Mclean Hospital

Helping Families Understand Youth Developmental Needs

August 30, 2017

In both psychiatry and education, a key aspect to youth success is the ability to get family members involved in the ongoing support of the child. What do we say to families who want advice on how to bolster the mental health of their child? Mental health support provided by clinicians and social-emotionally focused education systems can only go so far. It is critical that this support continues in the home. But can we help families understand the often complex needs of their children?

When Gil G. Noam, EdD, the founder and director of The PEAR Institute, was working with youth in a clinical capacity, he began to see the need for a new, simpler way of conceptualizing the distinct interplay between a youth’s developmental needs and their social-emotional capacities. Creating a simple model would help establish a common framework and language around mental health and youth social-emotional needs that would be clear to youth, educators, and parents alike. After decades of research, Noam developed the Clover Model of social-emotional development. There are a number of social-emotional models out there, but the goal for this model was to focus on the minimum elements needed to describe human social-emotional development. The Clover Model focuses on four domains, specific aspects of growth and change, present in development. These four domains are: active engagement, assertiveness, belonging, and reflection. For each developmental stage there is a Clover domain, or “leaf,” that takes primary focus, but all leaves are present during all stages of development.

Illustration of youth development

When you think of developmental milestones during the time from birth to preschool, you think of accomplishments like learning to walk, exploring the environment through the body, and expressing affection physically with hugs and touches. In the Clover Model, this period of development is called active engagement and is focused on connecting with the world physically, executive function, impulse, and movement. Regardless of physical ability or the degree to which young people are oriented toward the use of their bodies, everyone needs to live in and use their bodies.

Once a child hits elementary school, the focus shifts and turns to early identity formulation and opinion forming. Clover calls this period of focus assertiveness, which represents voice, choice, and decision making/executive function. Do not be confused by the term “assertiveness.” It is not about asserting one’s needs over all others (although this can be the downside of very high assertiveness). This central need is about having a sense of self-efficacy, being able to negotiate with others, and making decisions. Assertiveness reminds us that young people need room to develop their voices, to make decisions for themselves, and to master internal order and function.

During early adolescence, the belonging rises to focus. This point in development is typified by the need for friendship, empathy, trust, and support. Belonging is about strong relationships with peers and adults, mentorship and group acceptance, and group identity. The need for belonging is central to our early development as humans, in our attachment to our caregivers, and continues throughout our lives in a variety of ways.

Clover Model
The Clover Model of Youth Development

Once the youth has reached later adolescence, around age 16, the developmental focus shifts to reflection. Reflection describes the need for thought, analysis, insight, observation, and understanding. This domain describes the human need to create and make meaning. It involves making sense of one’s own experiences, emotions, and thoughts to create a sense of personal identity. Humans are conscious creatures; in fact, many philosophers have argued that the ability to reflect and have perspective is what makes humans unique.

Taken together, these domains make up the Clover Model and represent a picture of balanced development. While a youth’s focus might shift as they age, all components of the model are present at all points in development. The model is based in research, but designed to be easily applied to practice. It is one way that families and educators alike can better understand the developmental needs and priorities of their child and make sure those needs are met both in school and the home.

August 30, 2017

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