To what extent do the program environment and activities allow youth to practice the skills needed for civic engagement?

In your civic engagement program, you can use typical teaching strategies to talk to youth about the skills needed to participate in and lead civic engagement activities, but they will more effectively learn these skills if they have the opportunity to practice them. Your program may be designed to foster peer-to-peer activities to build skills, and/or it may be designed to promote adult-youth partnerships.  Either way, it is important to assure that youth are receiving frequent opportunities to engage in these skill-building activities, that many youth rather than just a few get to engage, and that adults are appropriately facilitating youth involvement and leadership.

The adult-youth partnership approach can be particularly effective in helping youth prepare for civic engagement in their communities and with government because they will have to interact with the adults running community and government organizations. 

If your program has adopted the adult-youth partnership approach, this approach will be most successful if:

  • sufficient time has been allocated for youth-led processes
  • adults have been provided sufficient training to understand productive ways to share leadership with youth,
  • youth and adults have had the opportunity to learn how to respect and understand each other, and
  • roles and responsibilities of youth and adults are clear.

Adopting this approach, or any other, requires that you provide youth and adults training on their roles, responsibilities, and expectations.  You should have post-training assessments to determine if your training participants understood the messages you were trying to convey.  In addition, you should periodically check in with youth and adults to determine if the youth and adult roles and responsibilities are being enacted as planned.  You should also determine if youth are participating equitably across youth roles, rather than a few youth assuming all active roles.
Track and Evaluate Who Is Serving in Leadership Positions
You can begin by listing out all the leadership roles in your organization.  You might want to put this information into a table in a word processing file or spreadsheet.  On a routine basis (quarterly or every six months) assess whether those roles are filled by adults or youth, and track which youth are in them.  This allows you to determine the extent to which formally defined roles are being shared by adults and youth, and the extent to which multiple youth are participating in leadership roles.  If leadership roles change in each session, you can incorporate tracking into your daily attendance records.

However, it is also important to determine how both the adults and youth perceive their roles, relationships, and contributions because the formally defined roles may not accurately reflect the interactions.

Periodically Observe and Assess Adult-Youth Interactions
Adults are typically used to being in positions of power over youth.  In regular societal roles, adults conduct activities to take care of youth and help youth.  Frequently youth are not engaged in those conversations and do not interact with the adults who are making plans on their behalf.  Consequently, youth frequently feel unheard and have the impression that adults do not care about their opinions.  These typical roles create youth stereotypes of adults and adult stereotypes of youth.  Overcoming those stereotypes and authentically engaging with each other through respectful interaction can be difficult, even for youth and adults committed to doing so.

Therefore, it is important to assess the perspectives of both the youth and the adults in the program periodically to determine if the expectations of the youth-adult partnerships are happening. In addition, observations of interactions can be important.  See Other Resources, the “Being Y-AP Savvy” reference, and the “YALPE Workbook,” for links to materials that can help you, the adults, and the youth in your program examine, and build on their relationships. 
How do youth perceive their interactions with adults within your program?
Each youth participant should indicate that he/she (Camino, et. al.):

  • feels respected by program adults
  • learns from adults
  • trusts and feel trusted by adults
  • feels like their needs are supported
  • feels like they get to make choices and contribute to decisions
  • feels like there are opportunities to work closely with adults
  • feels like their ideas are taken seriously
  • values the participation of the adults
  • understands their roles and responsibilities

How do adults in your program perceive their roles and interactions with youth?
Each adult in the program should indicate that (Camino, et. al.):

  • adults coach and provide constructive feedback to youth; not tell them what to do
  • youth ideas and suggestions are taken seriously
  • youth and adults have plenty of opportunities to work together
  • adults value the youth contributions
  • adults help young people make connections in the community
  • youth can call on the adults for help now and in the future
  • written policies that emphasize youth engagement in decision-making are sufficient, available, and understood
  • youth and adults get enough training to work together well

What do observations of youth-adult interactions reveal?
If the majority of youth and adults in the program indicate positive perceptions about the levels and types of youth involvement, it may not be necessary to engage in observations of adult-youth interactions.  If, however, many adults and youth have opposite perspectives, or outcomes are not being achieved even though youth and adults agree that they have positive relationships, then observations of adult-youth interactions can be helpful in determining what parts, or under what circumstances, those relationships are not functioning as planned. 

Although observations may not always be necessary, building in routine observations makes them easier to conduct.  It may be that a supervisor sits in for a meeting or discussion every once in awhile as a participant-observer.  In that role, they participate in the meeting/discussion, but listen and watch as an observer would do.  As a participant, they are less obtrusive and it is more likely that the other participants will act normally.  This is particularly the case if the observations are routine.  These observations can help identify when there is a disconnect between what individuals say and what individuals do.  Sometimes individuals are unaware that their actions do not match what they say they think or believe.  The observation creates an opportunity to help that individual learn more about themselves, and to correct their behavior. 

By Urban Institute




Sources Cited

Balsano, A. (2005). Youth civic engagement in the United States: Understanding and addressing the impact of social impediments on positive youth and community development. Applied Developmental Science, (9)(4), 188-201.

Camino, L., Zeldin, S., Mook, C., O’Connor, C. (n.d.). Youth and adult leaders for program excellence (YALPE Workbook): A practical guide for program assessment and action planning. Camino & Associates, University of Wisconsin-Madison, & Cornell University; see especially the YET and ORG YET instruments

Lewis-Charp, H., Cao Yu, H., Soukamneuth, S. & Lacoe, J. (2003) Extending the Reach of Youth Development Through Civic Activism: Outcomes of the Youth Leadership for Development Initiative. Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development (ICCYD).

Michelsen, E., Zaff, J.F., Haire, E.C. (2002). Civic Engagement Programs and Youth Development: A Synthesis. Child Trends (CT).

Pittman, K., Martin, S., Williams, A. (July 2007). Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change. The Forum for Youth Investment (FYI) & Oasis/Community IMPACT

Tiffany, J.S., Exner-Cortens, D., & Eckenrode, J. (2012). A new measure for assessing youth program participation. Journal of Community Psychology (40)(3), 277-291.

Toppe, C., Golombek, S., Kirsch, A.D., Michel, J. & Weber, M.A. (2002). Engaging Youth in Lifelong Service: Findings and Recommendations for Encouraging a Tradition of Voluntary Action Among America’s Youth. Independent Sector & Youth Service America.

Zeldin, S. & Collura, J. (2010). Being Y-AP savvy: A primer on creating and sustaining youth-adult partnerships. Ithaca, NY: ACT for Youth Center of Excellence Cornell University


Additional Resources

Charting Youth Involvement (a program assessment for adults), Innovation Center for Community & Youth

Fostering Adult-Youth Partnerships Toolkit ,Innovation Center for Community & Youth Development

Taking an Active Role with Adults Fact Sheet, Building Partnerships for Youth, National 4-H Council and the University of Arizona

What are youth-adult partnerships? Building Partnerships for Youth, National 4-H Council and the University of Arizona 

Youth-Adult Partnerships, Advocates for Youth

Youth Engagement, Youth-Adult Partnerships, National Research Center for Youth Development

Youth Leadership Toolkit 2011, National Research Center for Youth Development

Youth Voice Toolbox, The FreeChild Project