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Youth voice

What it is

Learning how to contribute their thoughts and ideas is essential as young people develop, but they need practice to build these skills. Youth programs are ideal settings for participants to practice making decisions that affect their lives and that matter to them. 

Why it matters

Youth share ideas, thoughts and concepts when adults give them a safe place to do so. Supporting youth voice may include asking youth for input and providing opportunities for youth to choose or make decisions. This leads to true adult-youth partnerships.

Adults can guide youth through the process of developing and recognizing their goals, interests, and values. We can create learning environments in which youth can share their ideas and concerns, and have healthy conversations. They may even share their desire for structure and adult support. Youth recognize that adults may have access to resources unavailable or unknown to them.

A youth-led, adult-guided concept allows young people to practice using skills such as communication and teamwork. They can begin to recognize the value of different perspectives. They then take these skills with them into their community and society.

What effective practice looks like

The Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality defines youth voice as when young people:

  • Lead a small or large group, present ideas to others and mentor a peer or younger youth.
  • Practice building skills such as organization, responsibility, accountability, coping with set-backs, understanding that their actions affect others and hearing from people with different viewpoints.
  • Have opportunities to select topics or goals, identify needs within a community context, visualize their own role as a social change agent and connect to at least one caring adult.

Tips for program staff

  • Create a safe and supportive environment for youth to use their voice. Begin by building relationships with them.
  • Create opportunities for youth to plan, implement and evaluate an event or program from beginning to end.
  • Identify and recruit an adult who champions youth voice.
  • Promote responsibility by providing opportunities for youth to complete a given role or activity. As an example, here is how Minnesota 4-H gives leadership roles in a variety of ways.
  • Allow youth to fail or make mistakes without shame.
  • Build places for individuals to mentor.
  • Create ways for youth to share their ideas to the group.
  • Coach other staff on how to build in opportunities for youth voice. Developing Quality Learning Environments for Youth includes guiding questions to reflect on when developing youth programs. 
  • Take age and experience into consideration. Recognize that young people will lead differently as they mature.

Author: Karen Beranek, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2020

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