I’m going to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania next month! The Allegheny County United Way is bringing me in to speak at their bi-annual afterschool gathering, the APOST Conference. I will be on the scene throughout the day, presenting a keynote and a workshop for participants, as well as providing consulting throughout the day.
Presented in the first part of the APOST Conference, I will do a keynote called Engage ALL Youth, Everywhere, ALL the Time! In my description I wrote, “For a long time, the most engaged youth seemed predictable: They were successful, they were connected, and they made adults happy. Today, the picture is a lot different.”
I will focus audience members on the ways youth engagement is expanding, and how important it is to recognize where youth are engaged right now. Using stories, humor, and examples from my 20 plus years experience and research, I plan to engage the audience themselves, will helping them learn practical, meaningful, and powerful ways to engage all youth, everywhere, all the time!
In the second part of the APOST Conference, I’m presenting a workshop called 5 Steps to Youth Engagement. Writing about it, I said, “Evaluators say it is a science and seasoned youth workers say it is an art. No matter which perspective you have, everyone admits it is a little of both.” I will use this workshop to look at some the key questions in youth engagement: What is youth engagement, What gets youth engaged, and What gets organizations real outcomes?
In 5 Steps to Youth Engagement, my workshop participants willexplore some of the gray areas of youth engagement, like how to engage youth without spending money, the difference between youth participation and youth engagement, and how to engage someone repeatedly without burn out. We will also address how to stop youth disengagement, how to understand the rules of youth engagement, and how to engage adults in engaging young people. Participants will leave with practical action they can use right away.
There should never, ever be a grade, score, or test for student voice.
Reading over a recent report, the researchers suggested a measurement for student voice that accounted for participation and engagement, as well as depth and awareness. I was appalled, if only because of the asinine assumption that there is any student ever who hasn’t shared their voice about schools. That is simply not true.
ANY and EVERY expression of a student about school, learning, or education is student voice. That includes:
Students who speak up in class and verbally express their responses to teachers’ questions. They are no more valid than students who never speak up. They are different, but they’re not better than other students at sharing student voice.
Students who get into fights, pass notes, or text answers to tests under their desks. They are no less valid than students who wear suits and ties to share grandiose visions for education reform with adults. They are different, but they’re not worse at sharing student voice.
The reason for both of these is that both of them are examples of student voice. So are emails sent anonymously to schools, student government, research conducted, gossip, art murals, students presenting at school board meetings, graffiti on lockers, student leadership programs, student/teacher designed curriculum, students skipping class, and any other expression of students focused on schools, learning, or education.
The Problem with Praise
Adults tend to fetishize students who answer the right questions in the right ways at the right times. We put them on pedestals, place them in positions of authority over other students, and subject them to the utmost pressure to stay on the “right track” in adult-pleasing ways.
The problem with praising student voice is that it reinforces for students that there is a right way and a wrong way for students to express themselves about schools. There isn’t. Instead, there are alternative ways, each of which has a consequence. Currently, we don’t act that way because of adults’ fetishizing “good” student voice.
We do this for familiarity and consistency, because developmentally in the minds and hearts of adults, we yearn for consistency. Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of young peoples’ development, because, while they yearn for the acceptance of adults, they are seeking freedom and independence more.
Alternatives to Praising Student Voice
There is a different way.
The best position for student voice is to be unfettered and actively engaged throughout the school environment. This means that students should have a voice in how curriculum is developed; where schools are built; how teachers are evaluated; where education is evolving towards; when classes happen; why education is relevant; when they graduate; why teachers fail; where they learn most effectively; and so forth. There are so many places on the highest level of education.
However, there are more opportunities, chances for every student voice to be actively engaged throughout their days in school and throughout their lives outside of school, too. Students can share their experiences and ideas throughout classroom curriculum as a matter of good teaching practice, and student voice can be infused throughout classroom management activities, processes, and outcomes too. Building leaders can create particular opportunities for students to teach teachers about technology and culture in ways that position student voice as especially vital for teachers. Teacher coaches can help teachers understand the frameworks for meaningful student involvement that I’ve developed, and parents can engage their children in critical conversations about learning, teaching, and leading education, as well as voting and politics. Youth leaders can teach students about the importance of learning while learning from students themselves, while politicians can actually engage young people about education.
The opportunities for student voice are limitless because student voice itself is limitless. Are we ready to stop praising student voice, and to start engaging student voice in genuine and authentic ways instead?
Talk with your supervisor, Executive Director, board members, and other decision-makers.
Build support by talking to staff members about youth engagement.
Train young people about youth engagement, why it matters, and how they can experience it more.
Research resources that might help different people in different roles throughout your organization understand youth engagement more.
Pass along useful websites, materials, and other info with people who care or need to know.
2) Advocate Action.
Explore policy-making in your organization, and advocate for changes that reflect a commitment to sustained youth engagement through programs and throughout the organization.
Create an action plan that focuses on sustained programs and projects.
Be a constant and strong champion for youth engagement throughout your program or organization.
3) Facilitate Approaches.
Remember Gandhi’s idiom, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you want youth engagement in your program or organization, start engaging youth personally right now.
Start leading activities and programs that foster youth engagement right now. Build youth engagement on the personal level for young people, then solidify it throughout your organization.
Strengthen your knowledge about youth engagement and then facilitate opportunities for others to learn about it.
4) Critique and Examine Outcomes.
Create safe space to engage diverse youth and adults in critical thinking and cultural examinations.
Actively engage young people and adults in frank, open conversations about the activity, program, or organization.
Ask questions that inquire further into peoples’ assumptions or beliefs, and foster new understanding through having everyone share their experiences and opinions as applicable.
Ask hard questions about beliefs, understanding, and outcomes.
Examine new opportunities to talk change.
5) DO IT AGAIN!
When you travel through each of these steps, you’ll find a variety of awards for your hard work, including youth retention, re-engagement, and much more.
Where These Came From
Recently, I’ve been working with a group of traditional, mainline youth-serving organizations. They offer services to young people living in adverse situations, including homelessness, family disruptions, addiction, and other circumstances. The activities generally fall into the realms of intervention, education, and employment.
Working with them to establish new approaches to their work, I have been slowly introduce my conceptual frameworks focused on youth engagement, especially how I wrote about the subject in my publication, A Short Introduction to Youth Engagement. When I wrote the Short Intro…, I intentionally didn’t cover many important aspects of moving forward with the concept. Here’s one area that wasn’t addressed.
These are steps that I’ve followed for more than a decade as I’ve taught, trained, advocated for, and lived through many, many youth engagement programs and projects. They’re also what I’m using right now to help others promote this vital concept, too.
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you would add, take out, or challenge in the comments section below.More Resources
Creating a safe and supportive learning environment is vital to engaging student voice.
A great way to do that is through reflection. Reflection is a process of looking back on an experience and deciphering the meaning of it. This post shares some activities to foster that process.
Here are several activities facilitators can use to foster reflection on student voice. They can be used for classroom reflection or used as activities in afterschool, summertime or other student voice programs, too.
Emotional Go-Around. Participants are asked to show with a word, their body, or a facial expression how they feel right at the moment. Let people show their reaction, one at a time, and then have participants explain their reaction. This activity can give the facilitator a sense of the group mood and gives the participants a chance to express how they feel at that moment.
Learning Skits. Split the students into groups of three or four and ask each group to portray their learning experience through a skit. Give each group 10 minutes to plan what they will do and up to five minutes to share their skit with the rest of the group. After each group’s presentation, have the whole group process reactions, give suggestions for effective future projects, and give positive feedback to the actor/actresses. This activity could take 30 minutes to an hour to complete.
Visualization. Take your students on an imaginary tour of their learning experience. Ask participants to find a comfortable position (lay on the floor, rest your head on the table, lounge in a chair) and close eyes. Play relaxing music at a low volume. Ask participants to become aware of their breathing, ask them to leave their present thoughts and clear their minds. Once the participants appear to have relaxed, ask them to begin remembering their learning experience. To assist them in remembering their experience mention common events, allow participants to remember how they felt before they did their experience, what their expectations were, what happened in their preparation, how they felt during their learning experience. To stimulate their thinking you might mention some of what you remembered. Slowly bring them back to the present. Ask them to become aware of their surroundings, again concentrating on their breathing, and open their eyes when they are ready. Ensure that a quiet tone is maintained. Continue to play music, and ask participants to share their recollections with another person and finally have people make comments to the whole group.
Group Banners. Using a large pieces of banner paper and markers, ask students to get into pairs and depict their experiences using a combination of words and pictures. Give them about 10-15 minutes. When completed ask each pair to share their banner with the whole group. Use their banners as a jumping off point for processing the experience.
All Tied Up. Have the group stand in a circle. Holding the end of a ball of string, hand the ball off to a participant. Ask them to reflect on a particular question (e.g. what was something new you learned today?). Once they have answered the question ask them to hold onto their piece of the string and to pass the ball onto someone else. Continue the process until everyone has reflected on the question, and has a section of string in their hands. When completed, you should have something that looks like a web. When they are all done talking, make some points about the interconnectedness of people, how they are all part of the solution, for if one person had not contributed to their learning experience the outcome would’ve been different, etc.
Learning Journals. Ask students to keep a journal of their conference experience through regular (after each activity) entries. Provide framework for the journals (e.g. who will read it, what should they write about, how it will be used). Variations on the Activity Journal include team journaling, and circle journals. You can also provide particular questions to respond to, and use hot topics from activities to reflect on. You may ask participants to reflect on conference topics, including quotations and readings from authors, music groups, etc.
Time Capsule. As students are being introduced to your conference, have them put memorabilia and initial attitudes related to Peace Jam and their school’s projects on paper to start the time capsule. This could include a short project description, an agenda for your conference, or anything else relevant to what’s going on. Have the students write down how they are feeling at the start of the weekend, how they feel at different points of their school’s projects (e.g. what they expected at the beginning of the year, how they felt about your topic or conference before this weekend, what they feel/felt (before, during or after) their project as a whole. Put everything into a “capsule” that will be opened and read aloud and discussed (perhaps anonymously) at the end of the your conference.
How I Use Them
I frequently use visualizations to foster reflection about the roles of students in schools and meaningful student involvement. As a tool, visualizations allow me to create an immediate climate in a classroom and foster the group through deep reflection.
Recently, I facilitated a program in a local high school focused on engaging students in their formal school improvement planning process. At the beginning of the process, a group of “nontraditional student leaders” showed a lot of resistance to the idea that teachers would value anything they contributed to school improvement. I led the group through visualizing their ideal school. We carefully walked through the average day of a 14-year-old new student in their school. When we were done, students were brimming with ideas, and after debriefing and taking notes about many of those ideas, I assured the students their contributions were important and would be valued.
Soon after that, I facilitated a professional development session for the school’s faculty focused on meaningful student involvement in school improvement planning. Towards the beginning, I sparked this group of 40 seasoned educators’ minds with a different visualization. This time, after creating the appropriate tone for being able to envision what I was talking about, I asked them to reflect back on their personal experience in school when they were 14-years-old. We walked through a typical day and considered many of the elements of teaching, learning, and leadership in schools, as well as their lives outside schools. When we were done, I had them reflect on three questions:
What sticks out most in your memory from this visualization?
What do you think differs the most between your memory of school and students’ experiences today?
Can you value what students have to say about school improvement today?
During the first question, the teachers loudly bantered back and forth and shared good info, with some pairings laughing hysterically, while others got sad and processed some deep stuff that came up. During the second question, everyone assumed their professional minds again – although what came out was a deep sense of compassion and purpose, and empathy. But in the third question, the investment was locked in and the group was suddenly focused, willing, and supportive of the conceptual framework I was asking them to examine with me.
Needless to say, after that the group went exactly where I wanted them to, particularly since we began the next activity by looking at students’ projections of what their school could become.
Points to Remember
There are several important things to remember about reflecting on student voice. Here are a few:
Reflection is storytelling. Students are familiar with storytelling – the videogames they play, the books they read, and the times they spend with their friends are all filled with stories. Encouraging them to tell their stories of what happened engages them by helping them make meaning and place value on their experiences.
Help students find the words they need. Reflection is best done as a shared activity that creates safe space and opportunities. Remember to appreciate their contributions and elaborate on them from your own memory.
Ask specific questions. Help students talk and reinforce them by encouraging them to be specific and speak their truth. Rather than asking, “What did you do after school,” you might ask, “What did you find out on Internet?” Talk together about what students found most interesting.
Talk with students during events to help with learning and recall. In addition to pointing ou specific details, educators can help students link what they have done with earlier experiences and knowledge. “This makes me think of that day when…”
Follow the lead of students. Sometimes students cannot divide their attention between doing and reflecting. Be aware of the needs of students and wait for the right moment.
Documentation can make reflection easier. Whether it is pictures of students relaxing or art students draw, a physical record helps facilitate meaningful discussion.
Reflect early and often. Talk about what happened while the experience is still fresh, but revisit it later. The trip home is a good time to discuss what students learned at the city council meeting – and later you can write a story about it or review the pictures you took. Reflecting on your own reflections can lead to deeper understandings.
Each of these points can help make your student voice reflection activities richer and more meaningful. The wealth that emerges can then be used to move students further towards becoming partners in learning, teaching, and leadership throughout schools – and if that’s not the point, what is?!? Learn more about me on my website, follow my pro facebook page, or catch me on Twitter.
When adults are talking rude to young people, they show patronizing superiority. Many parents, youth workers, teachers, and others are not aware of how rude they are towards children and youth.
Most adults would be shocked if young people were as rude towards them as they are towards young people. When we’re confronted by a brave youth, we usually deny it (“that’s not what I meant”, or “you’re being too sensitive”).
However, even well-meaning adults can say things to youth with good intentions that come across as rude. Because of their past experiences, social conditioning, peer influence, and other reasons, most youth are really hesitant to share their real feelings with adults. Because of that, most parents, teachers, youth workers, and other adults who work with youth may never know how they talk towards youth.
Here are eight rude things adults often say to youth. Whenever you say them, its going to sound rude.
8 Rude Things Adults Say to Young People
The risk of writing a list like this is that there are almost always exceptions depending on the context. With young people, as with all people, it’s often not what is said, but how you say it–the tone of the message. A simple phase like, “What’s up” can come across as rude if truly someone feels that they are superior to the other person.
Whatever the case, just beware that if you’re working with young people, you probably sound rude today.
1. “I’m not a creative youth like Lavonia here is, so she should do that!”
I really doubt that Lavonia loves slogging through mundane details any more than you do, but she has to – as a youth council member or youth staff, it’s her job and not yours, so she does it. She takes pride in what she does too, and does it well. So don’t call her out in front of other adults and youth as a “detail” youth, as if that’s her job as a youth, and then congratulate yourself for being an adult who knows the “big picture”. A similar condensing bit of “praise” for youth is something like, “Hey, let me introduce you to Juan – he’s the one who really runs things around here, not me (snicker, wink).” No, he doesn’t really. You’re an adult, and you run things. Juan is just doing his job as a youth council member, stuff he’s supposed to do. Don’t pretend otherwise. It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.
2. “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s no big deal.”
It may not be a big deal to you, but it must be a big deal to the youth in your program or they would not have brought it up. Adults need to take the time to listen to youth and find out why they are concerned. Then, adults can take the opportunity to coach young people to help them find a solution.
3. “It’s for your own good.”
That makes adults the only people who can decide what is good for young people? Children and youth should be expected to have a serious, meaningful role in determining their “own good”.
4. “Well, that sounds good in theory, but in the real world….”
So what world are you saying the young people your are talking to are from? You might want to take some time to hear young peoples’ “theory” out and check your assumptions at the door – the children and youth around you might be more real than you.
5. “We’ll look into that,” “I’ll think about that,” or “You’ll have to work that out on your own.”
Noncommittal answers dismiss youth and imply they aren’t worth the time, honesty, and effort of adults. Also, again, you’re missing a great opportunity to coach. Ultimately, that’s your job – to coach and guide the young people around you.
6. “I know you’re feeling ______ right now, but you really shouldn’t because…”
Never assume you know what young people are feeling or tell them how they should be feeling. Ask them how they feel, and acknowledge it by responding with empathy.
7. “You’ll understand when you’re older,” or “When I was your age…”
Well, maybe young people do understand you right now, and just don’t agree with you. Try finding out why and you might learn something. Taking this approach creates a line of separation between young people and adults and invalidates what children and youth are experiencing right now.
8. “Kid” or “Homie” or “Sweetie” or “Dude”
Many young people prefer to be called by their first names – but its always a good practice to ask individual people what they’d like to be called.
“I brought you into this world, and I can also take you out!”
”You’re so smart for fifteen!”
“When are you going to grow up?”
“Don’t touch that, you’ll break it!”
“As long as you are in my house, you’ll do it!”
“You’re being childish.”
“You’re so stupid (or clumsy, inconsiderate, etc.)!”
“Go to your room!”
“Don’t ever yell at your mother like that!” (yelling)
“She doesn’t understand anything.” (about a baby)
“You are too old for that!”
“You’re not old enough!”
“Oh, it’s only puppy love.”
“If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about.”
“What do you know? You haven’t experienced anything!”
“It’s just a stage. You’ll outgrow it.”
“Go to your room!”
“Act your age.”
“Children should be seen and not heard.”
“What do you know, you’re just a kid!”
“Do as I say, not as I do.”
“You’ll understand it someday, just you wait.”
“It’s my house and you’ll follow my rules!”
“You’re just a kid,”
“These kids are a form of birth control!”
“You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin!’”
“Did you just do what I saw you do?”
“Because I said so.”
“Someday I hope you have a kid and she’s just like you.”
“Don’t get smart with me.”
“You’ll do it and you’ll like it.”
Ground Rules to Stop Rude Adult Talk
One way to set the stage for clear and comfortable communication between young people and adults is to set ground rules when working together. Here is an example of some commonly used ground rules:
Speak for yourself—No put-downs Take responsibility for your words, your action, and your learning
Expect unfinished business—Listen to others and to what you are saying, too
Have fun—You have the right to pass at any time in group discussions or activities
Create Space—Its important to create environments where young people and adults feel comfortable asking questions and being themselves.
Stop Hesitating—Make sure everyone knows they can stop conversation and ask questions at any point. Make it a norm to inject in the conversation when its appropriate.
Be Diverse—Celebrate the variety between youth and adults, and among youth, and among adults. AND try to always talk in ways that are understood by everyone in the group.
Body Language—Be aware of body language and facial expressions. If you are speaking, pay attention to how other people are reacting and ask questions, if you need to.
Be Comfortable—Use language you are comfortable with. Don’t use jargon or slang just to fit in. Just be sure you’re sensitive to others in the group, no matter what their age.
Questions to Ask Yourself—How about you? What does rude speech sound like to you? Do you speak in a way that everyone can understand what you’re saying – young people? adults? people who speak English as a second language? others? Are you aware of the views and perspectives of the young people and adults in the room? Do you talk with others respectfully? Do you listen carefully to what they have to say? If somebody is speaking with words or in a way that is confusing to me, what should I do? When is it okay to use slang or jargon?
Olympia, WA—Every parent, teacher, and youth worker knows they aren’t as effective as they could be, but often aren’t sure why. Using willpower to force children and youth to comply, even the most well-meaning adult uses curfews, takes away toys, and bribes with rewards.
There’s hope. ENDING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST YOUNG PEOPLE, by internationally-recognized youth expert Adam Fletcher ($19.95, Createspace Publishing), uses powerful analysis and introduces language related youth discrimination to show readers where, how, and why this problem affects them every single day.
ENDING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST YOUNG PEOPLE details how society routinely discriminates against young people by forcing adult will, implementing rigid age-based policies, and encouraging negative attitudes towards children and youth. Diving deeply throughout communities, Fletcher exposes cultural assumptions and details structural systems that keep young voices from being heard. He also shows how social injustices such as racism, classism, and sexism are related to discriminating against the young.
“We don’t like to hear it, but every adult discriminates against young people,” Fletcher explains. “Understanding and accepting that reality is the really the first step to creating a more just and equitable society for all people.”
Like many parents and youth workers, Fletcher wondered for a long time why more young people weren’t powerfully, purposefully engaged throughout their own lives. After a decade training youth, Fletcher began to piece together the massive, society-wide patterns of discrimination against young people. When he began finding language throughout psychology, sociology, and youth work describing different parts of this discrimination, he saw a blanket literally smothering children and youth in every corner.
“All young people face these issues, and few people are actually talking about them,” Fletcher explains. “When adults begin to speak frankly about their inabilities to connect with kids, and when children and youth can speak openly, we discover this isn’t just theory; it is actually happening everywhere, all the time.”
ENDING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST YOUNG PEOPLE is the only modern book designed to explore this reality in depth. What better way to become a better parent, more effective teacher, or more positive role model than addressing your own biases?
With this book, Fletcher hopes adults will, “develop new perspectives of young people to open positive, powerful futures for all people, instead of just a few, so that instead of times getting impossibly hopeless, they show that another world is always possible.”
Others are taking note of this book. Reviewing the book, Alex Koroknay-Palicz writes, “Fletcher provides an expert look at the revolutionary idea that youth endure, and are harmed by, pervasive age discrimination and supplies supportive advice on how young people and adults can work against it in their daily lives.” Koroknay-Palicz is the former executive director of the National Youth Rights Association.
To set up an interview or to request a review copy, contact Adam Fletcher at 360.489.9680 or email email@example.com.
ENDING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST YOUNG PEOPLE by Adam Fletcher ISBN-13 978-1492183822
8 ½” x 5″
Available on Amazon.com or ask at your local bookstore.
Do you want to engage, involve, inspire, motivate, or activate young people? Then order my book, The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide!
Packed with useful activities, deep insights, practical tips, and other information and resources your need to move youth voice, youth engagement, youth leadership, and youth empowerment to the FRONT of your work with young people!
The book is meant for people who work with middle school and high school youth. If you work with traditional youth leaders, you’ll learn how to move that work forward. If you work with nontraditional youth leaders, you can learn how to engage them in positive, powerful activities that can change your program or organization.
The Freechild Project Youth-Driven Programming Guide
“The Youth-Driven Programming Guide is a must read for youth workers in all settings. Adam does a tremendous job of getting straight to the point with a clear message in a concise format that even the busiest of youth workers will be able to make time to read. We operate a Parks & Recreation related youth program that provides multiple youth after school program sites, late night events, a series of dances, and a Youth Commission. This guide is the newest required reading for all volunteers and staff within our program.
—Paul Simmons, Parks and Recreation Director, Cheney, Washington
“I work with groups of young people in Preston, Lancashire, England to have a real voice in decision making in our Impact Youth Groups, co-working with young people training to be Youth Workers and my work in schools and justice projects. The book is an excellent informal education tool in planning your work young people, supporting the work you, developed with young people in a simple understanding education tool, creates fun in learning, while young people can be given a real voice with support, in their social education learning and decision making experiences.”
—Terry Mattinson, youth worker, Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom
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.
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.
If our goal is to engage young people in social change, there are many ways to do that. This diagram illustrates four distinct ways to engage young people: youth-driven community organizing, systemic youth involvement, situational youth voice, and service learning. It then illustrates the traditional and non-traditional approaches to doing that within these ways, as well as the overlaps that are apparent.
Traditional Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change
May be exclusively youth-led
May partner with adults
May be led by adults
May include equity
May have explicit learning connections
May include adults
May be focused on sustained change
May have sustained funding
May position youth as “outsiders” versus “insiders”
New Approaches to Engage Young People in Social Change
Infuse youth as full members
Recognize mutual investment by youth and adults
Focus on sustained change
Make explicit learning goals for youth and adults
Focus on systemic and cultural transformation
Requires equity between youth and adults.
In my own restlessness, I find myself craving something different these days.
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with isolated experiences of “youth-led” activity that is seeded and driven by adults. I have come to see that the majority of this work is largely disingenuous and ultimately incapacitating for the young people who participate in these activities. I say that very cautiously, as I personally know and am professionally aware of the immediate feelings of empowerment that are inherent in this type of action.
Today, I’m coming to understand that we need approaches to this work that more deeply situate young people as full members of currently existent society. That way they can be partners in what already exists and transform situations in deeply sustainable, deeply transformative ways.This has to happen by working with the institutions we already have in place. It has to happen with the attitudes we already have at work. This is where my writing on meaningful student involvement comes from: Students working in the places they already occupy with people who are already committed to working with them. There are attitudes, cultures, structures, and connections to transform, but those are sustained changes that won’t go away with passing generations.
This article is meant to illustrate what the difference I see looks like visually. Respond and let me know what you think about a new approach to youth action – I’d love to hear what you think!
Things dropped by well-meaning adults still do what?!?
There are several ways that adults undermine young people. I have grouped them into three main categories: well-meaning adults, indifferent adults, and hostile adults.
This post is exploring the first category, well-meaning adults. They are determined to “help kids”, and can often be identified as progressive teachers, social workers, counselors, and parents.
Assuming young people need as much freedom as possible, they aspire to always think “the best” of youth and want to be their “friends”. However, this is a disingenuous understanding because it ignores or denies the realities of present-day society. Any right-thinking adult would never give a completely inexperienced person the keys to a car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive.This is seen as a dangerous and irresponsible gesture that can lead to death.
Well-meaning adults routinely presume the abilities of all young people are on par with all adults. No matter what age a person is, without experience, exposure, and education, all people do not have the same abilities nor capacities. These people inadvertently deny young people their personal needs, wants, and desires by over-estimating them.
The problem inherent in their position is that well-meaning adults undermine their own best intentions and denying their ability to truly help children and youth. Through an honest, engaged, and deliberate awareness of their preconceptions, these adults can be among the greatest assets in the lives of young people. However, without increased awareness of their conditioning and behavior, they are doing as much good as adults who are anti-youth.