Youth Development

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / creatista

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / creatista

When conducting an online search for “positive youth development,” one will likely find a wide range of definitions and approaches. For me, positive youth development is a guiding view or philosophy that considers each child as someone who can contribute immediately, as well as someone who—with appropriate guidance and support—can grow and develop into an even healthier and more capable individual.

The “old-school” view of a “good” child was one who did what was told, didn’t interfere with others, and generally didn’t cause any trouble. Little or no consideration was given to whether the child was happy, learning, growing, or developing to reach the maximum potential. There is not a “one-size-fits-all” end goal to development. From a positive youth-development prospective, each individual is seen as already bringing something(s) special to society or a larger group, and the goal is to increase that ability to contribute by enhancing one’s health, skills, and confidence, no matter the current place developmentally. Not every child is or will be good at the same things, but every child is good at certain things, and helping him or her realize those talents, building skills and a sense of efficacy, and encouraging the child to realize the potential is the goal of the youth-development professional.

So let’s look at how the most successful youth programs select and develop staff members. Not surprisingly, success begins and ends with hiring and training. Just like the youth they work with, each staff member is not good at every activity/skill, nor is every adult cut out to work with youth (especially using a positive youth-development approach). And there are other factors that parks and recreation agencies may have to contend with that sometimes make it a struggle to find staff for seasonal or part-time programs, such as the hours offered and the rate of compensation. Even with these inherent challenges, there are a few questions to ask, and certain measures to be taken to find and utilize the right people in the most effective manner. 

Training And Interviewing

Let’s start with the interview. How many administrators have interviewed a prospective staff member who, in response to the question, “Why are you interested in this job?” replied, “Because I love kids”? If that is the best the applicant has, I usually say, “Thanks for your time,” and I move on. “Loving” kids is great, and necessary, but that response is completely insufficient when it comes to working with them effectively. I become much more interested when I hear “because I love to teach soccer” or “I had a great swimming teacher, and I want to be that for someone else.” Adopting the youth-development philosophy is about investing time and energy in forming positive relationships with youth. If I don’t hear something that leads me to believe that that is what a potential hire is looking for, I’m hesitant to make an offer.

A person has to show, tell, and repeat expectations for working with youth in everything he or she does. For example, telling staff members all about youth development and then giving them instructions/plans/drills that fail to encourage conversations, skill creation, and relationship building misses the mark, and sends conflicting messages. Every conversation, activity, plan, and interaction between administrators and staff members, and between staff members and youth, are opportunities to practice a positive youth-development approach. It is not easy, and there will be times when opportunities are missed, but those who are committed and keep trying will be amazed at the positive influence a program will have. Give it a try and let me know what happens.

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