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Extension Cord: Elements of youth development: helpful at any age

— by Lynette Black

I read an article in The Dalles Chamber’s Member Focus written by Jared Sawyer, Board President and was struck by how similar his thoughts regarding employee-business relationships are to the elements that create a positive youth development environment. Perhaps, for us to reach our full potential in all aspects of our lives, these foundational elements always need to be present.

There is a strong relationship between four key concepts that are considered to be necessary attributes of youth programs who want to create an environment that is conducive to optimizing youth development. These concepts were first introduced in 2002 by Bredtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern as part of the Native American philosophy of rearing children and have since been tested and studied several times. The results of these studies have led to a broad acceptance among youth professionals of the four key elements. So what are those four elements?

Belonging: A child has to feel they are an integral part of a community. This community needs to be inclusive where the child feels welcome, wanted and even needed.

This community environment needs to be safe (physically and mentally); where they can stretch beyond their comfort zone; where they can make mistakes, learn from them and not be teased or excluded; where they can try new techniques and skills; and express their thoughts and ideas without fear and ostracizing.

In addition, a child needs to have a positive relationship with a caring adult, other than their parent or guardian.

Independence: A child needs to be given opportunities to develop self-determination by making their own decisions and experiencing the consequences of those decisions. This is with the caveat that the caring adult is providing guidance and protection from “bad” decisions that can lead to serious negative consequences.

A caring adult must educate and advise against choices that can lead to physical harm, death, or have a negative impact on the child’s future. For decisions that do not have dire negative consequences, youth should be allowed to experience the natural consequences.

Some of the best learning occurs from failures as long as they are not shamed for the mistake, but rather helped through the processing of the failure. Also, a child needs to be able to see themself as an active participant in the future; they need hopes, dreams, and goals!

Mastery: Mastery is the building of knowledge, skills and attitudes and the opportunity to share and demonstrate their learning.

Mastery occurs over time, however the level attained can be recognized and celebrated at any time.

An electrician’s mastery of his craft may have started back in childhood when he learned about circuits. For the science fair he created current using a potato, and then expanded into researching and developing other ways to create and capture electrical current.

The journey toward becoming an electrician didn’t start when a job was obtained, rather when the interest was sparked and he became engaged in learning about this subject. The engaged learner has a high degree of self-motivation and a great capacity for creativity.

Generosity: The human brain is built to cooperate with others, and feel compassion and empathy for others. The opportunity to value and practice service for others is an important aspect of positive youth development. It helps the child see beyond their small world and gain exposure to the larger community and indeed the world itself.

Now let’s relate these concepts to the business environment.

The Society for Human Resource Management annually surveys employees to determine factors that lead to job satisfaction and employee engagement. The 2011 study identified the top 10 contributing factors.

Employee satisfaction and engagement was high when they feel their job is secure, have a good relationship with their supervisor and co-workers, and feel safe at work (belonging); when they are given opportunities to use their skills and abilities, have professional development opportunities, and are recognized and compensated for their performance (mastery); when they are given autonomy, independence, and flexibility (independence); and an organization’s commitment to corporate social responsibility aligned with their own belief system (generosity).

In summary, the four key elements of positive youth development (all of which 4-H works diligently to achieve) can be applied to all ages. Cathann Kress, former Director of Youth Development at National 4-H Headquarters stated: “In order to develop self-confidence, youth need to feel and believe they are capable, and they must experience success at solving problems and meeting challenges. Additionally, youth need to have a safe environment for making mistakes and getting feedback, not just through competition, but also as an ongoing element of participation.”

This statement could be rewritten with the word “people” in place of youth. Indeed a positive community environment is needed to develop and keep its members functioning at their full potential.

The Wasco County 4-H Youth Development program is accepting new members! The deadline for enrollment with the eligibility to participate in the 2013 Wasco County Fair is June 1st. Contact us today.

Lynette Black; OSU Extension Service, Wasco County, 4-H Faculty; 541-296-5494;


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