Providing Structured but Open-Ended Roles for Youth

Youth roles should be designed to support the youth’s personal growth by providing requirements and structure, but leaving flexibility for to foster their interests and strengths.

In practice,

  • The program design and the staff can help create a variety of roles for youth that: a) have clear expectations and requirements; and b) have sufficient flexibility to allow youth initiative and ownership and accommodate youth’s growing skills.
  • Staff help fit individual youth to roles appropriate to their interests and capacities.

Roles should be sufficiently structured to provide direction to the youth but contain enough flexibility to challenge the youth to adapt to circumstances and learn. For youth to learn responsibility, roles need to have requirements and demands. However, youth are not thrust into roles without being equipped and empowered with the resources to meet the demands of the role. In many cases, this balance of structure and flexibility with requirements and empowerment is enabled by training, assistance as needed, and supporting youth ownership.

At many of the SEL Challenge programs, as the projects progress, youths’ roles evolve when they begin directing portions of the sessions and assuming greater responsibilities. At Attitude, Harmony, Achievement (AHA!), youth may lead mindfulness or reflection exercises. At Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS), the leader of the day takes that role.

Quote markThe leader of the day is basically the third instructor. The instructors can download information to the leader of the day, and they can then go and talk to the group instead of the instructors having to do it. That helps transfer responsibility to the student.

Initially, the youth are given explicit directions to clarify the expectations of the roles they’ve been assigned. Brett Hart, Executive Director at Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (PWBF), shared how youth who are more experienced are asked to lead groups or teach participants who are newer to the program:

Quote markSome students have become proficient and are teaching other students how to use tools. There are also those informal roles where I’ll put people on a task and one who’s done it will teach the other student how to do it. This happens almost every session.

A variety of roles provide multiple opportunities for assignments to be fitted to youth’s interests and to evolve toward greater responsibility over time as youth’s capabilities grow.

Further Reading

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What structures or processes have worked for your program?