Blog Post

Creating Programs that Support Initiative in Young Leaders

By Caitlin Donnelly from Youth on Board

Creating Programs that Support Initiative in Young Leaders

It is standard practice to greet the New Year with can-do attitudes and promises to ourselves that we will reach our self-improvement or goals. Whether it’s getting fit, saving money, moderating our time on social media, getting involved in a social movement we care about, or another resolution we set, challenges, distractions, and shifting priorities are sure to swoop in and threaten to get us off track. Initiative is what propels us forward, and what keeps us persevering even when we encounter stumbling blocks, lose interest, or feel overwhelmed.

Initiative is defined as “the capacity to take action, sustain motivation, and persevere through challenge toward an identified goal” by the Preparing Youth to Thrive guidebook. Initiative is similar to “grit,” which may be the buzzword of the decade thanks to Angela Lee Duckworth’s research on the topic. She defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long term goals.” Indeed, this sounds like a trait that would help those who possess it make progress toward their academic and post-secondary goals. However, in her 2013 TED talk, Ms. Duckworth admitted that she didn’t have an answer for how to build grit in kids.

With less buzz but plenty of effort and research, the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality studied 8 after school programs participating in the Susan Crown Exchange’s Social Emotional Learning Challenge to zero in on how initiative, as well as the 5 other SEL domains, are developed in youth participants.

Weikart concluded what Youth on Board already believed–that after school programs provide the perfect context for young people to gain the knowledge, experience, and skills necessary to developing initiative. Unlike earning high grades in school or degree-attainment, which is high-stakes, very long-term, and expected of all students, programs that run after school can give young people the opportunity to set goals based on what is important to them and move from feeling powerless to being agents of change through thoughtful, strategic action.

Once goals are set, distractions need to be minimized. We don’t expect young people to leave their emotions at the door and we have learned that making space for them to process their feelings about what is going on in their lives and the world is necessary to sustaining motivation and creating change. Every other week we set aside program sessions devoted exclusively to peer support and talking through challenging emotions and situations. During campaign work session when tensions run high or the group seems preoccupied with internal or interpersonal struggles we create space to process emotions and regroup. Success doesn’t come by pushing past what is holding us back, but confronting it head on and having compassion for ourselves and each other.

At the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), a youth organizing group co-administered by Youth on Board, young people are put at the center of decisions that affect them most and work directly with decision-makers and their peers to influence policy and create positive school climates. Young people choose the campaigns that they connect with and feel urgent–usually selecting issues that negatively affect them and their peers. Over the years we have developed a project planning packet that includes worksheets to prompt them through each phase of the process of choosing a campaign and developing a plan of action.

Setting the right goals is the critical first step of initiative. In the project planning packet the “How to Choose an Issue” worksheet asks BSAC members to take the issues they’ve brainstormed as potential campaigns and projects rank them. To rank the issues they evaluate each on criteria including “Is this something people care deeply about?” “Will it result in a noticeable improvement?” and “Build leadership?” among others. Getting youth to discuss, reflect, and articulate their thoughts in this way helps them build motivation to persevere in the face of challenges.

This year BSAC’s Student Engagement subcommittee set their sights on securing voting rights for the student representative to the Boston School Committee. To achieve this goal they will need to come up with a strategy, work collaboratively, develop relationships with stakeholders, and enact a campaign plan. These young leaders will face opposition and skepticism from adults and some of their peers, challenging their ability to persevere. With support, encouragement, and recognition from staff they will make progress–even if they fall short of their goal this year.

According to an 11th grader that has been in the program for over a year now,

“It almost doesn’t matter if we don’t get student vote this year. I mean, yeah, we want it and it will happen eventually, but the most important thing is that we keep trying and inspire the people that come after us to keep working on it.”


Caitlin is an alumna of AmeriCorps*VISTA and the Massachusetts Promise Fellowship. Her passion for service, storytelling, and youth voice are evident in her work with the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), particularly around action civics initiatives. Caitlin oversees BSAC alumni staff, provides administrative support to YOB and BSAC staff, and assists with fundraising and development.

That sounds like initiative, doesn’t it?

Ultimately, initiative isn’t something we are born with. It is a habit that we build through practice after realizing that hard work and persevering through challenges can yield the greater achievements than what comes easily. In 2017, let’s resolve to develop initiative–within ourselves and within the young people we serve.

Caitlin Donnelly, Program Manager

Join the Discussion

Learn more about the best practices for social and emotional learning.

Download the guide