Supporting Youth-Led Projects

Staff must provide sufficient structure to youth-driven projects.

In practice, staff can approach this by:

  • Providing training experiences for youth to help them learn project-related skills;
  • Placing a high priority on youth having latitude to make choices and learn from experimenting within their projects; and
  • Setting high expectations and structure projects that are achievable (e.g., by setting goals, setting timelines and deadlines, setting boundaries).

Staff must provide sufficient structure and training within their programs if youth are to have a successful learning experience. Projects often require or involve learning project-specific skills: the how-to of leadership, cooking, theater performance, canoeing, etc. The youth are also given instruction and training in the mental processes and actions involved in problem solving and other social and emotional skills. Some training is structured within a preparatory period before launching into the primary program activity. Other training is ongoing and sometimes impromptu with guidance and explanation supplied as the need arises.

The idea that youth must have agency and ownership over some or all of the decisions within a project is fundamental to many of the SEL Challenge programs. In order to maximize youth agency, staff are intentional in adjusting their position of authority. They often emphasize equality in the relationship and position themselves as co-learners. Across the board, program staff believe in giving youth autonomy and leeway to learn, practice, and make mistakes on their own. They want the youth to feel ownership so, as youth become more confident, the staff gradually lessen the amount of structure and guidance they offer.

Quote markThe students are really the ones leading. In the beginning we had to do the modeling for it; set it up and then let the students take over. It’s the environment we’ve been working to create, that this is their space.

While continuing to support youth’s decision making and agency, staff also monitor youth’s work and provide feedback. This balance helps youth ultimately succeed with high quality work. This helps reinforce self-efficacy and future motivation. In social action programs, there is an emphasis on starting with “easy wins.”

Further Reading

Join the Discussion

How does your organization balance the push and pull of providing structure while creating opportunities for youth to solve problems on their own?