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Getting back to youth work basics

By Kari Robideau

Recently I have been reviewing our Youth Work Matters curriculum with a team of colleagues. This process has caused me to review the basics of the positive youth development approach to youth work. It's reminding me why we do what we do - and why we do it the way we do it.

Positive youth development focuses on promoting young people’s strengths and giving them opportunities to grow.  Youth workers do their work with three basic ideas in mind:  the field of youth development,  supporting youth needs and the youth worker him or herself.

Field of youth development

The foundational research and theory that support the field of youth development grounds everything we do! An early influencer of the positive youth development approach was the University of Minnesota’s own Gisela Knopka. She introduced the concept of basic youth needs for healthy development. Our premise is that every young person seeks to meet these needs and youth programs help them to do that in positive ways. 

This approach works! A recent longitudinal study of the 4-H program proved it! The study found that if you use a positive youth development approach, young people in that program will achieve the “5 C’s” - competence, confidence, connection, character and caring/compassion - and will be considered to be "thriving." A sixth C, contribution, is attained when a person has more fully realized the five C’s.

Supporting youth needs

Supporting youth needs is about putting the research into practice. Youth workers implement strategies in their programs that reach young people’s basic needs. This includes fostering a high-quality environment and connecting youth to caring adults. In high-quality programs, a youth-adult partnership is evident – one in which adults work WITH youth, instead of FOR or TO them.

The youth worker

None of this is possible unless youth workers have a support system succeed!  One of these supports is professional development.  It can include formal schooling or post-graduate learning opportunities, such as conferences, workshops and trainings from the organization you work with. Continuous professional development on topics based on the true reality of youth work is imperative!

A second way is through deliberate practice. This is continually taking on challenging tasks that are chosen with the goal of improving a particular skill. It’s also a willingness to ask others for constructive feedback and learning from it. Finally, having a cohort of peers who understand the work aids in a youth worker’s continued learning and professional development and can be a trusted source of constructive feedback!

This approach keeps me excited about youth work!  It provides a focus on the strengths of a young person, continually adding quality and connections in programs and seeking growth as a professional.

Getting back to the basics of youth work has been a great review for me, and an affirmation of our beliefs and our approach. How does the Positive Youth Development Approach add intentionality to your work?

-- Kari RobideauExtension educator & associate Extension professor

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  1. Kari, You are so right in highlighting Konopka's work as ground breaking for its time and completely relevant to this day as the way to view all young people and our work! I reflect on what a solid foundation this is, even throughout changes in society, and periods of recent history in which our institutions have considered best ways to meet the needs of young people while addressing issues of societal violence, immigration policy reform, and myriad others. It is often easy to go down the path of the "approach of the day"--but Gisela's work is always a firm foundation to getting to what really matters in how we work with and on behalf of young people! As I think about our Center's work to reach new and underserved audiences, I often remind myself to go back to Gisela's work, ensuring we keep those youth needs as a foundation to what we do. Thanks for working to keep this at the forefront!


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