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What does it mean to be a youth development professional?

By Margo Bowerman

I've been a youth development professional for 17 years now. And it is not just because I get paid to do this work that I proudly claim the title of a professional.

How do you define "professional?" There are all sorts of professionals in society: youth development professionals, professional football players, professional politicians, and professional ecologists, among countless others.

I believe “professional” describes someone who:
  • knows what their purpose is,
  • has a plan to work towards their purpose,
  • continually works to improve their craft – at a personal level and for their field as a whole, and
  • feels a responsibility to do their best.
When I searched the internet for how others define professional, the concept of role model was recurring. But as youth development professionals, we are more than role models. We are skilled crafts people. Our work directly impacts the way young people develop into successful adults.  And to ensure that our craft is strong, we strive to use practices that are tested and proven.

Peer-reviewed research and evidence-based practices are key tools for youth development professionals. But finding those tools can be tough. Dr. Stephen Hamilton, retired associate director of Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, provides an overview of the nuances of linking research to the practice of youth development. Often, the research or evidence is based on fidelity to an entire program and the replicability may not be realistic for a particular program. We often find ourselves thinking, “This research is great, but how can I apply it in my own youth development context?”

Fortunately, youth development is getting better as a profession. Researchers are starting to identify and test practices with replicability in mind. Different situations, age groups, and various settings are being considered in an attempt to develop universal (or as close as we can get) best practices for positive youth development.  This is very good news for all of us professionals in the field.

Here at the Center for Youth Development at the University of Minnesota, for example, references a few of these research pieces on our program quality web pages. They are certainly worth exploring.

I use research to fill my youth development professional toolbox. It's where I find best practices I can apply to ensure my programs are fulfilling their purpose. An ever expanding toolbox makes me better at the craft of youth development, allowing me to witness young people uncover profound life lessons through our interaction.

How do you define youth development professional?  How do you fill your youth development toolbox?

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  1. Thanks for making me think about the tools in my box. You made me think if I need to refresh anything in my toolbox.


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