Skip to main content

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

By Rebecca Saito

At 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, former senior research associate

Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Ka-ching is an apt description of youth and adult relationships that are authentic, respectful, and reciprocal. Too bad that it feels to me like these kinds of relationships are not typical. I agree with you that it is not easy for most adults (including me),to establish authentic power-sharing, mutually-caring relationships with young people. I have caught myself being pretty autocratic with young people, especially my own children. Really, I think to myself, you have no business teaching other adults about healthy youth development.
    Priscilla' work on engaging older youth in nonformal learning opportunities brings us full circle back to McLaughlin, Irby, and Langman's 1994 seminal work entitled "Urban Sanctuaries: Neighborhood organizations in the lives and futures of inner-city youth." They too contended that really good youth workers knew the young people within the contexts of their lives beyond the youth program and knew how to create community with and around youth.
    A wise friend of mine taught me to use the "neighbor test" in certain trying situations. He told me that if I wouldn't say what I was thinking to my neighbor, I shouldn't say it to our children and youth. Thanks for the good post Beki! Cece

  2. Beki, love how you pulled this together -- made the research link so nicely and tightly to the everyday work! I'm in Arizona on vacation at my sister's. At dinner last night with a bunch of parents (also golfers), the topic was "how to treat our kids and their friends with respect." The prompt for that lively conversation was a story of knowing your kids, knowing their friends, and knowing how/when to intervene on facebook, cell phone and texting "abuses."
    The interesting reservations that parents have of mixing it up with the parents of your child's friends is not so different from a youth worker knowing how deep and involved to get with a young person's life. This is a dilemma topic that has always drawn lots of opinions from youth workers. You've opened the door for that conversation. For starters, I suggest "some is better than none" and "don't become so involved that you're a sole lifeline ."

  3. Cece, I was just talking about McLaughlin et al's work on "urban wizards" in the lives of disengaged youth to Beth Dierker , who is doing her dissertation on the role and impact of social capital (relationships and connections with people, programs and opportunities) in thriving youth.
    And Joyce's comments remind me that one of the keys to good youth-adult partnerships is to be thoughtful and intentional about healthy and responsive boundaries. And to understand that moving toward shared authority and decision-making power is a process, is hard AND rewarding, that you'll make mistakes and the key is to learn from them.
    I do think the role of parent affords different expectations than youth workers but the parent-teenager relationship is meant to/is supposed to/is normal to go through changes in voice, authority and power. And that too is incredibly hard work.

  4. Jennifer Griffin-WiesnerApril 1, 2011 at 5:27 AM

    Nice post, Bek...especially coming off the Youth Engagement Training this week.
    One of the things I think about is that context matters in terms of how I engage with young people and they with me. In my neighborhood, for example, I don't have a formal role with the dozen or so kids who live within a block of my house. They spend a lot of time in my yard, with my kids, etc., but the relationships are primarily by choice and that levels the playing field in many ways. We have powerful, positive relationships and they have more than once said, "You're not like the other grown-ups; you get it."
    In contrast, I volunteer in a tiny after school program attended weekly by 5-10 very rowdy, very marginalized-within-the-school boys. They are again there by choice, but in this case it's a privilege and the role I play is very formal. They are also used to being disrespected by (and in turn disrespecting) many of the adults in this context. I am more authoritative in this role because I have had little success being truly partnered with them and I am unwilling to go to the place of authoritarian (where I think a lot of the school staff land with these kids). I want to be there, but I'm unwilling to be there if certain of my needs aren't met. Many weeks those needs aren't met and I end up feeling like a babysitter. The boys are often either unable or unwilling to step up to a shared power relationship, and yet the show up week after week so they are getting something out of it.
    As a way of giving them another example of how youth and adults can be in community together and to move toward a better balance, I seize "teachable moments" where I basically turn power over to them when they have shown me they are ready for it.
    I wonder if that second model counts as "true youth-adult engagement." In some ways I really FEEL like it does, but when I describe it to other people who live and breathe this stuff it doesn't always SOUND like it.
    Hmm...lots to ponder.

  5. Thanks for this great posting and the continuity with Nicole's posting last week. Both have helped me reflect on the depth and meaning of the Authentic Relationship aspect of the Rings of Youth Engagement. We don't have tangible and measurable ways of knowing if relationships with youth are authentic, but authenticity is so critical to this dialogue. We can certainly feel a vibe when we have connected with youth or our own children, but getting to the authenticity is likely unique for each relationship. Do you have anything to add to this concept of authenticity in terms of what it looks like, consists of, knowing when it's true? Shared power, as Jennifer mentions, is one tangible aspect of authenticity. I am fascinated by this central thread that ties the rings into a visual and understandable model. Authenticity is indeed important in all our relationships!

  6. Beki I have a new love for the ka-ching sound! It is great when things begin to fall in place and we see the familiar with new insights and confidence. I am excited by the growing emphasis on and awareness about the power of engaging youth. I believe engagement is perhaps the most central outcome of youth programs that come to really make a difference in many other ways as well. It is the outcme that we must come to measure more often and more fully, along with capturing the many contributions of youth. But I am also struck by how all too often we restrict engagement to the program or the cause selected and how seldom we truly engage youth as colleagues not just clients in our own work. Colleagues who can help us build our field and change everything from access to availability to impact with other youth in our communities. It is moving our field from supporting youth engagement in programs and communities to engaging youth as colleagues in our field that excites and challenges my thinking these days. Together these forms of engagement are truly transformational -- for young people, for our communities, and for our field. Perhaps my impatience is getting to me but I really hope to see a geometric acceleration in engagement of all types in the coming years - empowered by technology and youth workers who are intentional but mostly by the youth themselves as they become aware of the differences they can and do make.
    A different but related concern for our field is finding better ways to focus and capture the impact of engaged youth on issues that matter to them but also to our community, our state, and our common good. As long as we are primarily helping youth engage where they choose we will continue to gain in many areas but also lose the ability to add up their impact. When will we as afield be ready to engage youth in focused ways that come together to improve key issues in ways that adults will have to pay attention? Uniting, without forcing, youth engagement around real issues is a major hurdle we must face moving forward if we are to unleash some resources that are critical to supporting more engagement by more youth in even more wonderful ways.
    Dale Blyth, Associate Dean and Director, Center for Youth development