In youth participation models, youth and adults form partnerships that enable youth to contribute their ideas, skills, and energy to the shared decision-making process.1 For adults, the key is to determine the type of coordination and interactions that foster youth to make changes, direct activity, and take responsibility for outcomes.2
Youth participation falls into three general models for organizing engagement efforts: youth-led, youth-adult partnership, and adult-led. These models work as a continuum and may be combined to best fit the objectives of youth programs.
Young people are the main spokespersons in youth-led models and look to adults to provide administrative support. Youth are trained and supported to conduct outreach and coordinate projects with their peers. Youth-led organizations make a point to defer to the vision and authority of youth.3
The youth-adult partnership model seeks to establish young people and adults as equal partners in building and leading campaigns and organizations. Youth and adults develop a common agenda without distinguishing youth concerns from adult concerns. Instead, youth and adults share power and authority to plan, mobilize, and educate based upon defined roles, responsibilities, and skills.4
In this model, adult leaders seek out youth as core constituents. Youth carry out the campaign strategies or project tactics that are generally developed by adults. Youth efforts to influence the platform may be minimized in order to maintain campaign priorities. In these cases, youth are positioned as participants rather than key decision-makers.4
Before designing a program, spend some time thinking about which model (or what combination of each model) you will use and consider the following questions:
- What type of decision-making power will youth have?
- Who will be the individuals leading/facilitating?
- Will youth decide what issues to take on or have projects already been established?
- Will youth choose what tactics to use to implement the project?
- Will youth define the project’s goals?
Hart’s Ladder of Participation provides a visual framework for health centers to think about the current state of youth participation and brainstorm the ideal balance between youth and adults in decision-making. While the balance of youth-adult participation may shift over time, each increase in level of participation generates a higher degree of development for youth. Click to expand:
Youth Participation Principles
- Don’t expect more from youth than you would from another adult. Young people have deadlines and schedules, just like adults. Be honest with yourself and the youth about what you expect from them and what they should expect from you.
- However, don’t underestimate what youth can do. You will be amazed by the dedication and ingenuity that youth can bring to the table when they have the opportunity to work on something they care about.
- Be careful about interrupting. Many youth will stop talking (sometimes permanently) when interrupted by an adult. Adult coordinators should respect each young person’s voice and be mindful of their authoritative space.
- Receive feedback non-defensively. Make it a point to allow youth to give feedback. It is important to gain their perspective on the model and the level of participation they feel is taking place in the group. For example, if they feel it’s adult-led and the goal was youth-adult partnership, try to work to find compromise and solutions together.
- Remember that the role of an adult coordinator may be different from that adult’s role in the health center. One purpose of youth-adult coordinator partnerships is to give youth a different way to relate to adults. Think about how being an adult coordinator both complements and differs from your usual role at the health center before you begin your youth group. For example, if you work as a mental health professional and in your role as an adult coordinator, you encounter a student in need of mental health services, how will you handle that situation?
- Share in successes and failures. Make sure you celebrate successes and process failures as a team. If you fail to meet certain tasks, invite feedback from your youth to promote bi-directional growth and learning.
- Don’t move too fast. Don’t move too quickly without explaining why. Rushing through meetings can be a sign that adults are still trying to control the actions of the group.
- Determine an appropriate level of support. It is essential to consider your group’s needs, ability, and age and to think about the levels of support each individual will require. Be sure to assess risk factors (conditions that put children and families at risk and increase the likelihood of negative outcomes, such as poverty, transportation, and substance abuse).5
- 4-H. Youth Partnership & Participation: Positive Youth Development and Mentoring Organization. Accessed June 2015.
- Academy for Educational Development. Advancing Youth Development: A Curriculum for Training Youth Workers. DC Trust. 2015.
- Sullivan, L, Edwards, D, Johnson , N, McGillicuddy, K. An Emerging Model for Working with Youth. LISTEN Inc’s . 4(1).
- Norman, J. Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships. Transitions: The Rights Respect Responsibility. Available at: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/storage/advfy/documents/transitions1401.pdf. Accessed June 2015.
- Leifer, L, McLarney, M. Younger Voices, Stronger Choices: Promise Project’s Guide to Forming Youth/Adult Partnerships. Kansas City: Kansas City Consensus; 1997.