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Extension > Youth Development Insight > March 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ka-ching! Pieces of the youth engagement puzzle fall into place

Beki-Saito.jpgAt our latest public symposium, Priscilla Little talked about research on engaging and retaining older youth participation in youth programs. During that event, there were a couple of times when I could almost physically feel, even hear, pieces of the youth engagement puzzle fall into a place; a kind of "ka-ching" sound.

In a landmark study on engaging older youth, Little and her colleagues at the Harvard Family Research Project identified two program variables that were significantly related to high-retention programs. These important variables were: multiple levels and kinds of leadership opportunities, and staff got to know youth outside the program.

Leadership opportunities

The HFRP study confirmed what Theresa Sullivan found in another soon-to-be-published Minnesota study on youth engagement. (For a preview, watch this 2008 presentation). A common feature of successful youth engagement programs was that their programming grew with their participants. In other words, successful programs provide developmentally linked leadership opportunities with a range of levels of responsibility and authority. Ka-ching. This was balanced by supportive training, coaching, and opportunities to succeed and fail.

Gisela Konopka said that teenagers are explorers by nature; it's a time of trying on new roles and identities. "Leader" is one of the roles adolescents need to try on. They need opportunities to practice and learn effective leadership. All program leaders -- even in those programs that aren't designed as some big fancy youth social change effort -- can look at their own programs to ask whether they provide multiple and different kinds of opportunities for young people to find themselves, work hard and demonstrate their passions, expertise, voice and leadership.

Getting to know youth outside the program

While I was driving Priscilla around during her visit she told me that to her, one of the most important findings of the study was that the most engaging programs had staff who got to know what was going on in the lives of their participants outside of the program. This is so obvious but it is so profound. We now have empirical evidence to confirm that youth workers can make a difference simply through the relationship they have with each young person. The relationship must be authentic, respectful and reciprocal. Ka-ching.
This can be harder than it sounds. I was recently trying to facilitate a discussion with young people who were so occupied with their phones that I got bugged and asked them all to put them away. I realized later that I probably would not have done that if they had been adults. So instead of exhibiting respect and authenticity, I had been authoritative. Ouch.

The rings of engagement, which I developed with Theresa Sullivan, diagrams out the interconnected factors of engagement. I believe that the need for engagement and challenge apply to not only to youth, but to youth workers, and indeed all people. We all need opportunities to find our passions and strengths, multiple levels and kinds of voice and leadership, to care to be challenged and to feel supported. I believe that we especially need this as we navigate the sometimes murky waters of youth-adult partnerships.

How do you engage youth in your program? What is your reaction to these research findings?

--Rebecca Saito, senior research associate

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning environments are key to engaging youth

Nicole-Pokorney.jpgYouth engagement is the essence of deep, enriching learning in any experience. The physical environment in which that engagement happens does not necessarily matter; but the atmosphere matters very much. In fact, it is a key factor.

How do we, as educators, create environments where informal learning is supported, encouraged and fostered? What are the characteristics of educators who cultivate fertile learning environments?

As Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa wrote a few years ago, "The role of teachers and volunteer leaders in non-formal education is to help youth process information on a deeper level and develop strategies for lifelong learning."

Carlson and Maxa offer these guidelines:
  • Individuals are encouraged to ask questions and reflect in a safe environment.
  • There is active cooperation of the learning and guidance from the leader.
  • Relationships and connections are built in order to have understanding.
  • The leader creates an environment where exploration and discovery can
    take place and youth are safe to construct new meaning and knowledge.

In addition, I believe that educators must be willing to:
  • See injustices,
  • Act noble,
  • Question behavior, thoughts, and words,
  • Create learning environments that instill fairness, trust, mercy, humility, honor, inspiration, openness and respect between teacher and learner, and
  • Be knowledgeable in quality youth and adult partnerships to open the exchange of learning and teaching.

Informal educators go about this differently than classroom teachers do. Mark K. Smith of YMCA wrote on Infed that informal educators tend to emphasize certain values of respecting value and dignity of human beings, work for the well-being of all, fostering dialogue, equality, justice and citizenship. "In conversation we have to catch the moment where we can say or do something to deepen people's thinking or to put themselves in touch with their feelings. Through this action, learning becomes real."

Youth educators should be committed and willing to see the soul of every individual youth and inspire them to become fully engaged participants of their lives through knowing how to capture on-the-spot learning opportunities and guiding youth through everyday events.

How do you create a fertile, engaging learning environment in your youth program? In your opinion, what does a high quality learning environment look like?

Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator, educational design and development

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fight childhood obesity with media literacy

Carrie-Ann-Olson.jpgFood marketing to children is big business, and strongly influences children's food preferences and purchase requests, according to a 2006 Institute of Medicine Report, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity". As a result, this and other reports say, childhood obesity is rising.

The statistics are compelling:
  • In 2006, food and beverage companies spent more than $1.6 billion,
    or 63% of their marketing budgets, to promote food and beverages to children (Federal Trade Commission, 2008)

  • The average American child  has more than 7.5 hours of screen time per day:
    watching TV or movies, using cell phones or computers, and playing videos (Kaiser Foundation, 2010) and sees about 40,000 ads per year on TV, the majority of them for candy, cereal, soda or fast food (Kaiser Foundation, 2010)

  • The percentage of obese or overweight children nationally is at or above 30 percent in 30 states (Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2009)

With social media, contact between food companies and youth is growing more intimate, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. (Subscriber access only, unfortunately.)

A teachable moment

Family- and youth-serving professionals can help their audiences to understand the influence of food marketing messages. We can also provide tools and strategies to reduce that influence. I believe is vital that we spend education time on social awareness, responsible decision-making and media literacy skills.

Here are some youth program resources that can help youth to dissect the marketing messages that bombard them:

Fighting Junk Food Marketing to Kids: a toolkit for advocates was developed by the Berkeley Media Studies Group to help community advocates understand how food marketing affects kids' health and what they can do about it at the local level. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the video "Fighting Junk Food Marketing to Kids," which illustrates community-based responses to marketing.

Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart is a media literacy website backed by public television that encourage young users to think critically about media and become smart consumers. Activities provide users with some of the skills and knowledge needed to question, analyze, interpret and evaluate media messages.

mom-n-kid-cooking.jpgOne of the core competencies of the 4-H Healthy Living Logic Model is social awareness. Youth need to understand the impacts of media and cultural messages and use media literacy skills to deconstruct harmful messages. It is our responsibility to enhance our youth's positive social and emotional development.

"Targeted Food Marketing to Youth", is an online training curriculum nearing pilot completion for professionals who work with parents of children birth to 7 and professionals who work with children ages 8-13. I am working with a team of youth and family educators here at the
University of Minnesota Extension to develop it. Course objectives are to:

  • Identify marketing techniques and strategies the food industry uses to market to children

  • Recognize trends in early childhood nutrition

  • Recognize developmental stages in children's comprehension 

  • Grow understanding of marketing and different media

  • Acquire strategies to help parents set limits for nutrition food and beverage choices in and out of the home and utilize tools to teach parents and youth how food marketing influences food choices.

It is based on the Media-Smart Youth: Eat, Think & Be Active curriculum and will contain tools and strategies for professionals teaching
parents and youth, and lesson outlines for a six-session series and a three- or six-hour day camp for youth aged 8-13.

Do you see the need for youth media literacy? How have you incorporated media literacy
education into your youth work practice, teaching or research?

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