Understanding Engaging Youth Development

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Youth or adolescence are seen and understood as a recognised stage of human development. “The developmental tasks of a particular life stage are those skills, knowledge and functions that a person must acquire or master in order successfully to move to the following stage” (Heaven, 2001, p. 5). Youth development encompasses the period of human development from ages 13 to 24 but with growing boundaries to these parameters.

It is the last stage of life a person goes through before they are considered an adult and it occurs with everybody. “Each adolescent reaches a point when it is not possible to continue living out the same life patterns he or she did as a child” (Cobb, 2010, p. 22). Young people are in many ways forced into the process of becoming an adult through natural forces such as puberty, cognitive growth and social expectations. These forces place upon young people new developmental tasks and questions that they have not had to deal with up to this point.

For an adolescent at the start of the 21st century these tasks and questions are even more difficult than ever. Young people today are confronted with a growing and changing understanding of what it means to be an adult and the issues they are challenged with. Adolescence is much longer than previous generations; the average age for menarche is lower than before, more young people undergo post-school training (thus more dependent on their parents for longer), the erosion of family and social support networks and easy access to drugs, alcohol and other life threatening substances (Heaven, 2001).

No matter what their circumstances are, fundamentally being an adolescent is a time in life where they are trying to answer questions about themselves and about the wider world they are part of. Erikson (Erikson, 1968, p. 165) states that ‘a crucial aspect of development during these years is attaining a sense of psychological well-being, a sense of knowing where one is going”.

McLaren refers to two key questions that all young people are seeking to answer. These are ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where am I going?’ (McLaren, 2002). It as young people answer these questions that they start to form their identity and understand their uniqueness. “This means that as teenagers mature, they come to the realisation that they differ from others in important and fundamental ways” (Heaven, 2001, p. 26)
Forming an identity is an over-riding focus of youth development but what creating identity looks like at different stages of adolescence is important to understand.

Heaven (Heaven, 2001, pp. 32 -33) talks about four stages of identity status. These are: Identity diffusion (not yet made personal commitments to a set of beliefs, values and occupations), identity foreclosure (made personal commitment to certain values, beliefs, acceptable behaviours and study or occupation – but have not faced a crisis causing them to struggle and consider different alternatives), identity moratorium (may be experiencing a crisis, but have not yet made choices or a personal commitment) and identity achievement (maturity and identity formation. Identity crises have been successfully resolved).

To help answer the questions young people have about their identity, they seek to fulfil various tasks that are considered essential to becoming an adult. These tasks are the understandings and activities identified as part of the development processes that a youth goes through. As young people gain confidence and ability in performing these developmental tasks then they naturally gain the answers to the fundamental questions they have about their identity and sense of place.

It is therefore important to be able to identify, evaluate and measure what these development tasks so that it can be ascertained how well a young person is doing in their journey towards being an adult and forming their identity. Kress (Kress, 2006, p. 46) states that “while growth (physical) is a critical issue, in youth development we try to understand and pay attention to the needs that accompany development”. Thus development in adolescents is not a list to tick off but instead it gives signals to how a young person is attaining these developmental tasks, and therefore gaining a strong sense of identity.

Within the study of youth development there are two basic needs of young people. There are those needs that can be met and fulfilled (referred to as deficit needs) and those needs that are unmet and therefore drive the desire to develop (being needs) (Kress, 2006). What this means is that often a young person will only seek after the being needs after their fulfilled needs are met. This is vital in understanding what youth development is but also when and how certain aspects of development are encouraged. The reality is that a young person will not respond to aspects of development that do not directly meet a felt need because that is not where their attention and focus is.

These important understandings about how youth develop must be kept in mind when seeking to determine what ‘youth development’ is, There are many descriptions of what youth development is and they all have similar ideas of what the developmental tasks are that young people need to achieve. “The developmental framework assumes a set path, which all young people will inevitably experience, principally because of their age, and which is characterised by a suite of developmental milestones”(Carson, 2000, p. 20). Some of these tasks have a focus on the areas in life that are critical to the young person’s social and psychological growth.

These key developmental tasks for young people include things like physical and sexual development, emotional development, social development, cognitive and moral development and faith development. These are all to do with developing aspects of what it means to be human and recognised skills that are part of being an adult.

Under physical and sexual development comes the transition of puberty, where children are transformed into sexually and physically mature adults. This transition happens to all young people no matter their background and culture and is the universal change that all adolescents go through of all developmental tasks (Cobb, 2010). Puberty is a marker that adolescence has begun for a young person and the process takes between two and four years.

Cognitive and moral development is the process when a young person seeks to take on understanding and thinking that an adult has while retaining a sense of who they are. “The task facing adolescents is to forge a stable identity, to achieve a sense of themselves that transcends the many changes in their experiences and roles” (Cobb, 2010, p. 22). Young people begin to become more aware of themselves and their relationship with people around them. With this awareness comes the need to be more responsible for one’s actions and interactions with other people.

Social development is about developing a strong sense of self and a high level of self-sufficiency that leads to them identifying their place in their family and in society through their relationships with other people. “Greater ability for abstract thinking makes it possible for adolescents to think about and talk about abstract qualities in their relationships – affection, loyalty, and trust for example” (Arnett, 2007, p. 217). The focus is on developing a set of skills that enhance a young person’s ability to achieve social and interpersonal goals such as establishing and maintaining social relationships (Delgado, 2002).

Each of these developmental tasks that have been identified can be broken down into sub-tasks. An example of this is that within cognitive and social development there can be identified specific tasks such as the ability to grasp abstract concepts, the ability to imagine possibilities and the ability to employ logic and reason (YouthTrain 2005).

Carr-Gregg and Shale (Carr-Gregg, 2002) expand these developmental tasks into a wider framework of development that help give parameters to these tasks. Their list includes forming a secure and positive identity, achieving independence from adult carers and parents, establishing love objects outside the family and finding a place in the world by establishing career direction and economic independence.

These frameworks provide meaning to what it means to be an adult. As McLaren points out though “adult status tends to be judged more by external factors such as graduation from tertiary education, taking on a job, moving out of the family home, becoming financially independent or even early parenthood” (McLaren, 2002, p. 19). Even though a number of these tasks are to do with developing emotional and cognitive abilities, society tends to acknowledge a person as an adult by the tasks they achieve rather than the thinking and attitude of that person.

Society also tends to put an adult view of what youth development means but young people themselves may have different views. Young people have ideas such as “a programme that helps me better prepare myself for the world” and “youth development helps me better understand myself and those around me” and “youth development allows young people to gain control over their lives” (Delgado, 2002, p. 45). Young people need to be included in the discussion about what youth development is and how it is achieved otherwise they become observers and not participants in their own journey.

Though there is a general consensus around the developmental tasks that young people need to achieve in the process of becoming an adult, there is a wide variance in the ages in which these tasks are achieved among young people. “These tasks are undertaken at different stages of adolescence and there are no clear beginnings or endings for any of them” (Grose, 2005, p. 130). While most of these tasks are not achieved until around the mid twenties there are wide differences in the ages of when young people fulfil these tasks.

Some of these variances are due to the personal, cultural and socio-economic background of a young person. For instance, if a young person stays in education longer, then there is much more chance that they will establish personal and economic independence at a later stage. Generally in the Western world the age in which young people achieve these developmental tasks is getting older and older (Grose, 2005) as young people depend on their parents much longer for financial and emotional support.

How and when young people in the majority world achieve these developmental tasks is impacted by their local cultures and how much their lives have been impacted by global culture. “Thus, developmental tasks are not fixed, do not apply equally to all youth and, to some extent, reflect the culture within which the adolescent lives” (Heaven, 2001, p. 6). Some of these cultural contexts are the length of education, the size of their family, occupational possibilities and the cultural beliefs about women’s roles (Arnett, 2007).
While young people in the majority world are still very much influenced by the local culture they are part of, they are increasingly influenced by global culture. If young people in the majority world are increasingly influenced in their lifestyle, education and employment opportunities then they may also take longer to achieve the developmental tasks.

To help give increased understanding to development in youth requires a framework that all study and evaluation fits under. This is important because all evaluation has certain presumptions built in and having a framework provides a basis of study. One key framework is ‘Developmental Contextualism’. Coleman and Hendry (Coleman, 1999) give understanding to this concept by giving some key aspects. These are:
– There is a human ecology, or context of human development
– There is a continuity to human development
– Individuals and their families reciprocally influence each other
– A multi-disciplinary approach must be taken to study human development
– Individuals are producers of their own development
– When studying person-context interaction we should consider the notion of goodness of fit

Developmental contextualism acknowledges that youth do not develop in a vacuum. Youth are part of a wider context that supports and influences their ability to complete the developmental tasks. McLaren (McLaren, 2002, p. 21) states “Mastering these tasks is not an individual effort, but involves support from family, friends, school and significant people in the neighbourhood and community”. It is recognition that young people are part of many communities that all bring influence and direction to young people.

Delgado acknowledges the influence and role of the wider community that young people grow up in when he states “The youth development approach works best when a community as a whole agrees upon the standards for what young people need to grow into happy and healthy adults and then creates a continuum of care and opportunities to meet those needs” (Delgado, 2002, p. 35). These communities may include school, sports or social club, friends, wider family, and religious organisations.

This framework also recognises how young people learn about and develop the skills seen as important in being an adult. The teaching of facts provides young people with information but does not necessarily give them the understanding and skills to put this information into practice. “This idea that some things cannot be taught but must be learned through experience is a key element of youth development”(Kress, 2006, p. 48). Recent youth development ideas focus on how young people obtain and practice developmental skills through such models as Bandura’s social learning theory (Kress, 2006). This theory emphasises the importance of observing and modelling the behaviours and attitudes of others.

It is the influence of family and community that helps mould the choices and actions of young people and also their behaviour and boundaries. These experiences and influences from people around youth can also however, be contradictory, as young people are involved in various types of communities with varying amounts of influence. Young people seek to sift through the various messages they receive by experimenting with a range of behaviours and roles, which is an important part of creating one’s identity (Heaven, 2001).

At the centre of these ideas and the evaluation that young people make about the various messages they hear is the idea that youth development must “consider the whole young person as a central actor in his or her own development” (Kress, 2006, p. 50). Putting youth at the centre of youth development allows youth to be involved in working towards their own answers to their needs and problems. If youth are left out of societal activities, including a say in youth development issues then the result will be that there could be more disenchanted youth (Delgado, 2002).

If we are to consider youth as central to their own development then there must be consideration made about certain aspects of youth themselves. This includes culture, age, gender, sexual orientation and abilities (Delgado, 2002). Young people are not all the same and differ considerably if many of the above personal aspects (environmental aspects) are taken into account. Each of these environmental aspects dictate how a young person views and interacts with the world around them and how they are perceived and have access to resources and support.

Youth development occurs within and is profoundly influenced by environmental contexts. These contexts include physical, cultural, philosophical, and social dimensions. Each young person has their own unique environmental aspects that contribute to how they view the world and interact with it. “If youth development is to better prepare youth to transition to adulthood, it must do so in a highly diverse society” (Delgado, 2002, p. 75). For youth development to be effective then ‘context’ must be acknowledged and taken into account because these are just as important as the definitions and tasks that are assigned to youth development.

Understanding youth development is not therefore just about knowing the right issues and being able to evaluate young people on their process dealing with each of these issues. It is also about recognising each young person as an individual in their own right. It is also about being able to work out the best way to engage young people in ways where they are both at the centre of and have ownership of their own development. This focus is about the processes involved in a young person’s development and not just the end result.

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