Staff and leaders are at the heart of every youth program. Recruiting and retaining experienced, qualified individuals and giving them the support and training they need is a primary challenge for every organization. Deborah Moroney of the American Institutes for Research explored research on the characteristics of the workforce that serves in out-of-school youth programs and offered ideas for building their capacity to support positive development. Noelle Hurd of the University of Virginia, Rob Jagers of the University of Michigan, and Mary Keller of the Military Child Education Coalition offered their perspectives on the role of culture and context in the development of supportive relationships between young people and program staff.
Deborah Moroney said she has experienced many of the roles associated with youth organizations, starting as a participant in an after-school program, becoming a junior counselor at age 14, and eventually working her way to program director. Throughout that tenure, she commented, she did not have access to the kinds of information and guidance that are available to practitioners now. But even now, she observed, it is not easy for practitioners to identify the information that will be useful to them in the ever-increasing volume of literature and resources. She drew on available research to identify some key points related to the characteristics and role of the youth program workforce (Moroney, 2016).
Programs and Their Objectives
One challenge, Moroney noted, is to sort through the concepts of character and development that researchers have described, which are complex, as Larry Nucci of the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated (see Chapter 2). Despite differences among the three basic conceptual categories—character development, positive youth development, and social and emotional learning—they all derive from a common theoretical framework in the fields of psychology and human development, in Moroney’s view. For the purpose of supporting out-of-school program staff, the key is that each can be applied in settings that offer young people experiences intentionally designed to support their social and emotional development.
Research on out-of-school youth development programs indicates that high-quality ones share several attributes, Moroney continued, regardless of the conceptual underpinnings of their missions. These programs offer young people
- a safe and supportive environment in which to share experiences that are relevant and engaging;
- the opportunity to experience a sense of belonging, positive relationships, and shared norms; and
- the opportunity to build both practical and other skills, explore interests, learn, and reflect.
Programs that have these three attributes, Moroney explained, provide conditions in which young people can develop in positive ways. Nevertheless, the question of whether positive youth development is the same thing as social and emotional learning or character development is an important one, Moroney noted, and her answer is “yes and no.” Studies demonstrate that high-quality youth programs can support positive development, but in her view those that aim specifically to develop character or social and emotional learning goals must take additional intentional steps. Such steps fit well into the missions of high-quality out-of-school programs, she explained, but the character-related learning goals must be explicit parts of the mission—and staff must be well prepared to pursue them.
The Out-of-School Program Workforce
The workforce that programs rely on to create high-quality settings and experiences is segmented, Moroney explained. This population works in camps, scouting, other national organizations, child care programs, and many other kinds of settings, so it has been a challenge for researchers to define and collect data about this workforce. Existing data indicate
that there are approximately 1 million adults employed in out-of-school programs, and most are either young adults just entering the workforce or older adults changing careers after decades of work. In either case, Moroney noted, they are relatively new to the youth program workforce and relatively inexperienced. About half of these individuals have a 2- or 4-year degree in a related field, such as education or social work. The vast majority, she noted, are part-time workers and their pay is modest; staff turnover in the field is very high. “We’re asking a lot of people” in a career trajectory that is not well supported, she added.
Influencing Social and Emotional Learning
Moroney found three themes in the research about how youth workers contribute to the social and emotional development of program participants. First, effective youth workers play a key role in recruiting young people to participate in the first place and encouraging them to continue. This means that staff turnover likely hurts youth recruitment and attendance, she noted. Second, staff with higher levels of preparation tend to be more engaged in the programs themselves and to be more successful at engaging young people. The same is true of staff who receive more—and more effective—professional development. Few programs, however, offer specific supports designed to assist youth work professionals in their career pathways. In Moroney’s view, much more could be done, drawing on examples from early childhood and other contexts, to support, develop, and retain engaged and effective workers in the out-of-school arena.
Third, the relationships that develop between program staff and young people are key to the development of character and social and emotional learning, Moroney said. Strong relationships not only help young people develop, she explained, but also engage the adults and help motivate them to stay with a program. There is a strong body of research on how these relationships form and how programs can foster them, she noted.
Looking beyond the staff members themselves, the research also suggests some specific factors that help programs marshal an effective staff to develop social and emotional learning in young people. In addition to hiring and supporting a qualified and well-prepared staff, programs need to support the staff in developing strong relationships with young people, and design ways for each young person to practice and build skills and to take on leadership roles in activities that engage them. “If these things are in place,” Moroney continued, “young people will have the experiences that really are the catalyst for developing social and emotional competencies.” Seeing young people make this sort of progress, she added, is a prime reason highly qualified workers stay in the field.
“This is a lot to do” for a workforce that is not compensated well and does not have a traditional educational pathway, and in which there is high turnover, Moroney pointed out. Yet youth workers want very much to contribute to young people’s social and emotional development, she said. Surveys have shown that youth workers are hesitant about how well prepared they are to do this work and are eager for more training and guidance in this area.
Moroney acknowledged that the complexity of the overlapping frameworks for thinking about this kind of development can be daunting for program staff and leaders. She said she hopes program leaders and staff will recognize that whatever conceptual focus is adopted—such as character education or social and emotional learning—the mission of positive development is one that has always been part of the reason out-of-school youth programs exist. “Many youth workers’ eyes glaze over when they hear about another ‘new thing,’” Moroney commented, “and we need to make sure this is not another new thing.” New ideas about how to support young people’s positive development should contribute to the way staff think about all the activities and strategies they already pursue, not replace them.
Moroney sought the views of research and practice leaders in the field on how youth workers can best be supported in pursuing the mission of promoting positive development. They agreed on the importance of several points, particularly organizational support for professional development. She noted the importance of learning from other fields about this area. For example, research on workers and the workplace across many fields and careers has increasingly focused on the importance of social and emotional and other noncognitive skills. This research has suggested that supporting all adults in their career and developmental pathways benefits both workers and employers, Moroney noted.
The leaders she consulted did not agree on how to address the complexity of and overlap among concepts of character or positive development. Practice leaders argued for identifying a simple framework that could be widely applied, incorporating common elements from existing ones. Researchers, Moroney noted, did not. She suggested that from a common-sense perspective, a common framework and vocabulary would be especially helpful in an environment where there is significant job mobility. It is not uncommon for youth workers to work at more than one organization at the same time, for example, and it would be much easier for those workers, as well as those who change jobs frequently, to become familiar with a single framework and develop expertise with it over time, than to shift gears with every move.
Moroney closed with ideas about next steps for research. The individuals she consulted particularly emphasized the value of implementation studies, data on the characteristics of the youth workforce, and the impacts the practices designed to foster positive development have in young people’s later lives.
The three discussants offered their perspectives on how culture and context influence the relationships youth program staff develop with young people, the goals adults have for this work, and how programs can use these insights to strengthen their work.
Developing Supportive Adult–Youth Relationships
Adolescents are becoming independent, learning to differentiate themselves from their parents, and exploring adult models they might emulate, noted Noelle Hurd. She added that this is a time of life when nonparental adults can play an especially important role in young people’s social and emotional learning. An adult who has experience in an area in which the young person is interested can be a role model, a mentor, or a coach. With training in the development of social and emotional skills, however, that adult can offer even more, she suggested. An experienced adult can guide a young person through developmental steps he or she is ready to make and reinforce the social and emotional learning opportunities that occur naturally in the activity they share. These are the kinds of benefits youth programs that aim to build character hope to offer young people, but doing so requires the right staff, Hurd noted.
Another benefit young people gain from experiencing this kind of relationship, Hurd pointed out, is the experience of trusting adults outside their families. Being able to find the right person to turn to when they need guidance and cultivate this kind of relationship will help them negotiate challenges as they grow up and also as adults. Youth are more likely to cultivate these relationships in settings where there are a number of adults who are skilled at connecting with youth, she added. When youth have the chance to select the adults they feel most comfortable with, the relationship is likely to be stronger.
These relationships are fostered when there are structured activities that allow young people to engage with adults in an informal way and build closeness and trust, Hurd continued. It is also critical that the environment feel safe to young people, so that they can be open about areas where they feel uncertain or vulnerable, and open to learning new things. Demonstrating respect for young people’s voices is one way adults create a safe
environment, she added. Adults in these settings are uniquely positioned to help young people forge connections between their home and school lives and the communities in which they live.
Hurd agreed with Moroney that the workforce that is expected to develop these relationships faces challenges, including high turnover, limited hours, low pay and status, and limited opportunities for advancement. She suggested several pathways forward.
Some are ways to make the career path for out-of-school workers more appealing. Several universities now offer degrees in youth work, she noted, including the University of Virginia; they provide not only preparation but also status for youth workers. Student loan forgiveness policies could help such programs recruit top-notch young people, she added. Many youth workers cobble together more than one position in order to earn an adequate living, in part because few out-of-school jobs are full-time. It would be possible, Hurd suggested, to structure employment opportunities that “straddle school and after-school time,” providing workers with greater consistency and predictability.
Examples from K-12 education, as well as other fields, could broaden thinking about professional development for youth workers, Hurd added. Online resources and organized professional networks are among the avenues that are not widely pursued in the out-of-school context. Peer mentoring and evaluation and feedback strategies, such as supportive observation, are others. Concrete opportunities for advancement, such as trainings that offer continuing education credits, are also strategies that could help programs recruit and retain high-quality staff, in her view.
Hurd closed with some observations about the role of social justice in the work that adults do in out-of-school programs, and the need for training to prepare them to both model and teach. Empowerment for young people and respect for their voices are important elements of programs that aim to foster social and emotional development, but they can be new for workers who were raised with different norms. Being attuned to and responsive to young people and the social context in which they are growing up is also essential for youth workers, she added. The concept of critical consciousness, she continued, is an educational tool through which educators engage young people in thinking critically about social and historical influences that shape their own circumstances, such as long-standing social and economic inequities and oppression of minority populations. The opportunity to work in partnership with trusted adults in advocacy or activism for a cause in which they have a shared commitment can be an invaluable learning experience, Hurd pointed out. Training can build youth workers’ understanding of these ideas and capacity to integrate them into their daily encounters with young people.
This kind of thinking is especially important for adults working with young people who experience disadvantage and racism directly, Hurd ex-
plained. Training and ongoing support are key to helping youth workers examine their own potential biases and adopt cultural humility—an openness to and curiosity about other cultural backgrounds and experiences—Hurd commented, particularly when the adults and young people are bridging differences in race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic experience. Youth development programs aim to build on young people’s strengths, Hurd noted, and this is also particularly important for programs that serve marginalized youths. Young people in challenged communities can derive long-term benefits when a trusted adult helps them to identify strengths in their own character, as well as assets in their homes and schools.
Reflections on Culture and Context
Rob Jagers offered his ideas about how to frame challenging and complex questions of culture and context. The United States is experiencing rapid demographic shifts, he observed, and social, political, and economic inequities are a part of the national fabric of life. In particular, disparities in access to health care, the quality of physical environments, and wealth have profound impacts on people’s lives. These inequities are based on differences of race, class, gender, and religion, and “we wrestle as a country,” he noted, with both identifying the causes and identifying ways to correct them. Programs around the world that are led by young people are addressing these inequities, Jagers continued, and their idealism and accomplishments are examples for youth programs in the United States. Young people’s eagerness to take on these challenges can inspire adults, he added.
Jagers described the assumptions that guide his own work in this area. He is interested in helping to develop the next generation of informed and engaged global citizens, he explained, and he believes in participatory democracy. He said he believes that issues of race, culture, and class are often conflated and that they should be disentangled. Because inequities, discrimination, and oppression are woven into society, he commented that sociopolitical development is needed to bring about meaningful change. Schools and extended learning settings are opportunities for this kind of learning, he suggested.
Jagers proposed some ways that social and emotional learning approaches can be connected to social justice goals. For example, he explained, young people sometimes react to their oppressed and marginalized status with frustration and resentment, engaging in risky behaviors such as unsafe sex or violence.1 Some strategies for risk prevention and reduction of risk
1 He defined oppression as asymmetrical power relations that are reflected in deprivation, discrimination, exclusion, and exploitation, and explained that it can be internalized by oppressed groups, who act in ways that run counter to their own best interests as a result.
behaviors, based in research on social and emotional learning, may have what he described as a reactionary or self-defeating character if they focus on “tamping down” the behaviors, but lack any critique of the oppressive system that fosters them and are not anchored in ideas of social justice.2
Strategies that focus on building resilience or social and emotional competencies without addressing system-level social justice concerns might be described as conformist, he continued, if their aim is to promote justice within the existing social order, not to alter its unjust attributes.
By contrast, an approach in which adults support young people in working to promote a more just and equitable world by facilitating their resistance to inequities and injustice would be “transformational,” in his view. He suggested that this is common in the context of youth organizing, and is in line with the approaches Hurd had discussed.
A focus on the goals of programs designed to build character naturally leads to questions about cultural context, Jagers continued. Social scientists view culture as primarily subjective, he pointed out. He defined culture as the themes and orientations that shape collective norms, beliefs, values, and behaviors, and noted that these themes influence individuals and their relationships, as well as societal institutions. Thus, he explained, culture shapes people’s sense of “personhood,” their “cognitive, affective, and behavioral style.” It also shapes gender roles, familial roles, relationships among social groups, and people’s interactions with the natural world. Culture is not static—it evolves over time—but it is transmitted across generations, and is particularly expressed through the functioning of institutions, including schools, churches, and out-of-school programs.
Jagers pointed to stances from which U.S. culture has been critiqued, noting that they can be the basis for infusing ideas about how to make the world more equitable and just into a character education or youth development program. Theories about the underpinnings of global capitalism, rational choice theory, and neoliberalism all include this kind of cultural critique, he noted. An Afrocultural orientation, he added, would focus on the importance of spirituality, communal thinking, and the interdependence of healthy societies.
Many programs have developed strategies for building the cultural awareness of adults and youth, Jagers noted. He agreed with Hurd that critical consciousness and social and political development are tools for engaging young people in understanding the nature of oppression and privilege and recognizing the roles they themselves can play in challenging these sources of inequity and injustice. By engaging this way, out-of-school settings can be “empowering settings,” he added.
2 Jagers noted that social justice has many meanings and that he was focused primarily in this context on distributive social justice, intended to reduce inequity and deprivation.
More specifically, he added, the ways adults interact with young people could be understood as a continuum. At one end is a relationship in which the adult is in complete control of the situation and treats the young person as a “vessel” into which knowledge and wisdom are poured. In the middle would be a situation in which the adult and the youth share control, and young people have an active role and voice in what happens. At the other end would be a relationship in which youth are autonomous and have total control of the situation.
In his own work with young people, Jagers noted, he is guided by the idea that young people need to experience autonomy. Out-of-school programs are ideal settings for them to identify and analyze challenges for themselves, and to plan and implement their responses, with the thoughtful guidance of trained adults. He encouraged participants to explore the Wolverine Pathways program at the University of Michigan, which exemplifies this approach.3 This program is designed to boost the academic, social, and cultural preparation of low-income Michigan high school students to increase their chances to enroll at the University of Michigan and complete a degree there. The program focuses on helping young people take on the role of “change agents,” to improve the well-being of their communities.
Mary Keller used the example of military children to focus on the challenges that face highly mobile children and the ways youth programs can support them. There are currently approximately 2 million children whose parents are serving in some way in the armed forces, she noted. These children move an average of once every 2 to 3 years because of their military parents’ responsibilities, Keller noted, and this means they change schools often. Only approximately 8 percent are enrolled in Department of Defense schools, she added, yet all of these children “need consistent and reliable programming.”
Frequent moves affect children’s academic trajectories, Keller commented, and also their social and emotional learning. Many of these children are also exposed to significant stress and trauma. For example, there is a population of nearly 2 million children whose parents are veterans of conflict that took place after September 11, 2001. Children and families often continue to have stresses related to a parent’s military service even after the parent leaves the military, she added, noting that female veterans with children are a growing segment of the homeless population in the United States. Positive youth development is very important for these overlapping populations of children, Keller emphasized.
Youth-serving programs seek to mitigate the risks that children and young people face and also to marshal the protective factors that work in their favor, so it is vital that the program leaders and staff understand the population with whom they are working, Keller pointed out. It is also very important that they not have a deficit model—a primary focus on the risks and challenges children face—in thinking about how to serve a group of children or youth, she added. The resilience military children tend to develop is widely recognized, she added. What is most important to children, she suggested, is that adults really listen to what they have to say.
Professional development, in Keller’s view, is perhaps the most important ingredient in youth development programs. It is far too easy, she added, to put extensive resources into professional development that is ultimately not effective in helping teachers and youth workers in changing the way they work with young people. Often what is needed, she added, is “a convoy of support” that guides and helps teachers and youth workers in implementing new ideas and understanding how they can be integrated with what they are already doing.
The same principle applies for military children and others who move frequently, Keller continued. The mission of the Military Child Coalition is to help make sure military children have inclusive, high-quality educational opportunities, and a part of the work is to find ways to build elements of consistency into children’s lives, even as they move. The needs of military children are becoming more widely recognized, Keller noted. These children have recently been officially designated as a population subgroup about whom data will be collected by the U.S. Department of Education, for example, although Keller worries that the limitations of statistical methods will telescope the complex social and emotional needs of this population into broad, uninformative categories. She closed with the hope that programming and other supports for military children will continue to reflect the complex understanding of social and emotional learning and character development discussed at the workshop.
Many comments addressed the differences between and overlap among the ways researchers have framed the objectives of building character or helping young people develop in a positive way. A focus on the differences is “a giant risk to the entire endeavor we all care so much about,” one participant said. In his view it is critical that practitioners and researchers “build on what we know rather than swapping out one trend for another.” Several people expressed agreement. One suggested that supporting young people’s growth is a consistent theme across all of the frameworks. Another commented that “the DNA [of the frameworks] is the same—no one wants
to miss the opportunity to develop young people’s assets.” “Whatever we call it, out-of-school programs are good at it,” noted another.
A number of ways of skirting the differences were offered, including
- using discipline-based project learning, where the focus is on other goals but ways of building young people’s strengths are woven in. This might be done by inserting “intentional practices” designed to teach about character into activities that engage young people for other reasons;
- focusing on ways program staff can demonstrate and integrate the skills and practices they hope young people will develop; and
- recruiting “near-peer” mentors, junior staff, or volunteers just slightly older than youth in a program who can connect with them on a more equal footing, and train them to bring thinking about character strengths into their work.
The last point on that issue was that research-practice partnerships are of real value in addressing this challenge. They help researchers understand how their ideas function in practice and they also empower practitioners to think more broadly about what they are doing.
Other comments focused on the risk that youth programs designed to build character strengths may reinforce social conformity. “We pat ourselves on the back” for our commitment to democracy and equal opportunity even though both are very imperfect in the United States, one person commented. He welcomed the reminder to question assumptions and implicit biases. No youth program should “encourage young people to take their assumed place,” e.g., a low-skill job, this person noted. Youth programs should be places where adults help young people demand a reshaping of society, in this person’s view.
Another participant noted that programs that work with underserved young people too often have a “deficit/problem model” and focus on “what it will take to help them succeed.” Following up, another person pointed to the importance of recognizing the role of power and privilege in relationships between youth and adults. In that vein, another noted that though these subjects can sometimes be uncomfortable, youth program activities naturally present countless “teachable moments” in which well-prepared adults can bring these broader issues “in from the margins.”
Thoughtful training and support for youth workers are critical to help them “create a safe space for courageous conversation,” another person noted. This kind of training is needed at every level, this person added, and should be treated as a basic, “on par with the criminal background check.” Making sure that program leaders and staff have this support should be a priority for those at the policy and funder levels who hope to have broader
impacts on equity. Another participant followed up on this point by noting the power funders have in determining what is best practice and what ideas will be supported. Funders have a very significant influence on the out-of-school sphere, this person observed, and that power is a serious responsibility.