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Youth Development: What Doesn't Work

In my first post on youth development, I explained some of the reasons why it’s practical and important to include youth development in the mission of cultural institutions and organizations.

But what actually works and what doesn’t? We all want children and youth to have positive experiences, to become active participants in their communities, and discover all their opportunities…but how do we provide all that?

What's Not Working In Youth Development

You might even be working in cultural spaces because you saw how institutional models failed you and your peers, and you want to provide new generations with the experiences that those models do not.

The difficulty is that, even if we tell ourselves that we want what is best for kids and youths, we can sometimes replicate problematic models unintentionally, simply because they were drilled into us to the point that we do not recognize or question them.

As an intro to creating effective youth development in our nonprofits and communities, let’s look at a few things we need to learn and unlearn to do our best work.

It's Okay To Not Know Everything

As we’ve already established, proper youth development is about facilitating, not dictating. We are facilitating lessons in accountability and stewardship, building respect, confidence and curiosity, and making their learning process enjoyable and personal.

We don’t lose control or respect with kids by admitting we don’t know something if we have set the expectation that we are working with them, rather than controlling them.

In fact, that honesty is likely to earn trust and respect if you have already created and maintained a respectful learning environment.

Everyone benefits in this case: Kids keep their curiosity and the ability to ask, rather than getting taught to have anxiety about not knowing, because they won’t see it in you. You get to avoid that yourself, along with the potential to keep fueling your own curiosity.

Rethinking Our Authority

We may feel such anxiety about not knowing something in the moment because of our own abusive dynamics with institutions, authorities, and businesses as youth AND adults. We may have internalized the notion that not knowing something is a sign of weakness and incompetence.

If we are thinking about our role correctly, then we have no reason to feel this way, because we aren’t asking kids and youth to submit to rules that we ourselves don’t have to follow. Further, let’s remember that having respect for our peers, our environment, and our future selves isn’t something that we are compelled to do by rules. Humans come by this quite naturally if their environment is conducive to it.

Let’s also recognize that when we feel anxiety about losing respect and control in a learning environment, it may be because the agency of the participants wasn’t adequately considered from the start. The clearer that we are about the intent and scope of the program and the more accountable that we are about delivering on that promise, the more buy-in we get from parents and youths. This also builds deeper trust in your organization as a whole.

Learn Their Passions, So That They Can Learn From Their Passions

School can be a harmful place for a lot of people. It’s not just about bullying from peers or abusive authorities. It can be psychologically and emotionally devastating for students who don’t respond to a specific form of instruction, and can lead them to believe that they are dumb or just incapable of certain subjects.

In January, Temple Grandin published an op-ed explaining the struggles of visual thinkers and autistic students in typical classroom settings. This topic is increasingly mainstream, but actual changes in pedagogy are lagging.

Math is a prime example. So many kids think that they can’t do math, that they are not smart enough for it. This can demoralize them about other subjects, or about learning in general. And what is tragic is that they might actually be very good at math… just not at acquiring math skills from a typical classroom setting.

The exact opposite is possible, too. If someone is passionate about something, they might actually be able to learn other subjects through that mode, because they are more visual or spatial learners. 

It turns out that teaching math through football is really easy, and I know that because when I was coaching football, I met a lot of youths who thought they were always going to be bad at math even though they were doing math (even physics) all the time on the field. All it took was me helping them see how they were already applying it, and with that framing they were able to better understand the subject in the classroom as well.

Re-establish The Connection Between Ideas

Given the right setting, kids and youth are unstoppable learners and creators. You have to learn along with them, or they will leave you behind, call you out, and resist further support from you – and possibly future educators, if it escalates.

But as I said above, you won’t have the answers to every question, nor do you need them. The problem for many students is that the highly compartmental and standardized approach to schooling divides subjects from each other and our less academic passions, so they don’t know where to look or how to cross those interests.

Help them see connections and resources that will light their way, and that will be even more valuable to students than a simple answer.

Sports and math were just one example. Art and life sciences, food and geography, chemistry and computing – our educational system omits so much even when it is doing its best. Youth development isn’t a supplement to this, but an entirely different paradigm that fosters tenacious exploration, and will keep your mind open and flexible, too, and that is an essential quality of any leader in a truly dynamic cultural organization.

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