Recently, I’ve become increasingly more concerned with the divide between youth development researchers and practitioners. I’m continually seeking ways to address this issue. One common critique that I hear of researchers is that we rarely include actionable conclusions in peer-reviewed journal articles. So when practitioners can access peer-reviewed journal articles (because that can be difficult), they are not sure what practices they should be considering. I assure you this is not purposeful; we often are not taught to be explicit about which practices our findings support. And we almost always want more evidence before we present any findings as definitive.
I’d like to be part of the solution by sharing the actionable implications of my recent article Understanding Adolescents’ Skill-Building in the After-School Context. Here’s my researcher disclaimer: These are the findings from one study. Some of which are corroborated by prior studies and others that are new.
Now that that’s done let’s turn to the article. I argue that maintaining teen engagement in after-school programs is a persistent challenge, yet teens consistently try to shape their after-school learning experiences to meet their needs. Adult instructors can promote engagement and teens’ ownership of their learning by recognizing adolescent’ attempts and supporting these behaviors and here’s how:
- Let teens’ curiosity lead the way – When teens exhibit inquiry behaviors such as asking in-depth questions about a topic or experimenting with new ways of looking at an issue, structure the activity so that they can satisfy their curiosity. Teens may not learn what you anticipated, but they will likely walk away with new knowledge or skills.
- Invite teens to contribute their thoughts, preferences, and ideas – Teens have ideas and preferences about what and how an after school activity is implemented, but they may not share unless you invite them to do so. Give teens some choices about which activities to pursue and how an activity is structured. When you’re facilitating activities, stimulate conversation by asking open-ended questions that nudge adolescents to share their perspectives.
- Balance challenge with support – Some level of challenge is needed for any of us to learn. In after school activities, teens actively regulate how much challenge they experience. To keep youth challenged but not frustrated, check-in regularly with each teen during the activity and offer encouragement, assistance, and feedback.
- Model how to provide guidance to others – As youth work alongside one another, they are inclined to seek guidance and learn from one another. I call this peer education. Support peer education by modeling how to give constructive feedback and provide non-intrusive assistance to others. Incorporate group and/or pair work into activities so that teens can practice these skills.
I’d love to hear thoughts from any practitioner who works with teens. How feasible do these strategies sound to you? What other ways have you seen teens take ownership of their after-school learning experiences?
If you use(d) any of these strategies, reach out on Twitter and let me know how they worked for you. Twitter: @
Femi Vance, PhD
Research Associate, IEE
Follow me on Twitter: @