Engaging Youth

The benefits of high-quality out-of-school-time programs are well known but ways to persuade youth to stay engaged are not. Several studies that shed light on youth engagement are discussed below.

More Time for Teens is a report issued at the midpoint of a three-year study into participation by 432 youth at 10 Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, starting when the youth are in seventh and eighth grades. It was conducted by a firm called Public/Private Ventures.

The clubs surveyed offered a wide variety of activities in five areas: the arts, sports and fitness, health and life skills, education and career, and character and leadership. Forty-one percent of youth surveyed reported participating in four of these types of activities in the past four weeks. Their five favorites were hanging out with friends, using technology, reading, playing sports and talking one-on-one with an adult.

"Hanging out with friends” is one of teens’ favorite after-school program
activities, along with using technology, reading and playing sports.

Early results showed that the youth were more likely to continue attending when they were familiar with the club already from pre-teen years and when their friends were members. They were more likely to stay active when they had multiple opportunities to lead, but “hanging out” time was also important. Another important predictor of continued attendance was self-transportation: reflecting their growing independence, youth who could walk, cycle or ride the bus had higher rates of attendance than those who had to ask for a lift.

Results highlighted a few key outcomes from club participation. Early indications are that a higher level of attendance over a one-year period was linked to a positive change in three areas: character development (integrity, social competence and conflict resolution), improved school liking, and a delay in initiation of sexual intercourse.

The preliminary data indicate that to enhance retention, program leaders would do well to:

  • Build strong ties with youth before they become teenagers
  • For the broadest appeal, keep attendance policies flexible to allow dropping in
  • Build in some unprogrammed social time
  • Have something interesting to do on arrival
  • Take into account the importance of friendships

A final, third report (Making Every Day Count) was published the year after the More Time for Teens report and addresses the question of how much engagement is enough—what are the threshold levels of attendance necessary to promote positive outcomes in an individual? A link to this report can be found in the additional resources section below.

Civic Involvement

One measure of youth engagement is civic involvement. An article in the Journal of Extension addressed youth involvement in government social service programs. Is engagement possible, the article asks, even in “settings where bureaucratic procedures tend to cast … youth into fairly rigid roles?”

Since 2000, the state of California mandates each county to implement its Workforce Investment Act through county workforce investment boards and youth councils. Logically, each youth council must include at least one youth representative seat, but those seats are not always filled. The researchers found three primary reasons: The meetings are held during business hours, convenient to adults but not for students; transportation issues; and the meetings are not interesting enough for busy young people. Ironically, sometimes youth were prevented from attending because they found jobs.

The researchers, all of whom have strong connections to University of California Cooperative Extension offices across the state, found despite these obstacles, it was possible to engage youth in all stages of this process. Noting 4-H as an example, it states that “Effective youth development practices engage youth in active roles, viewing them as community resources, rather than passive recipients of services.” However, youth engagement in these youth councils was still rare.

They recommended making serving on these councils a more concrete, rewarding experience by giving youth short-term, assigned tasks outside of meetings; pairing youth with a mentor, and coaching them on the agenda and how to contribute in a meeting. They also recommend a greater role for Extension as a conduit.

Success would not be easy and it would probably require more funding, they wrote. “Youth engagement requires effort, but improves the quality of services, promising greater long-term payoffs that warrant increased public investment,” the report summarizes.

Advocacy and Empowerment

In a third study, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Vanderbilt University had less optimistic conclusions about youth civic engagement after attempting to involve them in efforts to ban indoor smoking. The program, called Engaging Youth for Positive Change, aimed to help youth understand and change their local environments. Its model attempted to empower youth while educating them about local government and tobacco use policy.

There were four sites, all with different demographics and circumstances. One group had some success, directly contributing to their city council taking the first step to ban smoking in public places. But all of the sites had mixed results from a youth engagement standpoint. At three of them, elected officials were unresponsive or controlling of public meetings. At one, youth perceived smoking as a minor risk, compared with more pressing issues in their neighborhood. In all of the sites, youth were to some degree discouraged by the political process, leading researchers to conclude that, “Empowerment and deeper youth engagement are less attainable if a specific policy is chosen for the youth … When programs fail, it is probably often because of a lack of fit between the interests or needs of youth and the advocacy or policy goals of a program,”.

Publication year

Trudy Dunham

Target Population
Media attachments
References & Resources

Arbreton, A. J. A., Bradshaw, M., Metz, R., Pepper, S., & Sheldon, J. (2008). More time for teens: Understanding teen participation—frequency, intensity and duration—in Boys & Girls Clubs. Public/Private Ventures. https://ppv.issuelab.org/resource/more-time-for-teens-understanding-teen-participation-frequency-intensity-and-duration-in-boys-girls-clubs-25.html

Campbell, D., Lamming, J., Lemp, C., Brosnahan, A., Paterson, C., & Pusey, J. (2008). Engaging youth as active citizens: Lessons from youth workforce development programs. Journal of Extension, 46(2). Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://archives.joe.org/joe/2008april/a5.php

Jolly, E. J., Campbell, P. B., & Perlman, L. (2004). Engagement, capacity and continuity: A trilogy for student success. GE Foundation. http://www.campbell-kibler.com/trilogy.pdf

Additional Resources

Abraczinskas, M., & Zarrett, N. (2020). Youth participatory action research for health equity: Increasing youth empowerment and decreasing physical activity access inequities in under-resourced programs and schools. American Journal of Community Psychology, 66(3–4), 232–243. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12433

Arbreton, A. J. A., Bradshaw, M., Pepper, S., Sheldon, J. (2009). Making every day count: Boys & Girls Clubs' role in promoting positive outcomes for teens. Public/Private Ventures. https://ppv.issuelab.org/resource/making-every-day-count-boys-girls-clubs-role-in-promoting-positive-outcomes-for-teens.html

Augsberger, A., Collins, M. E., Gecker, W., & Dougher, M. (2018). Youth civic engagement: Do youth councils reduce or reinforce social inequality? Journal of Adolescent Research, 33(2), 187–208. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0743558416684957

Besenyi, G. M., Schooley, B., Turner-McGrievy, G. M., Wilcox, S., Wilhelm Stanis, S. A., & Kaczynski, A. T. (2018). The Electronic Community Park Audit Tool (eCPAT): Exploring the use of mobile technology for youth empowerment and advocacy for healthy community policy, systems, and environmental change. Frontiers in Public Health, 6, 332. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2018.00332

Flanagan, S. K., Zaff, J. F., Varga, S. M., & Margolius, M. (2020). Webs of supportive relationships: A positive youth development approach to career and workforce development with risk-immersed youth. In M. Yuen, W. Beamish, & V. Solberg (Eds.), Careers for students with special education needs: Perspectives on development and transitions from the Asia-Pacific region (pp. 47–65). Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-15-4443-9_4

Johnson, K., Fuchs, A., Magee, J., Turner, J., & Aussendorf, M. (2019, November 2–6). Youth as agents of change: Empowerment and advocacy [Conference session]. APHA's 2019 Annual Meeting and Expo, Philadelphia, PA, United States. https://apha.confex.com/apha/2019/meetingapi.cgi/Paper/447623?filename=2019_Abstract447623.html&template=Word

Metzger, A., Ferris, K. A., & Oosterhoff, B. (2019). Adolescents' civic engagement: Concordant and longitudinal associations among civic beliefs and civic involvement. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 29(4), 879–896. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12423

Wray-Lake, L., & Abrams, L. S. (2020). Pathways to civic engagement among urban youth of color [Monograph]. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 85(2), 7–154. https://doi.org/10.1111/mono.12415

Yu, M. V. B., Liu, Y., Hsieh, T., Lee, G., Simpkins, S. D., & Pantano, A. (2020). “Working together as a team really gets them fired up”: Afterschool program mentoring strategies to promote collaborative learning among adolescent participants. Applied Developmental Science, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888691.2020.1800467

Zimmerman, M. A., Eisman, A. B., Reischl, T. M., Morrel-Samuels, S., Stoddard, S., Miller, A. L., Hutchinson, P., Franzen, S., & Rupp, L. (2017). Youth Empowerment Solutions: Evaluation of an after-school program to engage middle school students in community change. Health Education & Behavior, 45(1), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1090198117710491