My friend Lori works with youth in the Midwest. She recently asked me, “In the scheme of things, how do we motivate the youth to be empowered rather than entitled?” I’ve learned that motivation comes through our own experience and example more than anything else. We have to actively demonstrate to young people our engagement, our empowerment, and our leadership more than any attempt to motivate them.
When we work in high-pressure environments with young people who really, really need us to connect with them, adults who work with young people need high-efficacy approaches to engaging those young people, ways that will lead to their personal empowerment. That means that engagement happens before empowerment, and this cycle happens before engagement.
The Cycle of Engagement
In reflecting on my own practice with young people and after researching youth work for so long, I identified a cycle that seems to consistently work to engage young people. This cycle works in a long-range, program-wide way, but more importantly, in a direct, one-on-one approach too. The more times we go through this cycle with young people, the more it expands and the deeper the returns are. Those results include trust-building, effective communication, and empowerment.
The first thing we can do to engage young people is to listen to them. This means opening a a safe space where young people can tell the truth without fear of judgment, criticism, or rejection.
Important points about listening to children and listening to youth:
- Not just a physical place, listening to young people requires an interpersonal connection between adults and young people where facades can soften and young people feel accepted and accepting.
- Listening to young people requires that they feel free to share their feelings, work through conflicts, and experience that they are not alone.
- Adults can facilitate these spaces intentionally and successfully, at home, in community programs, and at schools, and that is what is required to listen to young people.
- If you don’t know how, learn more about nonviolent communication and compassionate listening.
- Listening isn’t necessarily verbal, either, as young people have many ways of communicating about their lives, ideas, emotions and feelings, experiences, wisdom, power, and oppression.
- In becoming responsive, adults learn about these expressions too. Listening is the first part of the cycle of engagement.
After we’ve listened to young people, as adults, we need to learn to validate children and youth. You’ve heard adults say it, and you might have said it yourself: “Oh, that’s really nice.” We try to say “nice” in just the right way, but to young people it seems really insincere. We think we’re doing the “right thing” by encouraging young people move forward, but in our heads we really thinking about the time we fell flat on our face from the same approach.
Important points about validating young people:
- Instead of actually acknowledging what they shared when we listened to them and instead of hiding our true thoughts, adults should to honestly validate what young people say or do by honestly responding to it and sharing how we sincerely feel or think about it.
- If we think a young person’s ideas are off-base, or an initiative will fail, or that more information is needed, we should always say so.
- Validation means disagreeing or agreeing with young people in open ways, and asking more questions when we need to.
- This acknowledges their authentic humanity, their real selves.
- Validation is the second part of engaging children and youth.
After adults have listened to children and youth and validated what they’ve expressed, if we truly want to engage them we must authorize young people. Authority is a powerful word that can intimidate people who aren’t used to it.
Important points about authorizing children and youth:
- Without authority, young people are just whispering in a loud argument.
- Authority means giving young people the ability to tell their own story, and it happens through informal and formal education and positioning.
- Education means building the skills of children and youth to engage in democracy.
- Positioning means telling young people they can do a thing and giving them explicit permission.
- Authorization builds the capacity and ability of young people with actual powerful, purposeful, and rewarding knowledge and opportunities.
- As young people apply their new skills and knowledge to practical action, young people can make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.
As they gain ability through authorization, the next step is revealed as youth action. Youth action is about young people creating change, either in their own life or in the lives of others. Learn about what youth can do to change the world, and how they can take action. Important points about youth action:
- Young people, especially those experiencing multiple depths of oppression, rarely take action in ways that help themselves or their communities for fear of failure, retribution or punishment.
- In situations where young people are deeply oppressed and disengaged from changing their lives and changing the world, taking action for requires children, youth, and adults working together to make the space, place, and ability for young people to create change.
- Action can – and should – look different everywhere: from identifying the challenge, researching the issue, planning for action, training for effectiveness, reflection on the process, to celebrating the outcomes, youth action is totally flexible.
- The purpose of youth action is always to create, support, and sustain powerful, purposeful, and meaningful lives.
- An important caution: Action is often seen as the most important step of this cycle. That’s not true, and all parts of this cycle are equally important.
Finally, while youth action is underway and when its finished, reflect. However you reflect, the important part is that you are making meaning of what you’ve gone through by identifying what you’ve learned and suggesting how you might apply that to future activities. Learn to facilitate reflection in ways that reach diverse young peoples’ desires, expectations, and abilities in order to be effective. Important points about reflection with young people:
- Reflection is an ongoing process that can deeply, sustainably engage children and youth.
- When young people and adults critically assess and analyze their lives together, learning becomes a vibrant, intricate, and powerful tool for personal change and community transformation.
- Reflection activities used should be appropriate for diverse learners, and include opportunities for talking, writing, acting, creating collages, and building activities, among others.
- Once you’ve finished reflecting, those lessons should be incorporated into the next listening activity, to support a cyclical approach to engaging young people.
When this cycle is done as a whole, these parts of youth engagement lead to youth empowerment. The parts can be done with individual young people in single interactions, or with groups of young people over the course of a program year. Ultimately, they lead to children and youth discovering the positive, powerful relationships they can form with adults, and create intentional youth/adult partnerships that can change lives, and ultimately change the world.