Youth: The Leaders of Today
How Educators Can Help Students Get Engaged in their Communities
According to Sarah Butson, program manager at the Youth Advocacy Training Institute (YATI), “Youth aren’t the leaders of tomorrow. They’re the leaders of today.” As a group, youth are passionate about a range of issues and have energy and enthusiasm to spare. As individuals they can bring a wealth of different skill sets and fresh ideas to the table. But despite these natural leadership qualities, adults have a tendency to devalue the contributions of young people, and that’s a shame on so many levels. “If we really listen to youth and involve them in their communities in authentic ways,” says Butson, “we all stand to gain.”
As educators, we can play an important role in facilitating community engagement—not only by encouraging students to take the first steps toward getting involved, but also by working with community partners to seek out opportunities for students, and by promoting young people’s ability to follow their passions, make their voices heard and create real change.
There’s so much for students to gain!
As a requirement for graduation, all Ontario secondary students must complete a minimum of 40 hours of community involvement. This requirement is meant to reinforce civic responsibility, to enhance students' self-confidence, to offer networking for future employment and to provide an experience for students to include on scholarship or job applications but the potential benefits don’t stop there.
Students who are involved in their community also tend to have better attendance, focus more on their homework, obtain better grades and are more likely to want to pursue post-secondary education.
Student involvement also ties in directly to the expectations of the Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curricula. In particular, the Healthy Living strand builds students’ health literacy, in part by helping them to understand how factors like being involved in their school and community affect their health and well-being. Meanwhile, living skills are the personal and interpersonal skills which help people to navigate life and to promote their own health and well-being. These include having a positive sense of self, knowing how to respond to difficult situations, managing time, coping with stress, interacting well with others, building healthy relationships, working in groups, solving problems, making decisions, setting goals and learning from experience—all skills a student is likely to gain through community involvement.
And while it’s wonderful that all Ontario youth will get a taste of the benefits of community involvement by putting in their 40 hours, our ultimate goal should be to make community involvement a lifelong pursuit in the same way that the H&PE curricula aims to instill a love of physical activity that will last a lifetime. To Butson, this increased level of commitment marks the difference between youth being involved and being engaged.
“When they’re involved they participate and attend. They get hours,” she says. “But when they’re engaged, youth report that they really feel like they’re part of the program and that their voices are being heard. They’re passionate about the goals of the program and feel a sense of connectedness. And, when that’s the case, they stand to gain so much more.”
Society benefits, too!
What’s more, when involvement becomes a lifelong habit, entire communities get richer—in more than one way.
“We’re creating more active and engaged citizens who are skilled enough to have a say and empowered enough to have a say,” says Heather McCully, Youth Engagement Coordinator for Hamilton Public Health. It’s an important way to give a voice to a segment of the population that is traditionally oppressed and unheard.
Furthermore, when students are engaged, research shows a marked drop in risk-taking behaviour such as involvement with drugs and crime, premature sexual activity, and gambling. Mental health also tends to improve. “Community involvement gives students a sense of having a purpose in life,” comments Sharon Seslija, a Teacher Consultant for the Greater Essex County District School Board. In fact, she believes that all the behaviours connected with community engagement relate to building resiliency.
“When you have positive values you have a positive identity. You also know how to maintain those positive behaviours involved with critical thinking and decision making,” she says. “And, the bottom line is, it saves society money. There’s less stress on health care, social services, the judicial system...”
There’s an opportunity out there for every student.
Not all young people are the “joining in” type, and unfortunately the youth who struggle the most with school and risk-taking behaviours are often the least likely to pursue community involvement.
In order to encourage the unengaged youth McCully would advise that you start by not mentioning the many benefits listed above. “If we go out there and tell youth that they have to or should get involved or we preach to them about the reasons it’s a good idea, it won’t work,” she says. “Because of the stage of development they’re at, they’re looking at what they’re going to gain in the short-term. So leave those bigger, broader benefits out of it when you’re talking to youth, and use those as your own measures of success.” Instead, she suggests that educators find out what young people feel passionate about and then appeal to their sense of purpose within that passion.
“It’s about knowing your student,” Seslija concurs. For many students this might involve focusing on issues related to social justice, while others might be attracted by opportunities to develop peer relationships.
“It’s also important to appreciate that not all youth necessarily want to participate in the same way,” points out Butson. “Sometimes we can default to thinking about engagement as really active participation. I think there are lots of different ways to get involved. It’s important that we meet youth where they’re at.”
For example, a young person may be uncomfortable sitting on an advisory committee, but could be happy to write up a newsletter about what the committee is doing. Another may be unexcited about the prospect of fundraising, but might like to work on a social media campaign to raise awareness of an issue.
Youth have a wide range of gifts to share, and if you can discover what these gifts are, you’ll be halfway there. “Sometimes that takes a little bit of time, effort and relationship building,” says McCully. In other cases, it can be as simple as asking. “Youth themselves are the best holders of information about ways they might want to be involved,” says Butson.
Overcoming barriers takes flexibility, creativity and an open mind.
Even after you’ve discovered a young person’s passions, there may still be barriers to active participation that will need to be overcome. Financial barriers and a lack of access to transportation are some of the first that may come to mind—but there are others, still, that require even more creativity and open-mindedness to address.
“Youth face a number of assumptions and misconceptions about who they are, how they act, what they believe and what they want,” says Butson. “These misconceptions and assumptions can lead to a lack of opportunities.”
To truly engage youth, it’s important that adults re-evaluate their preconceptions and ensure that the opportunities for youth involvement they present are important and authentic. When the involvement is tokenism (e.g., involving youth in unfulfilling tasks or having a youth advisory committee because it looks good to donors), young people will sniff out the insincerity a mile away and aren’t likely to feel good about their involvement or to stick with it for long.
There are also individual barriers that come from the students themselves. These could include the fear of getting involved, the fear of failure and low self-esteem. In these cases, it’s essential to create an environment where students will feel safe and to give them opportunities to participate at a level that’s comfortable for them.
Another barrier that we don’t often consider is one that we face ourselves as adults: a sheer lack of time. “These students are just overloaded,” says McCully. “I’ve never seen a generation with such stress. If they’re not busy with homework, they’re taking care of siblings or working a part-time job.” For this reason, creating flexible opportunities for involvement is also vital.
Finally, we need to let students know that their involvement is wanted. This means finding out about the supports and opportunities that are available, and then communicating to students in a way that will reach them. “Youth are not a homogeneous population,” says McCully. “There are so many subcultures. If we don’t reach them with multifaceted, comprehensive approaches, someone’s going to get missed.” For this reason, it’s important to look for ways to reach out to students with consistent messages about community involvement in all of the environments they frequent—at school, online and out in the community.
A community-based approach is key.
“It takes a whole village to empower youth in our community and to give them opportunities for meaningful participation,” says McCully. “Educators have some unique opportunities to connect with youth, but they’re just a piece of the puzzle.”
Community partnerships is one of the five components of a Healthy School identified in the Ministry of Education’s Foundations for a Healthy School (a framework that represents a comprehensive approach to creating a healthy school). These types of partnerships are also one of the key ways you can help students, help your school and help community organizations all in one go by allowing for the sharing of resources, ideas and networks.
But how can you connect with these partners? “It’s always word of mouth,” says McCully, who advises seeking out champions for youth involvement in your community. These champions could be parents; contacts from the Canadian Mental Health Association, Centre for Addition and Mental Health, the Heart and Stroke Foundation or another organization; a community health nurse or healthcare professional.
And once you’ve found your champions, keep the lines of communication open and be sure to let them know what your school’s abilities and limitations are.
The right resources are within easy reach.
Another key way you can help to empower students is by directing them to the right resources. This may mean referring them to groups such as;
YATI a program of the Ontario Lung Association that supports youth and youth-serving organizations in Ontario.
Ability Online a free, supportive online community that provides youth of all abilities with the tools and a communication platform to be engaged with other youth from across the country.
Stepping Stones a resource developed by the Ministry of Children and Youth Serivces which is designed to support those who work with youth aged 12 to 25 by providing an overview of youth development and developmental maps as a guide for those looking to implement high quality services and supports for youth across Ontario.
Let students show you the way!
But, more than anything, to help steer students in the right direction, you’ll need to become an attentive listener. You can start the process by creating a forum for youth to have their voices heard—whether it’s informally in the classroom, through a survey, or at a gathering such as a youth summit. When you truly listen to what young people have to say and tune in to their passions, more often than not they’ll identify the next steps themselves.
From there, making a few connections and facilitating opportunities for youth to be part of something real and relevant is often all it takes to set some big changes in motion.
“When we offer them the opportunity, youth leverage their passion into real change,” says Butson. “Likewise, we learn so much from the experiences of working with them.”