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How to foster youth independence

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Thinking about this week's national holiday, it occurs to me how important it is for youth to develop a sense of independence and agency. An article that explores how youth develop agency says, "The challenging issue for how to support a developmental process in which youth are the central protagonists and agents of change." How can we build structures within youth programming that better support youth authoring their own lives?

First, let’s take a brief look at the terms “independence” and “agency.” In the context of positive youth development, independence is a basic need of youth to be able to think and act without depending on others. A related term, agency, is roughly a person’s ability to act independently and make choices to achieve goals. Independence and agency allow youth to develop a sense of control over what they are doing in the world and how they can contribute.

In a previous blog post, I described a six-year urban youth development office program evaluation I worked on. In it, I asked youth to reflect on their learning experience — what it felt like and how it impacted them. We drew two themes from it related to independence and agency:

  1. Youth feel most satisfied with their learning experiences when those experiences help them develop a stronger sense of self.
  2. A satisfying learning experience gives youth a sense of hope and expectation for their futures and a realization of personal power to positively influence themselves and the world. 

This evaluation, in which 788 young people participated, revealed that the following conditions made it easier for them to develop this independence and agency:

  • Youth could freely be and express themselves and explore their values.
  • Youth had meaningful opportunity for leadership and responsibility.
  • Youth could see what they were gaining from their learning experiences, which fed their excitement  to learn more. 
  • Youth felt productive when they could gain and develop skills they could use both now and in the future.
  • Youth were fully involved in their learning and could take ownership of their educational experiences.

In urban 4-H we help young people develop a sense of independence and agency by helping them explore their interests and values and then providing them with meaningful ways to connect those interests and values to future opportunity. We do this through dialogue about barriers, conversations with professionals and students who have experienced those barriers, and visits to industries and college campuses. My colleague Joanna Tzenis describes this as the “capability approach.”

What are some ways that you have intentionally helped youth be the authors of their own lives?

-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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  1. Thanks Jessica! Great post. One part that stands out to me is the important role of learning and growth in the list of conditions that develop agency. As we plan youth development opportunities for youth, we historically have tried to bury the learning inside the fun activities. You findings really highlight the importance of letting youth in on the secret that the fun activities have learning objectives and letting them take ownership of those objectives for themselves.

    1. Yes! I love how you put that, Betsy. If youth don't have an active understanding of what they are getting out of the experience, the learning tends not to stick. A lot of research on this. One of my favorites is an article by Milbrey McLaughlin called "Community Counts," which talks about the most successful youth programs being, among other things, "assessment-centered," meaning that youth understand how they are growing and what they are learning. Here's a link:

  2. Great post, and a very interesting, important aspect of growing up. I work in communications for the American Federation of Teachers, and one concept I see bubbling up consistently is the need for strategies that cultivate perseverance in students and their learning. This would seem to be a very compatible concern applied in a different setting.

    1. Thank, Mike. Yes, the nonformal learning setting is a wonderful place for youth to learn perseverance because they often have more opportunity for "do-overs." When something doesn't work the first time, they can fix it and try again. Relationships are also very important for learning perseverance--to have someone who can coach and mentor them through their challenges. Unfortunately, teachers during the school day often don't have that opportunity, especially when class sizes are large.

  3. Jessica, this blog really makes me think about the ways that we can intentionally cultivate both small and large opportunities for independence in our programs. It also makes me think about what the balance is with interdependence, which I believe is a critical skill and value for young people to learn. As our world grows simultaneously more connected and more polarized, how can we raise youth who both thrive in their independence and have a deep sense of how their destinies are connected with others'?

    1. That's a great point, Kathryn! And in fact, if you look back at the previous blog I reference in this article, one of the other themes that came up from those 6 years of program evaluation was related to that sense of interdependence: "Youth also expressed satisfaction with their learning when it helped them expand their sense of the world. This expansion happened when new experiences brought about a better understanding of differing perspectives, an understanding of and respect for others, and discovery of their role in the world and what they can accomplish." So I agree that youth need BOTH a sense of INDEPENDENCE and INTERDEPENDENCE. They need to understand who they are, but also who they are in the context of others.

      I think one way to help make both happen is to emphasize the importance of both directly in our conversations with young people. They find out a lot about themselves through others. In fact, it would probably be pretty hard to learn a whole lot about yourself without others. But intentional conversations are key.

  4. Great post, Jessica. I totally agree with Kathryn. Learning independence AND interdependence is essential. Self awareness is a key skill- knowing oneself and what drives us individually. But this should be a building block toward social awareness and key relationship skills that contribute to an interdependent society. We miss the boat if we don't have our eyes set on cultivating both sets of skills. Thanks for your thoughts to enrich the conversation.

  5. For me, these ideas really re-emphasize the importance of creating a safe space where youth can be authentic. Without the ability to be authentically who they are, I don't think youth can be independent or act with agency because they are constantly worried about how they will be perceived, which creates a barrier to social interaction and learning. The fact that 788 youth indicated that in order to develop independence and agency they needed to "freely be and express themselves and explore their values" hits it home for me even more. Thanks for the insight Jess!!

    1. Thanks, Joe. I love that idea too--it emphasizes the importance of out-of-school time, because those less formal learning environments are more adaptable to meeting those needs.


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