When program providers in the Expanded Learning Field are asked if they incorporate youth voice and choice, the answer is often a quick “yes” or “of course.” This blog is about digging a little deeper into what incorporating youth voice and choice can look like, beyond some of the traditional practices.
I am a firm believer that our field of work is all about providing services and learning environments where young people feel both physically and emotionally safe. And in turn, youth are more likely to have a voice – expressing their feelings, interests, questions, and concerns. This, along with having check-ins and reflections as part of the daily rituals, are common and excellent examples of how to incorporate youth voice.
One of our foundational values at LA’s BEST is: Children have the right to make meaningful choices about and within the activities they engage in, in the overall program environment, and in their lives.
We pride ourselves on having developed systems that truly allow individual sites to be responsive to the needs and interests of the children and families in that particular school and community. Debe Loxton, our Chief Operating Officer, is often talking about how our work is about “that child, on that day, at that site.”
With our foundational values, we hold our homegrown programming on the same level playing field as published material. Homegrown programming that is based on the voices and the choices of the children at each site. We design our enhanced programs and utilize external partners’ curriculum with the underlying goal of building the staff’s capacity to be able to work most effectively with their group of children. We also encourage staff to incorporate their own passions and experiences to model what this can look like for the children to do the same. We promote a continuum of youth voice and choice that spans from which clubs they choose, to students co-facilitating or facilitating activities and/or projects that they create. Within our Activity Planning process, we have three basic parts (Check-In, Engage and Reflect). We’ve also developed planning tools and forms that staff utilize with students to plan out future activities and projects.
We believe it is critical to provide children with meaningful choices so that they have the experience of doing so within a physically and emotionally safe climate. The children then have an opportunity to make mistakes without judgment. They have the opportunity to see how the decisions they make can benefit themselves and the people they interact with every day. And more than anything, they understand the impact of their choices, including mistakes that hurt others and how to problem solve in a way that we come together as a community. This, in turn, challenges our staff to value connections built with their students over the fidelity to any plan.
And just as a friendly reminder, we solely serve elementary school-aged students (5-12 years old). This approach of prioritizing youth voice and choice coupled with our rigorous definition of balanced programming, definitely comes with its fair share of challenges, especially compared to selecting a set of curriculum offerings to make available across our 200 schools and 25,000 young people we serve each day.
There is always an opportunity to expand upon a set curriculum and make it your own. This is a good starting point if you’re currently working with a particular program model.
Also, it’s always healthy to ask and explore what the youth like or dislike about what they are receiving during a reflection – it then really matters what you do with what they are saying. By truly empowering youth voice and choice, we will continue to find the answers to our many questions regarding what is best to provide them outside of school. Peace.
For breakfast, it was my usual…hard boiled egg, celery with peanut butter, water, and coffee.