Who Experiences Youth Engagement

Are you a young person who wants to become engaged? Because of your age, you have special abilities to make things happen, and the world needs you to make positive, powerful changes.

Every youth can experience youth engagement. Here are some examples; if you’re not listed here you can still make a difference. Your race, social class, sexual orientation, economic level, educational level, attitude, religion, family, and many other identities can help you.

Following are some youth who can experience youth engagement.

  • Disengaged Youth—Youth who appear disengaged from youth programs or classes often want very much for their voices to be heard. Disengaged youth can become engaged by focusing on the direct experiences in their lives and those of their communities’, including improving community development or developing conflict meditation skills. Learn about disengaged youth.
  • Highly Motivated Youth—Creating engaging and sustainable activities for youth who are academically and socially successful can be challenging for the most experienced youth worker. Providing highly motivated youth opportunities for mutual mentoring experiences can be a particularly successful strategy for these young people. Learn about motivated youth.
  • Young Women—There are few opportunities for young women to make their unique experiences, voices, and actions heard throughout our society. Deliberately engaging young women can engage their communities in powerful change.
  • Migrant Youth—Youth who move to different areas of the country or continent throughout the school year face particular challenges. Their constant movement, which may follow the farm season or other economic cycles, may conflict with the intentions of adults who work with them. Youth workers may feel pressure to “catch up” other migrants, and youth program workers might feel discouraged at what they perceive as their inability to support these youthsd.
  • Children—Youth engagement is often seen as the domain of teenagers, thus the name “youth engagement.” Young children are sometimes seen as incapable of informing, making, challenging, or reflecting on what is routinely done to them, without their input. However, the phrase “Youth engagement” applies to the energy of children by encapsulating the potential of their roles as active, meaningful, and significant contributors in their lives. Everyday elementary-age students become engaged in service learning activities. Elementary students begin to associate their families within their larger communities, and can strengthen their own engagement by mapping their influence and authority in their community.
  • Young Teens—When working with young students, Youth Voice seems like a great idea that inherently feels good. However, perhaps more than any other age group, positive experiences with Youth Voice are essential to middle school students. Youth development relies on identity and belonging during these years, and Youth Voice is central to strengthening those traits. Positive experiences with Youth Voice can help young people feel empowered and purposeful, and create a pathway for action throughout their teens. For others, Youth Voice can make difficult experiences less challenging, and make difficult adults less alienating. In middle school young people can strengthen their sense of community-belonging through youth councils and advisory committees that guide decision-making and improve services.
  • Older Youth—In high school there are a lot of opportunities to connect young people to change. That can mean opening the doors of service learning, media-making, political action, and other methods. In some communities that means making new doors where none exist. Youth Voice makes sense for high school-age students as a learning tool, a community connection, and a lifelong influence. High school students can conduct broad examinations of social, educational, political, legal, or cultural bias against young people, and develop specific and concrete projects that respond to their observations.
  • Alternative School Students—Students in alternative schools across the state may be at these schools because it is their “last stop” before dropping out or being expelled. They may also see their schools as a “last chance” to graduate on-time. They generally have a high need for ownership over their learning and belonging to a community. By engaging young people in alternative schools adults can foster and support feelings of ownership, belonging, purpose, and empowerment among students who desperately need – and want – those experiences. Students can create classes, evaluate their own performance, teach peers and train teachers, as well as make decisions about every facet of learning.
  • Youth from Diverse Socio-Economic Backgrounds—Class and economic backgrounds make important differences in Youth Voice. Many young people today are sedated by mass media, culled into believing that the brands they wear and the soda they drink are the most important ways their voices can be heard. In many middle class communities it has become a cultural norm for young people to be habitually disengaged from the decision-making that affects them most. Similarly, young people in low-income areas may feel routinely distrustful and angry towards adults, as their interactions are regularly marked by negativity. Young people from affluent areas may feel overly influential and controlling of the situations in which they are engaged. Each of these differences is important to acknowledge.
  • Out-of-School Youth—Whether young people homeschool, “unschool,” or dropout of school, Youth Voice can provide an effective way to continue learning, engaging, and interacting with the communities they live in. By creating projects, leading programs, or evaluating their own life experiences, Youth Voice can become an expectation – not an exception – in daily life and learning.
  • Incarcerated Youth—The situations that incarcerated youth face are clearly different from young people in the community – but their need to be heard, acknowledged, and empowered is just as vital. Youth Voice in juvenile justice programs can be realized through reflective writing that simply shares the stories of youth. By encouraging incarcerated youth to critically examine their experiences, adults can empower these young people to learn from their mistakes. Then, by working with supportive adults, incarcerated youth can be successful contributors to their future by creating a life plan based on their past experiences. Learn more about incarcerated youth.
  • Homeless Youth—Physical, mental, or emotional abuse, parental alcoholism, poverty, multi-generational homelessness, and myriad other factors drive children and youth onto the streets. Programs designed to meet the needs of these young people can actually do the greatest justice by acknowledging youth. Meaningful decision-making, skill-sharing, life planning, and reflection on their lives can lead homeless youth to reengage as community members. This sense of belonging has as many positive affects as there are factors that make youth homeless in the first place, if not more. Learn more about homeless youth.
  • Foster Youth—Growing up in unstable situations, sometimes being forcibly removed from family, being thrust into the lives of strangers… these aren’t ideal situations for engaging young people. However, when young people participate in the decision-making that affects them most, they consistently report feeling empowered, purposeful, and stronger. Research shows these experiences build resilience and belonging. Foster youth can be engaged in designing life plans, informing system operations, and consulting their learning and living situations, as well as many other ways. Learn more about foster youth.
  • Linguistic Youth—Learners focus on language and how it is used. They might remember names, places, and dates easily, and spell words quickly. Youth Voice programs can focus on words, sounds, and meanings, and spend a lot of time reading and writing.
  • Musical Youth—Learners focus on music, rhythm, and pitch. They concentrate more when music is played, sing to themselves a lot or make up songs to remember details. Youth Voice programs involve these learners in making music, analyzing music, and teaching other people music.
  • Logical-Mathematical Youth—Learners focus on patterns, numbers, and logical relationships. They are good at math problems, puzzles, and mental challenges. Youth Voice programs can use computers, graphic design, and logic activities.
  • Spatial Youth—Learners focus on shapes, locations, and distances. They are good designers and builders. Youth Voice programs can focus on community planning, building design, and creating charts and maps.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Youth—Learners focus on physical skills and movement. They are good actors, athletes, and craftspeople who do not like to sit still. Youth Voice programs teach these young people through constant activity.
  • Interpersonal Youth—Learners focus on understanding and dealing with other people. They are very social, often trying to understand peoples’ motives and feelings. Youth Voice programs can focus on communication, and give young people opportunities to organize their communities.
  • Intrapersonal Youth—Learners focus on understanding themselves. They are self-sufficient, confident, and opinionated, and do things on their own. Youth Voice programs can empower young people by giving them more control of their surroundings and through self-driven activities.
  • Urban Youth—Young people growing up in inner-cities can take powerful, deliberate actions to become engaged they live in and the whole world. Learn more about urban youth.
  • Rural Youth—Growing up in the country, in small villages or remote towns can provide young people with distinct challenges. However, overcoming those challenges through social change. Learn more about rural youth.

There are many ways that young people identify themselves, and adults often miss the mark. Rather than simple categories or convenient definitions, trying seeing the complexity in some of the following ways youth identify themselves:

  • Race
  • Culture
  • Language
  • “Street” smarts
  • Online identity
  • Peer reputation
  • Athletic involvement
  • Economics
  • Neighborhood
  • Grade level and school
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gangs and clubs
  • Music preference
  • Family make-up
  • Spiritual/religious beliefs

The point is that every youth everywhere can experience youth engagement all the time.


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