How to Start Youth Engagement
All adults believe they have met their share of “good kids”. You know, the ones who were excited to do activities and eager to please adults? Generally, they are excited at the right times, attentive when they’re supposed to be, and friendly almost all the time. I was not one of those kids myself.
While growing up in adverse situations of many types, I constantly switched my behaviors and attitudes. There were places and people I felt like pleasing, and others that I cared less about. I struggled to make adults happy sometimes, but mostly I just didn’t care.
Somewhere along the way though, I met an adult who changed my mind and lassoed me in. He consistently engaged me and readily made hay of my bad moods. To this day, 25 years later, I’m still appreciative of the effect he had on my heart and mind.
A lot of people who are earnestly, honestly, and meaningfully concerned with engaging children and youth simply don’t know how to reach the kids like I was. They want to be like the adult who changed my life and simply don’t know how.
When I began my career as a youth worker, I didn’t know how to do it either. However, after more than a decade working directly with children and youth in many different situations, I learned a few things. Here are 10 ways I found to be effective to begin engaging young people.
10 Ways to Sustain Youth Engagement
- Name your motivation. Spend some time in personal reflection about why you want to engage children and youth in your program. Name the reasons why you think it matters, and write down the answers you already have but haven’t thought of yet.
- Be honest with young people. Let them know that you want to engage them, and be frank about what you want from engaging them. If you want children to trust you, tell them so.
- Practice reciprocity with them. Relationships with children and youth work in circles, and how you feel and act towards them will come back toward you. That means that if you want young people in your program to be excited, you have to be excited.
- Keep it real. If young people in your program are hungry, they can’t be really concerned about being engaged with a program. If they’re lonely or tired or angry, they’re going to be challenged to engage with anything beyond those needs. Keep it real and meet their basic needs first.
- See the differences between friend and ally. Many children and youth don’t need adults in their lives to be their friends, per se. They want constructive, healthy relationships with you. Learn about being an adult ally to young people, including what that means and how that can happen.
- Stay consistent. Engaging young people who aren’t normally engaged requires acting in consistent, deliberate, and conscious ways. Don’t vary according to your mood or the situations you face.
- Honor their boundaries. Children and youth will reveal their rough edges and attitudes to you. If you honestly want to engage them, you have to learn to identify their boundaries and honor them accordingly, and challenge them when possible.
- Recognize their contexts. Young people have their own lives before and after they walk out of the door to your program. Recognize the contexts they’re operating from. Engaging with adults might be threatening in 9/10s of their lives, and despite your best intention, you might be challenging that 1/10. See that.
- Open doors when possible. Adults often use the phrase “servant leadership” when talking about volunteering or church or leadership. We can apply it with young people too. Open doors for them when you can, and be humble enough to learn what they’re teaching you.
- Play, have fun, and give space. Remember that being young means having fun, not just for kids, but you too. Engaging young people means playing and giving space for them to play. Don’t be afraid, they’ll see you for what you are – a true adult ally worth engaging with.
When you start with these steps, you’ll find others unfurl in front of you. I have found it to be incredibly useful to be willing to have fun, consistently be an adult, find and honor appropriate boundaries with young people, and facilitate meaningful activities that honor the intelligence and capacities of children and youth.
Over time, engaging with young people become bonds that can transcend many other situations in their lives. As you slowly become an ally, young people will turn to you for healthy support, meaningful conversation, and real change making. From that place, you can change their lives, your life, and the world.
There’s no higher calling in working with children and youth than to do just that. Engaging children and youth is the road to get there.
- Youth/Adult Partnerships
- Youth and Parents, Parenting and Families
- Adult Allies
- The Freechild Project Short Guide to Youth Engagement
- The Freechild Project Youth Engagement Workshop Guide
Other tools are out there, too – share your thoughts in the comments below! For more information about how The Freechild Project can support youth engagement in your community or organization, contact us.