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Foundations for Young Adult Success

A Developmental Framework

University of Chicago researchers describe the ingredients that children need for adult success.
June 2015
A black young girl in a pink dress smiling, standing next to you a young black boy in a school with other students in the back
  • Author(s)
  • Jenny Nagaoka, Camille A. Farrington, Stacy B. Ehrlich, and Ryan D. Heath
  • Publisher(s)
  • The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
Page Count 106 pages


How we did this

To achieve a cohesive and comprehensive framework, the project team undertook three phases of information gathering. Each successive phase built upon the work of the previous phase, and each phase was defined by a different goal and set of questions:

  • Phase l: The team focused on defining “success” and identifying the factors that are critical for success in young adulthood, particularly in college and at the beginning of a career. 
  • Phase II: Building on the critical factors identified in Phase l, they sought to understand how each factor developed over the course of early life, from the preschool years through young adulthood. They focused on the identification of leverage points for best supporting children’s holistic development, keeping in mind that child and youth development occurs in multiple settings.
  • Phase III: The team aimed to consolidate current understanding of how critical factors of young adult success can be fostered in a holistic, coordinated way across schools, community organizations, and homes, from early childhood to young adulthood. They focused on a ground-level, practitioner perspective in considering how to best organize adult efforts to promote the development of children and youth.

Strong academic skills alone are not enough to lead a child to a productive, fulfilling adulthood. What other qualities matter, and how can adults nurture them? 

This report takes a comprehensive look at what research, theory, and practice identify as the building blocks for life success. 

This report synthesizes knowledge from the fields of youth development, psychology, sociology, education, and the cognitive sciences. Drawing on decades of theory and research as well as insights from those who work with young people, it describes what children need to grow and learn, and how adults can foster their development. It also identifies the obstacles that children in poverty and children of color may face in achieving their potential. It also suggests how policy and practice can help overcome those challenges.

Three Key Factors to Success

The authors organize the definition of young adult success around three key factors:

  • Agency: shaping the course of one’s life rather than simply reacting to external forces
  • Integrated identity: a strong sense of who one is, which provides an internal compass for actively making decisions consistent with one’s values, beliefs, and goals
  • Competencies: the ability to be productive, effective, and adaptable to the demands of different settings.
Four Foundational Components

Children need four qualities, or factors, that parents, teachers, afterschool professionals, and other adults can directly help shape:

  • Self-regulation: the awareness of oneself and one’s surroundings, and management of one’s attention, emotions, and behaviors to achieve goals
  • Knowledge and Skills: information or understanding of oneself, other people, and the world, and the ability to carry out tasks
  • Mindsets: beliefs and attitudes about oneself, the world, and the interaction between the two, which offers the ability to process everyday experiences 
  • Values: enduring beliefs about what is good or bad and what one thinks is important in life.

These four qualities develop through every stage of life and reinforce one another. Some are especially important for children to develop during early stages to lay the groundwork for successful development in the next one. For instance, learning self-regulation in the preschool years supports children in acquiring academic knowledge and skills throughout their schooling.

How Adults Can Help

Adults can nurture these qualities by providing children and teens with rich experiences and ensuring that they have opportunities to reflect on these experiences. But, according to the report, youth from historically marginalized backgrounds often have fewer opportunities for consistent, positive developmental experiences and relationships, among other challenges.

Implications for Practice, Policy, and Research

For professionals, a variety of supports such as curricula and professional development are needed for creating developmental experiences for children. The authors recommend that policies aim to ensure that all children have consistent, supportive relationships and an abundance of developmental experiences—inside and outside of school. These experiences could be through the arts, sports, or other activities. 


Ensuring that young people grow into successful young adults requires investments in their learning and development from birth to young adulthood so that all of them have ongoing opportunities to truly reach their potential.

Key Takeaways

  • Children learn through experiences (including social interactions). By reflecting on those experiences, they make meaning of them. 
  • Experiences and reflections are most valuable for development when they take place amid sustained and supportive relationships between children and adults, as well as among peers.
  • Youth from historically marginalized backgrounds face special challenges, such as exposure to toxic stress, which can interfere with self-regulation and learning.
  • Professionals who interact with children can benefit from supports—such as curricula and professional development—in order to best create developmental experiences for children.

Materials & Downloads

What We Don't Know

  • What practices and strategies best promote the development of identity and agency?
  • What types of interventions should we invest in if children seem to be falling behind?  
  • How might practices in one setting (such as home or school) counteract negative developmental influences in another setting? 
  • How can the key factors and foundational components best be measured for different purposes?
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