Getting to Readiness, by Design

March 29, 2016

I recently spent an hour talking about readiness with a Howard University student from Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of our time, he offered this summation: “Readiness is not a destination, it’s a journey.” He nailed it. The term “readiness” has two definitions: being willing to try and being prepared to succeed. The journey is about both.

It is time for bolder language and a bolder call to action: Together, we must ensure that readiness is a right for every young person.

As adults, we can work to address personal and institutional barriers that limit opportunities and cause young people to struggle—from substance abuse to disproportionate sentencing. We can work to increase option-expanding opportunities that help young people thrive—from making neighborhoods safer to ensuring access to high-quality education. These are points of departure or arrival where young people might linger or leave. But the trip really becomes a journey only when young people own it, when they have the sense of identity and agency needed to not just be present but to be proactive and seek out needed supports and opportunities.

Making progress in areas where we struggle or thrive (and we all do both in our lives) requires the confidence that comes from feeling prepared to handle what comes next. This confidence is built over time, with repeated opportunities to try and sometimes fail, and to grow as a result. Every young person deserves the right to develop these abilities to the point where they own them and can use them to advance themselves, their peers and their communities. Right now, too many young people in the United States are denied this right.

You know the proverb about giving a man a fish. Readiness is the pole, the technical fishing skill, the instinctual ability to read the river and the willingness to cast—and cast again. How can we not make this a priority for young people whose rivers have rocks and rapids that can sweep them away without notice?

With Stephanie Krauss at the helm, our team has spent the past three years researching readiness—across disciplines, systems, science and sectors. Our goal: to synthesize the science of readiness into easy and compelling starter materials and tools that young people, families and diverse community leaders can use to assess and align their current efforts toward making readiness a right for all young people.

Problem-Free is not Fully Prepared

Readiness is clearly not a new idea at the Forum, just as it is not new in many youth-focused circles.

I coined the phrase, “problem-free is not fully prepared” 25 years ago to signal an “expectations gap” that was undergirding a number of seemingly progressive policy and programmatic proposals focused on disadvantaged youth.

Embedded in these proposals was what I saw as a dangerous “fix then develop” fallacy. This argument holds that we must address problems facing young people who are vulnerable, involved in risky behaviors or experiencing adversity before they can take advantage of any opportunities focused on their growth. While it may be intuitively satisfying, this approach is not supported by research. It is a misguided belief that has led to an over-emphasis on problem reduction as an acceptable goal for some subpopulations of young people, which, in turn, has often resulted in official programmatic practices that either don’t match the developmental practices necessary for readiness or, in some cases, explicitly run counter to them.

A decade ago, Forum Co-founder Merita Irby and I created the Ready by 21® initiative to translate then-new research on youth development into frameworks and tools to help diverse leaders build strong partnerships that developed the whole child and engaged the whole community. We knew problem-free wasn’t fully prepared. Our understanding of what “fully prepared” means is now light-years beyond what it was then. In research language: We’ve moved from discussions of broad concepts to operational constructs to actual variables. In plainer terms, we know so much more about what works, and are developing the real-world examples to translate this evidence into actionable tools and practice guides for all adults who work with or care about young people.

Readiness Really Does Matter

Why is it so important to sharpen our language and update our arguments? Because it’s clear that increasingly, readiness abilities matter to policymakers, program directors, advocates, thought leaders in other fields, practitioners and young people themselves:

  • Brain research proves these abilities are malleable, even into late adolescence and adulthood, so long as settings and systems have explicit practices that support them and integrate them into their programs and services. This offers us an opportunity to rethink the costs of not intervening.
  • Field research from different systems strongly suggests that young people won’t be as successful as they could be in any life domain—academic, vocational, civic, social—if we don’t pay adequate attention to these readiness abilities. This should give rise to new opportunities for cross-system standards, policies and collaboration.
  • Popular research signals a growing concern among some of the end-users—namely businesses and higher education institutions—about the contributions these readiness abilities make to the more visible readiness gaps in achievement and skills that leaders are concerned about. This creates new opportunities for advocacy and action.
  • Youth research affirms that the systems and settings designed to influence young people—not just education and afterschool, but also health, justice and others—can contain unintended readiness barriers. Some come from official system requirements, others from unchallenged norms and routines. Some of these barriers are known and being actively addressed, but others are less visible. For our reforms to have their intended impact, we must identify and address all barriers across the environments, systems and relationships that influence young people’s lives. Our goal is to equip leaders, advocates and decision-makers to do that.

There is a Science to Readiness

PAPER COVER pDFAs I peek (just peek) around the corner to retirement, I am heartened that there are now multiple strands of research that further substantiate this work over the last 25 years. In particular, I am delighted the Forum is kicking off 2016 with two complementary contributions to our fields’ overall capacity to promote readiness by design.

The Forum's paper, The Science (and Art) of Youth Readiness (PDF), is the culmination of a broad, cross-systems, cross-fields synthesis of the science of readiness, which was generously funded by the Ford Foundation. We summarized the research in what we hope is accessible language, offering a powerful set of ideas accompanied by a set of reproducible resources. We are infusing these into our work to facilitate cross-system and youth-focused policy and practice discussions everywhere youth spend their time. We hope you will find these useful. The key ideas and the tools that operationalize them are intentionally designed for general use across fields. We will make them—together with real-world stories, perspectives and interactive resources—available on The Readiness Project platform (, powered by the Forum’s journalism and advocacy project, SparkAction.

The Preparing Youth to Thrive series prepared by the Forum’s Weikart Center, with funding and leadership from the Susan Crown Exchange, is the culmination of intensive work with a learning community of eight mature, but diverse, youth organizations. The papers and assessment guides borne out of this partnership represent the epitome of how to promote readiness by design. They are inspiring examples of what can be produced when researchers and practitioners collaborate to document the outcomes and practices most relevant for a field and design observation measures and improvement guides to meet practitioners’ needs.

This work demonstrates that skill growth is not only possible but measurable as part of continuous improvement efforts. I hope everyone who reads this paper will take the time to review these tools, because although they were developed with and for out-of-school time youth programs, they have relevance for all fields. They are available at

These two strands of work—one a broad scan of the science of readiness, the other a focused refinement of the art of readiness design for practitioners—are down payments on the Forum’s renewed commitment to study and promote readiness.

You will note as you read these two works that the out-of-school-time definitions of readiness abilities and practices in the Preparing Youth to Thrive SEL field guide are consistent with, but not identical to, the universal definitions offered in this paper. This is as it should be. No one system, organization or program will embrace all of these goals or equally implement all practices described in these papers.

We must get to a point, however, where every system, organization and program is permitted—and in fact incentivized—to promote readiness as defined by the science described in this paper. We can start by ensuring that environments where young people spend their time do no harm to the development of young people’s identities, spirits and sense of place and importance

in the world. To achieve this first step, leaders, policymakers, practitioners and youth must be able to name what is needed and what gets in the way of their readiness and well-being, including less visible barriers and norms, and know what steps are needed to address them. Decision-makers may need to adjust official requirements, ultimately going beyond barrier-reduction into intentionally promoting readiness and empowering young people.

Ready by 21® was and is the vision that undergirds all of the Forum’s work. We are confident that now, thanks to The Readiness Project and the Weikart Center's Preparing Youth to Thrive initiative, we know enough about what it means, why it matters, and what should and can be changed to ensure that every young person is ready for his or her journey, throughout every stage of life.

It is time for bolder language and a bolder call to action: Together, we must ensure that readiness is a right for every young person.



Karen Pittmana sociologist and recognized leader in youth development, is the cofounder, president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. The Readiness Project is an initiative of the Forum.


readiness is a right



This article is part of the Readiness is a Right blog series, posted under The Readiness Project, a joint effort of The Forum for Youth Investment and SparkAction. Find more blogs and expert views in The Readiness Project Insights section. 


Karen J. Pittman





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