Participate already

Creating programs that help youth climb the “ladder of participation.”

Every plan looks much different on paper than when executed. With so many factors to consider,  making adjustments during planned activities is bound to happen, especially when one of those factors is engaging a group of young people. “Participatory Processes” makes a brief theoretical case demonstrating the increased life skill development of youth engaged in a program using an experiential learning model. Michigan State University Extension Youth Development uses this learning model and strives to achieve the maximum participatory level of youth in programs using the Adult-Youth partnership model. The question that remains is how to create and facilitate programming that successfully gets youth to participate.

A well designed activity plan using all sorts of methods to get youth involved, and guiding their own learning, looks great coming off the printer. It can become useless when faced with either a young person who shuts down when decisions come their way, or when youth are so enthusiastic to join in, they don’t know where to start. A great, practical piece of research to use, especially when creating a a multi-session activity plan, is Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation which is based off Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation, but modified for the youth development context. This scale has eight classifications ranging from various degrees of “non-participation” to a point of participation that has youth leading the decision making process.

When using this tool in program development, consider how any young person or group may have typically been engaged on the ladder in the past. It is likely that some part of the group has not been engaged at the higher levels of participation before. To meet youth where they are, begin with activity plans that are more instructive and progress towards more inquiry based youth driven activities. In general, parallel the progression of activities with the rungs of the ladder and have an end goal of young people leading decisions and outcomes.

As an example, consider a series of activities and meetings with the goal of creating a youth planned service day. The initial plan might be that the youth gather with an adult facilitator and jump right in to picking dates, a benefiting organization and recruiting volunteers. During the first meeting, many of the members do not know where to start and look to the adult facilitator for guidance. Since it seems the youth are used to an “assigned but informed” role, the facilitator starts the next meeting with some case studies of other service days that have been successful. To move to “consulted and informed,” youth are asked to bring their own case study to the next meeting where the facilitator will guide them through a process of picking the best attributes of each. From there, the adult facilitator suggests some decisions that need to be made, but allow the youth to build consensus amongst themselves. Youth begin identifying other decisions that need to be made and the adult begins to settle into a “tell me what you need from me” role, eventually reaching “youth-initiated, shared decisions with adults.”

Although still an example of a plan on paper, creating participatory progressive facilitation plans like this one can lead to greater success and, ultimately, an empowered group of young people.

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