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Are We Staying Responsive?

Thumbnail image for nextgen-main-logo.jpgYouth work is, and always has been, about human potential and human transformation. It is a practice that emerged 'on the streets' in response to the sometimes severe and dire needs of young people who were struggling to find their way. In New York City, as in other places in the country, smaller community-based agencies are striving to hold on to their capacity to meet young people 'where they are at.' There is concern that youth work as a humanistic, transformative and responsive practice is quietly disappearing, being replaced by more narrowly defined opportunities to learn during nonschool hours.

In my research into the developmental opportunities provided by after-school programs, the literature consistently suggests that neither younger nor older children fare well in rigidly structured programs but benefit from attending flexible programs with varied activities, supportive staff, and a recognizable product resulting from activities. When youth work becomes a pre-designed, overly structured space for reaching predetermined outcomes rather than allowing youth to voice their needs, kids can tell the difference. Youth workers who are youth centered, strive to tailor to individual youth, and use a participatory, holistic approach to meet the developmental needs of youth are considered responsive youth workers.

A group of community based youth workers in New York City recently reminded me: "We are not an extension of school." They believe, as do I, that youth work was not designed to do what school was designed to do, nor are they eager to take on that agenda. Rather, youth work is a developmentally responsive practice, one that responds to the needs of youth and families on the ground, in real time. This means that when young people voice the need for 'school' after school, youth workers provide 'school', and when young people voice the need for something else like life skills, they respond to that, too.

The value of this responsiveness was expressed recently to me by an after-school program director. A 12-year old girl in his program explained to him that state exams were scheduled immediately upon return from spring break. She was concerned that the students were given a study guide the day before break, with no further instruction or support, and she suspected no one would be studying during recess. The director responded by providing support, responding to the request by the youth in his community. In this situation and in relation to a need expressed on the ground and in real time, academic support was provided. However, to my way of thinking, regulating that this type of support becomes the norm removes community leaders' capacity to remain flexible and responsive; it also undermines their judgment calls and leaves the decision making about programming to those most removed from practice.

What do you think? Are we staying responsive as youth workers? Are we limiting youth workers' capacity to engage in developmentally responsive practice by regulating what they do, and when they do it?
Dana Fusco

York College, City University of New York
Next Generation Youth Work Coalition Leadership Council

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  1. All youth work to some extent is regulated by those who provide the grant funds to make the work possible. I've lost two jobs to funding cuts, which obviously creates a total inability to do youth work. I've been in the youth work field most of my adult life and have always had very specific regulations about what I can and can't do, when and how. I've been told not to touch youth, to get written permission before using the photos that youth took themselves, and had funding for field trips but no legal way to transport the youth there. Regulations make the work very challenging to say the least. Now that I work in a clinical environment with youth, the regulations are more strict than ever, with limits on what I can say on our promotional posters, limits on who I can reach and how... The saving grace of this outreach effort is that we are using Motivational Interviewing techniques too get patients to open up about their needs and interests during a session. But I feel very limited in my work all the time.

  2. Hi Dana –
    I am working on a manuscript right now that shows how the unique context of youth work lends itself to creating the conditions for vibrant learning experiences. Your blog is a welcomed break from my writing! Thanks. Your comments about youth work as a developmentally responsive practice rings true in my research as well. When programs are “less structured and more connected”, youth can benefit from the stimulating experiences that emerge from the simplest of conditions and do so with their peers and adults who care about them. Also, this “on the spot flexibility” lends itself to responding to individual youth needs like in the example of the girl who was in need academic support.
    Do you have thoughts on how to creatively capture the impact of “developmentally responsive practice”?

  3. The future of youth work is going to be exceedingly challenging in regards to nurturing the human potential and the transformative process on a larger scale. As a settlement house, we have school based and community based programming. They both provide very valuable service to families however funding plays a big part in the programming content. Organizations like ours design afterschool programs based on requirements dictated by the funder which does not leave a lot of room for creativity unless you are a larger CBO that has the capacity to supplement funding. Coupled with disincentives when you do not meet attendance bench markers, you are expected to meet the same outcomes with less money the following year. Nonetheless, this is the reality in which we work and, providing school programming is important. So what do we do…we strike a middle ground.
    This middle ground includes hiring specialists with the expertise to incorporate core subject areas in their delivery of service. We work with curricula such as Afterschool Science Plus, Building Healthy Communities, Spark and KidzLit, all which present academic material in a fun, engaging, and non-stressful manner. We approach the delivery of the program with an emphasis on process versus completing “x” amount of material. In this way, we have been able to maintain the agency’s youth development approach to program design and delivery. At our community site, we measure outcomes by administering a participatory evaluation designed by the staff, children and parents. We have been successful at our school-based site by modifying our approach to include the ideas and needs of the school community. Although hard work, we have been able to maintain our values by building relationships with the school administrators, community residents and Program Managers of our funding sources.
    Our smaller community based afterschool program is not locked into the one year achievement measures. We are able to track participants and their families and work with them over many years. The struggle lies in securing consistent long-term funding for the community site. Annually, we are faced with the pressure of making decisions to charge nominal fees (in a low-income community) to fill the fiscal gap. If the afterschool climate continues to move toward extended learning, community sites will slowly- but surely- disappear. In addition, Extended learning time (ELT) effects the amount of time children spend in a program, and put stress on parents and program staff to arrange safe travel from school to home/center. Late arrival to a program effects quality and minimizes the offering to homework support as the main program activity. In this way the youth workers’ capacity to engage in a responsive practice, is negatively impacted.
    At the end of the day, youth workers with a goal of advocating for diversity in program design based on the holistic developmental need of youth need to tell the story to all stakeholders: We would like our role to remain as academic support through engaging children in quality programming; therefore, leaving the responsibility of state-required academic achievement to the school system.

  4. Wonderful comments!
    I agree that "the story" needs to be told else we will continue to suffocate under restrictive funding guidelines that do not always see the big picture, particularly for low income kids. So what is the story? I hear Gracie stating that youth work has and perhaps always will be regulated perhaps straining her work; I hear Jennifer agreeing that her own research also shows that when youth workers are not given the flexibility to engage as professionals youth outcomes are less strong; and I hear Ivonne putting forth a vision for compromise.
    What would allow Gracie and others not to be limited so that they can do the work they were trained to do? What does that environment look like? Are there trade offs? Is a compromise the best alternative?
    Jennifer, I have explored two methods for capturing and describing "developmentally responsive practice" and I am now exploring a third. First, I pursed the notion that such a practice could be reported by young people as the "developmental opportunities." My research found that you could observe a good program and have almost an exact correlation to kids' perception of the developmental opportunities provided by that program. Not surprisingly, school was lower than afterschool, and school-based afterschool was lower than community based afterschool!
    The second method was video. I was not as successful here, mostly due to limited budget and NO film making skills. I did produce a documentary though that has received a little bit of recognition for showing 'development' across program types and ages. There is some good testimony from parents who recognize that their kids needed to be reached in ways not happening in school.
    Now I am exploring a model for conceptualizing 'responsive' as a quality indicator across helping professions - not there yet but soon. What I can say is that I am VERY close to thinking that what I am most interested in is 'youth work as therapeutic.' Does that make sense?

  5. As a person who has bridged both the school day and after school hours my first response to Dana's comments is have you been reading my mind! I am a retired teacher,dean and administrator who established a street outreach program in 1983 that was replicated in 26 sites across NYC and in two countries in Europe.
    With almost three decades of experience in both worlds it was in the beginning, is now and will forever be clear to me that if we are to do the best for our young people we must listen to their needs and provide options to the challenges they face on a daily basis. That is the very essence of youth development. To merely replicate a failing system is encapsulated in the old proverb, "if you do what you have always done you will get what you have always got."
    As to Dana's question pertaining to "youth work as therapeutic" I humbly suggest that when one human being extends a hand to another who is need of guidance/direction/insight that it is part of the healing and growth process for all who are involved not only for the young person but for the individual who has chosen to take a path that may make the world a better place.
    Finally most of the shift in after school models only address elementary and middle school students. What of the high school youth who attends a drop in center who may need to have a job or help support a family. One size does not fit all. What is being done for them? They do not fit the prescribed model but are at the greatest risk.
    Just some thoughts. Keep up the good work all and maybe I will see you in the streets.

  6. Steve,
    I have spoken to SO many who like yourself have straddled multiple worlds and can very clearly discern the difference between various pro or anti-developmentaly ways of reaching young people. And, so I appreciate your thoughts.
    I have received several emails privately that indicate these comments are resonating with those who do 'youth work' and are resisting, albeit futilely, with cookie-cutter approaches and a priori outcomes.
    It does concern me that we are not voicing this more loudly. Ah well...summer time!

  7. Reading an article by Peter Benson on his developmental assets model (Dale's old stomping ground) and I thought I would share his closing sentence as it seems fitting to our current discussion (hope I'm not just 'talking' to myself at this point):
    "...the demand by government agencies and foundations to show impact after a relatively short period of time fuels quick programmatic solutions and diminishes inquiry into the complex, long-term and invigorating exploration of how this culture and its communities can and must reimagine the norms, rituals, ceremonies, relationships, environments, and policies needed to grow healthy, competent, whole, and caring human beings" (Benson, 2002, p. 142).

  8. Thanks so much for sparking this engaging conversation, Dana! It many ways it underscores for me the value of a socio-cultural framework for learning, which can be used to support a developmentally responsive practice by the nature of its values and methodology. A socio-cultural lens reflects that learning is a "social endeavor" that requires engagement in activities that are genuine and meaningful to participants. Meredith Honig and Morva McDonald do a great job highlighting the critical elements of this approach in an Afterschool Matters paper called "From Promise to Participation" (#5 Fall 2005). They outline conditions that support positive/productive experiences for youth, including:
    *work that is valued, relevant, and authentic
    *involves joint enterprise (collaboration)
    *engages youth in central and valued decision-making roles, and
    *includes cycles of planning, performance and assessment.
    Taken together, they seem to highlight conditions in which a developmentally responsive practice might thrive. So just a few thoughts...

  9. Hi Meghan,
    So glad to see the New York contingency (Ivonne, Steve and yourself) out in force!
    As you may know, theoretically, I align myself most closely to Vygotsky and have used this theoretical thinking as an extension of my own. In fact, the article linked in my post draws heavily on such notions.
    Thanks for being 'here'

  10. Hi Dana -
    I thought I loop back to the blog and see the comments that have been added since last week. Great stuff.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas on methods. I resonate with your point about "responsiveness" . I have used that language for years to describe good cultural work as “being culturally responsive" and I appreciate your focus on "developmentally responsive youth work". Actually, together, both cultural and developmental responsiveness, paints quite a holistic picture of excellent practice.
    Your point about youth work practice being therapeutic is interesting too. It's daring and intriguing! I think that point deserves another blog entry :-)

  11. One argument that we hear frequently is that what parents want most from after school programs is academics. In fact, our surveys of parents document that social development is more highly prized.
    In 2009, our agency surveyed nearly 700 youth and parents across programs to ask what they most valued about our programs, and where they saw the most impact.
    The highest rated item by parents was "engage in positive relationships with peers and adults" at 74.8%, followed by "develop self-esteem" and "learn how to make positive choices", both at 72.3%. In fact, "Do better in school or stay in school" showed up 6th in the rankings (behind skills in communication, independence and decision-making). This speaks to the value that parents place on youth development.
    The responsiveness that Dana describes would take into account the goals that youth and their families bring to our programs and support young people to achieve these. As part of life planning and try education, we would want young people to put inquiry and questions at the center of their education. By supporting and stimulating them to craft their own answers through exploration and discovery, true learning takes place.
    One of our early literacy programs involved opening a school library for circulation to children attending mandatory summer school. It took place during a hot summer before air conditioning was installed in the building. It was a joy to watch children take a break in the library to select books of the own choosing. One boy asked for "the biggest book you have" which turned out to be a beautifully illustrated volume of poetry. Another child begged to be directed to the dinosaur books. They were trusted to return the books at the end of the week and from over 1000 books lent out all but a handful were returned. Without a curriculum or alignment with the school day, children engaged in reading that they loved and developed their identities and interests through reading.

  12. Sorry for the delay in responding to these thoughtful comments....
    It is inspiring that so many of us are rallying behind the notion that youth development is critical to the very fabric of a humane, just and effective society. I agree, Jason, that it is not for kids alone! We must develop deep and profound arguments for convincing the 'powers that be' that youth programs and activities, like that described by Susan, are worth funding, not only because they promote literacy, but because they promote agency, inspiration, and lifelong learning.
    In a recent survey of over 1000 top executives from major US corporations, the number one skill that they hope college graduates enter the workforce with is the capacity to think critically. This is instilled through allowing kids to think through their choices, make decisions, work as a team, engage in community development, etc
    Then there is the therapeutic side...and yes, Jennifer maybe a separate blog on this issue is warranted at some point. Most of the young people with whom i have worked were less advantaged (foster care, homeless, poverty, gangs...) and so I must situate my perspective in this population. That said, I really believe that it only takes one caring adult to change the course of a young person's life and I have witnessed this occurring time and time again after school in community based programs - the very programs that are being closed down. So getting back to Jason's point - these are the kids that society will pay for in the end one way or the other. We cannot be complicit in accepting that they are disposable (e.g., that we can just deal with them later in life with juvenile programs, jails, work programs, etc.) or unworthy of services that matter now.
    As in almost all other major societal transformations, I do believe it is PARENTS that must lead the fight. We have seen in Education time and time again that real change occurs when parents stand up and say 'enough.' Recently I was asked Pedro Noguera, "why so many parents today are complicit in accepting the state of systems that serve our young people?" He responded that we have settled into an individual mindset and that until we take on a collective mindset (instead of thinking only about my kid/s) people won't stand up for the collective good. It takes a village. Glad we have started one here.

  13. Dana - Would you mind posting a link to the survey?
    As for parents leading the fight, I do believe that parents are crucial. I also believe that those of us that do not have children, like myself, can see things differently. Inherent to the parent-child dynamic will always be a power dynamic of hierarchy. Those of us without children, can see how and where intergenerational development can happen in new and innovative ways.
    More food for thought.

  14. Thanks Dana for the link. Definitely worth a read.


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