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Essential elements of youth development that every youth worker should know

By Karyn Santl

It’s back-to-school time, which makes me think about going back to the basics. As a youth worker, that means the basics of youth work and positive youth development theory and practice. And for me that means Gisela Konopka’s work.

In the 1970s, Dr. Konopka conducted her research at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. Her work set the national agenda for promoting the health and well being of young people. She said the effectiveness of youth programs can be judged by the opportunities they offer youth and the credibility they enjoy. Stand-out programs give young people the experience of making choices, making commitments and experimenting with a variety of roles to “try out” the choices and commitment they make.

The Extension Center for Youth Development has identified eight critical elements essential to the healthy development of young people. They are based on Konopka's and Karen Pittman's research. Youth will benefit from experiences providing some or all of these elements.
  1. Youth feel a sense of safety and structure.
  2. Youth experience active participation, group membership, and belonging.
  3. Youth develop self-worth through meaningful contribution.
  4. Youth experiment to discover self, gain independence and gain control over one’s life.
  5. Youth develop significant and quality relationships with peers and adults.
  6. Youth discuss conflicting values and form their own.
  7. Youth feel pride of competence and mastery.
  8. Youth expand their capacity to enjoy life and know that success is possible.

Here are some example of practices I put in place to reach these elements in programming. They are from a 4-H summer camp I coordinate.
  • I train our counselors on how to create an inclusive environment.
  • Counselors and staff learn camper names quickly. We also use camp T-shirts to develop belonging.
  • Campers learn new skills and work in groups to make decisions.

These are just a few examples. What are your practices to include these elements in your programming? Are some of the elements harder to reach than others?

If you want to learn more about positive youth development theory, research and practicies, I encourage you to enroll in our Youth Work Matters online cohort course that starts in January 2019.

-- Karyn SantlExtension educator

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  1. Karyn, thank you for reminding us of the foundational work Gisela, "the grandmother of youth development", has laid out for us. I am reminded of her work every day when I look to my cabinet and see her picture on a document created by the Center of Youth Development with our revised "Basic Youth Needs". I keep this as a basic checklist when developing programming.

    I often refer back to her early work and the fiery passion she had for the young people she served, especially when times get hard and the work seems far too difficult.
    Thanks again for a great blog post!

  2. This summer I led a weekly kids club for youth in my neighborhood.

    I was particularly focused on "youth developing self-worth through meaningful contribution." A key way we did that was to have youth collectively plan our next gathering during each week's closing reflection time. The youth shared ideas about activities and snacks and then negotiated with each other about who would bring what supplies. And (most of the time), they delivered on their commitments. It was awesome!

    Next summer, I'd like to pay particular attention to helping "youth feel pride of competence and mastery." I appreciate how 4-H has some events that youth can work toward showcasing in. And helping older youth step up into leadership roles, I anticipate, will also be effective.

    Thanks for your post, Karyn!


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