At a recent convening of our Music and Youth Development Alliance (MYDA) members I revealed that I “code switch” when talking about youth development outcomes. I admitted that, depending on the (external) audience I am communicating with, I may position what we do as ‘building young peoples’ 21st century skills’, ‘developing socio-emotional learning capacities’ or ‘preparing youth to be civically engaged in our democratic society’. The truth of the matter is that we do all of that (and more!) but in our relatively nascent field of youth development we struggle to find a common language to describe our impact. I also revealed that I rarely use this language in front of our youth members — lest they go running for the doors. Twenty-first century skills, socio-emotional learning and civic engagement are stodgy, wonky terms; young people view their outcomes as ‘making a dope beat’, ‘confidently performing a lyrical poem’ or ‘creating a stunning painting’.
Consensus has yet to emerge; researchers and practitioners have attempted to group, list and codify youth development outcomes for more than 15 years. One recent initiative that is “decoding” the way we consider youth development practice and its outcomes comes out of the SCE Foundation through their SEL Challenge. Through working with various youth development programs across the country they are working to “dissect and detail the art of youth development practice”. The overall goal of the study is to develop a field guide that outlines a set of standards for program design, staff practices, and key youth experiences.
Other groups that are helping to define youth development and its impact include CASEL, which disseminates information about evidence based socio-emotional learning and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning which offers a framework for codifying skills and outcomes. Another less known framework, but one that has potential to inform the conversation around youth development outcomes is self-determination theory (SDT). SDT represents a framework for the study of human motivation and personality. SDT focuses on how social and cultural factors facilitate conditions that support an individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
One other important youth development concept that has far too little research is “agency” – an individual’s sense of what they can do and what they think they can do, a belief that one has the ability to contribute, succeed and make a difference. If I had to narrow down one single concept, skill or outcome that youth development programs like the Neutral Zone or our other members of MYDA (A Place Called Home in Los Angeles, The Door in New York and RYSE in Richmond CA) impact – I’d have to call out “agency”.
While the discussion of youth development outcomes involves few new ideas, the field is caught up in a multitude of competing terms and measures that have impeded practitioners from clearly measuring and conveying impact. This continues to pose a real challenge for out-of-school time programs. Perhaps one constituency we’ve ignored in the conversation is youth themselves. Through all of our code switching and wonky terminology, maybe it’s the youth themselves who can help us define the “real deal”. A lot of smart adults haven’t been able to work it out for the past two decades; this might be another instance of how we can learn from youth.