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.
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?