevada St., Urbana, IL 61801. E-mail: larsonr@illinois.edu


Adolescents need to develop competencies to navigate an adult world that is complex and disorderly: a world of heterogeneous macro- to microecological systems containing contradictions and catch-22s. This exploratory essay examines adolescents' conscious processes of developing pertinent competencies for pursuing goals (agency) in these kinds of “real-world” settings. It draws on qualitative longitudinal research on youth's experiences working on arts and community projects in which they encounter the irregular dynamics of complex human systems. I describe how youth develop “strategic thinking”: executive skills for formulating strategies based on forecasting dynamics in navigating these systems. I also describe how youth learn to manage emotions (in self and others) that arise in these real-world transactions and how they develop motivation that sustains their work toward goals. Even as we learn more about the biological hardware of development, I argue that we must study youth's conscious, proactive processes in developing their own “software” to navigate complex and disorderly human worlds.