In developing school based approaches to create safe schools and positive school climates the single most important factor that youth leadership programs neglect to focus in on is the importance of developing a sense of belonging to a group identity for young people. We know that “After transition to middle school, peers become primary sources of support and motivation to achieve while the quality of teacher-student relationships tends to decline with time” (Wentzel, 1996). As we set a calendar each year to tackle the critical issues in youth development with great activities, assemblies, and orientations, we must first address the importance of a student body feeling included or connected to the youth leaders facilitating the activities.
A major finding of 90,000 students grade 7-11 is that when students feel connected (i.e., feel close to people at school, happy to be at school, part of the school, treated fairly, feel safe) to their school that this “connectedness” is protective against every health risk behavior—alcohol use, suicidal attempts, teen pregnancy, and acts of violence towards others. It is this “connectedness” that we must establish as a foundation of our youth leadership program.
A youth leadership model that takes on this approach is the PLUS Program (Peer Leaders Uniting Students) model.
PLUS was founded out of this necessary fundamental need to feel a sense of belonging to a group identity. This need for a sense of belonging to a group, becomes the catalyst to engage youth in meaningful participation facilitated by the group in which they feel this sense of belonging to. The PLUS model seeks to protect, connect and educate kids in an effort to create a culture on campuses and in communities where inclusion is a reality for young people.
Steps to implementation include:
Step 1: Identify and train a team of Youth Leaders to become a branch of youth leadership on a campus known as the PLUS team. This could be a team as small as four and as large as you want it. These leaders are handpicked by an advisor and should represent an array of the student body and have a natural leadership quality of influence over other students in their peer group. Embedded in the PLUS identity is a mission of Kids Taking Care of Kids.
Step 2: The PLUS team will facilitate an ongoing activity throughout a school year called a PLUS Forum. What separates PLUS from other youth leadership models is the investment into the PLUS Forum process. This process is facilitated peer to peer and incorporates a sequential set of activities, which gather data and serve as a rite of passage into the group identity (PLUS). This forum process is the catalyst to create ownership and commitment in the actions of the group, purpose in the message, and the meaningful participation individuals experience on an ongoing basis. The PLUS Forum enables schools with the ability on a regular basis to assess the emotional climate and social norms of their campus through student surveys and discussions they administer during the forums. These forums empower students with a voice to be active members in discussions that identify critical issues on campus and the overall development of a safe school environment.
Step 3: What makes the PLUS program an effective approach to youth development is the commitment to sustaining the actions, identity and purpose of PLUS with a calendar of events. The concept of connecting individuals to a group identity, to establish a sense of belonging will only last as long as that individual engages in actions under the identity. As soon as an individual no longer feels a connection to the identity, we have lost the purpose PLUS. All assemblies and activities that focus on critical issues like bullying, youth violence, and building school climate are organized under the context of the PLUS identity and the mission of Kids Taking Care of Kids.
A positive school climate is a result of youth leadership programs making campuses personal and not impersonal.
When developing the PLUS model the question was asked, “What would happen with racism, gangs, bullying, fear and violence, if we all felt a sense of belonging and identity to the same team?” When an individual feels a healthy sense of belonging in their environment, it positively impacts their motivation, success, health and happiness.
All is good for breakfast… Coffee and Bananas!
Author: John Vandenburgh