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Front Line Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

Positive Youth Development & Continuous Quality Improvement

quality improvement youth development cycle

In adolescence I disengaged from my education.

While I had no problem making grades, I did not perceive relevance in my education. My peers and I considered ourselves socially conscious but we did not have a positive outlet to put our energy into. Luckily… I continued on to higher education. This is when it all changed. I pursued my own interests and became enthusiastic about learning. I participated in extra curricular activities including my first youth work experiences. I found my calling.

The growth I experienced in my college years was due mostly to experiences I had outside of the classroom. But what if I did not go to college? I would argue that my experience is not unique, and it illustrates how important your work in expanded learning is. You have the opportunity to offer youth meaningful opportunities to discover their talents and passions.

Years ago I had the opportunity to train after school staff on the youth development research summarized in Resiliency, What we have learned (Benard, 2004).  The text highlights that when youth experience “Protective Factors” (Caring Relationships, High Expectations, and Opportunities for Meaningful Participation), it meets their needs of safety, belonging, respect, challenge, meaning, and mastery; leading to increased social competence, problem solving, autonomy, and purpose.

Creating these types of learning environments leads to better LIFE OUTCOMES for youth.

These notions are widely supported by newer research, including Carol Dweck’s notion of Growth Mindsets, Angela Duckworth’s study of Grit, as well as research on social-emotional learning. They are embedded into expanded learning quality frameworks including the Learning in After School and Summer (LIAS) principles, and the recently released Quality Standards for Expanded Learning in CA.  The research is in – positive youth development (still) works, no matter what we call it.

continuous quality improvementSo how are we doing?

The California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) is the largest statewide survey of resiliency, protective factors, and risk behaviors in the nation. A close look at the data will confirm that my school experience was not unique.  The data illustrates that from 5th grade through 11th grade (for many consecutive years) youth do not indicate they have strong opportunities for meaningful participation. This holds true for school, home, and community environments. Your program may be one of the only places where youth experience opportunities for meaningful participation, a critical need for healthy development!

So how do we offer meaningful learning opportunities in environments rich in the protective factors that will result in positive outcomes for youth?

With intention and tenacity. One last piece of research can help us understand this. A study of national after school programs (Durlak and Weissberg, 2010) surfaced the importance of intentionality in our programming. The study concluded that when program staff facilitated active learning, with a sequenced approach, focusing specific time and attention on skill development, and were explicit about the skills they were attempting to promote, youth experienced significant improvements in a variety of academic and social domains.

What this tells me is that when we (as adults) know exactly why we are doing what we are doing, youth see better outcomes. We must all apply a growth mindset and grit into our work as practitioners. Through caring relationships, we must hold ourselves to high expectations. We must work every day to ensure our programs offer relevant and meaningful experiences to our most important clients, youth. In this pursuit, we are never “done” and we always seek to do better. This is what many mean when they use the term Continuous Quality Improvement.

Your program may be one of the only places where youth experience opportunities for meaningful participation, a critical need for healthy development!

Bottom line, the environments that you create and the experiences you offer change lives. That’s why we do what we do.  How do we do it? We never give up, and we do all we can every day to be better for the youth, families, and communities we serve.

For breakfast this morning I had a green smoothie made from greek yogurt, banana, carrot, and spinach.   

Author Profile: @jeffdavis

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