Ontario has made substantial investments in youth and the youth services sector does excellent work across the province. Collectively, we have made significant progress in achieving positive outcomes for youth. At the same time, there is broad consensus that a better understanding of how youth develop based on research evidence and the voices of young people would help to ensure that services and supports across the province are better coordinated and better able to maximize positive youth development. Stepping Stones is informed by up-to-date research and dialogues with youth, community leaders and providers. The voice of Ontario's youth has shaped the creation of this resource—bringing rich dialogue, considerable expertise, and diverse perspectives on youth development to this work. Everyone involved has been motivated to create a resource that shares knowledge and experience about how youth develop to support them in achieving their highest potential.

Context: Ontario's changing demographics

Ontario's population patterns are changing

Currently over 2.4 million youth aged 12–25 call Ontario home. This is an incredibly diverse group who face a world where changing social and family dynamics and an evolving labour market mean that many youth need extra support and opportunities to learn the skills they need for success. The province's population is also aging and, as a result, Ontario's prosperity is increasingly dependent on a smaller group of workers. These youth are the province's economic future.

Today, transitions are less predictable

Over the years, youth development has grown an added layer of complexity as the transition from adolescence into adulthood has become less clear and direct. For example, marriage is often no longer the reason for leaving the family home and few young people move from education/training directly into stable and long-term employment.

The implications

Our youth will need to be resilient

Today's youth will be more likely to work many jobs in their lifetime and perhaps have multiple careers. A different and larger set of skills is needed to ensure success in life and in the workplace so that youth are able to manage and respond to these challenges. We need youth who are:

  • prepared and engaged economically, socially, and civically
  • skilled across a variety of dimensions for life, work, and citizenship
  • flexible and adaptable for a changing world

Changing family structures and an evolving labour market mean that many youth are more dependent on their broader community for support.

We need to provide positive supports

In order to prepare youth for success in this new context, parents, communities and decision makers should move beyond a deficit-focused model of youth development (ensuring that youth are "problem-free") and toward a coordinated and asset-focused approach that seeks to prepare youth to thrive as family and community members, leaders and contributors to the province and our future (Scales and Benson, 2004).

Attitudes toward adolescence have shifted

Adolescence has frequently been characterized as a period of "storm and stress". Too often, researchers, policy-makers and service providers have regarded young people as problems requiring a solution or intervention.

In recent years, however, a positive youth perspective has emerged that involves a more constructive understanding of development during the adolescent years, supported by the recognition that a deficit model of service provision (for example, how to deal with delinquency and drug addiction) is only one part of the equation. This perspective acknowledges the importance of the experiences young people are exposed to—both positive and negative—in their overall development and preparedness for success as adults.

Significant research has demonstrated that this asset-focused approach—supporting development across all developmental domains—is effective in improving youth outcomes.

About our approach

The developmental maps presented in Part III of this document are based on a positive youth development framework. The maps are meant to describe what develops and how we recognize that development is taking place.

This description is not intended to dictate specific outcomes. Its purpose is to provide young people, their parents and those who work to support youth development with clear information about what to expect and the experiences that can be helpful during adolescence and early adulthood.

The call for action

Ontario's Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report, released in November 2008, included a recommendation to government to develop an evidence-based youth policy framework that "is informed by research about the developmental and transitional stages through which youth pass".

How this resource was developed

This resource was developed through a multi-faceted process

The process of developing this resource involved:

  • synthesizing current research on how youth (aged 12–25) grow and develop across cognitive, social, emotional and physical domains, to fill knowledge gaps and promote an asset-based, holistic view of youth
  • combining that research with young people's own perspectives on what they need to succeed and successfully transition into adulthood
  • working closely with community partners and experts in the youth services sector to ensure that this resource reflects the needs of those who support youth and is useful in supporting their work

Research on youth development was compiled

The government issued an open call that resulted in 13 research papers that compiled up-to-date evidence on how youth develop. These papers were brought together with a cross-disciplinary literature review to form the "maps" of developmental stages that serve as the basis of this resource.

A youth dialogue strategy was developed

The government also launched a youth engagement process, which consisted of two core elements: creating a Youth Development Committee; and developing a youth dialogue strategy.

Youth Development Committee and Youth Network

In October 2010, recruitment for the Youth Development Committee was launched. The Committee's primary task was to provide expertise and advice to support the design and execution of youth dialogues. Committee members were compensated out of respect for their time and expertise and to ensure that the group was representative.

Over 400 applications were received from Ontario youth. Through the support of an external selection panel, 25 young people were chosen to form the Committee. Committee members ranged in age from 18–25, came from across Ontario, and brought with them exceptional experiences and skills that represent the diversity of Ontario's youth.

In addition to the Committee, interested youth had other opportunities for participation in the project. Over 500 youth registered for the Youth Network and received updates on the development of the resource. Youth participants who previously worked with government also participated in this process by providing advice about their own experiences working with government to the Youth Development Committee.

Extensive youth dialogues were held

The dialogues provided youth with an opportunity to consider their own lived experiences and engage in interactive conversations to identify the supports and opportunities they need for positive development.

The dialogues, developed in partnership with the Youth Development Committee, gave youth across the province an opportunity to provide advice on how the decision makers in their lives can best support their development. The strategy, called "Where's your Voice At?", provided four ways for youth to participate:

  • "Workshop in a Box": provided all the information and materials a youth or adult ally would need to run a dialogue session of their own with a group in their community
  • Face-to-face dialogue sessions: interactive workshops were hosted by government in English and French across Ontario
  • Online survey: enabled youth to provide their input in a simple, convenient way
  • Online facilitated dialogue sessions: two sessions were organized (one each in English and in French) to provide an opportunity for youth to connect from across the province

Special efforts were made to ensure the voices of Aboriginal and Francophone youth were represented in the process. Efforts were also made to ensure that the face-to-face workshops were held across the province. Most face-to-face sessions were held in Youth Development Committee members' home communities.

Over 600 youth from across the province participated in the "Where's Your Voice At?" dialogues, representing the communities in the map below. Their voices are reflected throughout this resource.

A map showing locations across Ontario where youth provided input. Red stars on the map indicate locations of face to face sessions, and yellow dots are locations represented by youth participation.