Retaining older youth during meetings and programs

Five tips to successful meetings with high school-aged teens.

As youth reach high school, their opportunities for engagement in activities are numerous. Between sports, school clubs, service organizations and social commitments, youth have many choices and often limited time due to their overscheduled lifestyles and heavy academic burdens. Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development is one of many choices for youth extra-curricular activities.

As an organization that offers programs for youth across the lifespan (ages 5-19), it’s important to realize that not every youth program is ideal for all ages of youth. In order to retain older youth during busy high school years, meetings and programs should be designed to consider their unique needs and interests. Consider these five tips:

  1. Feed them. Many parents may joke about how their teenagers consume all of the food in their home. This long-standing joke is reality for most older youth. Maintaining their busy schedules requires a lot of energy, and if youth have to decide between stopping for a bite to eat with friends or attending a meeting, food will always win. Make substantial snacks or even a meal a regular part of meetings in order to encourage attendance and boost energy long enough to get them through.
  2. Ask them. It always takes more time to ask for feedback and implement ideas of others than to make decisions on behalf of the group. However, youth will be more invested in meetings and programs if they feel like their voice matters. Instead of planning the next service project, ask youth how they’d like to give back to the community and try their ideas, even the crazy ones.
  3. Put them in charge. Resist the temptation for adults to build the agenda and run the meetings. Elect a chairperson or rotate the leadership responsibilities among members. Meetings may take a little longer, but it’s a great opportunity to build leadership skills and separate these activities from school or other adult-driven spaces.
  4. Play with them. Plan a silly icebreaker at each meeting by letting the youth choose the icebreaker and lead it. Icebreakers build shared experiences, give youth a chance to express themselves and push people outside of their comfort zones. Be prepared for a little “that’s too cheesy/I’m too cool for that” push back, and then help youth to push beyond it. Be sure to vary the type of icebreaker – different icebreakers require physical activity, problem solving, memory, etc. and all youth excel at different things. Adult advisors should play along as this builds trust and a sense of team.
  5. Hang out with them. Oftentimes, youth just want a space they can chill with their peers. Schedule social activities like bowling or movies and encourage youth to bring cards or board games to meetings. After business is discussed, allow them freedom to spend time together however they choose.

Developmentally, older youth ages 15-19 are focusing on relationship development with peers and are seeking respect from adults. They’re also mastering abstract thinking and decision-making concepts. It’s important that programs designed for older youth reflect their developmental needs or risk the chance that youth may decide to spend their time elsewhere.

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