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Involving Youth in Program Planning

Meaningful youth engagement in program planning refers to the active involvement of young people in the design of programs and services that affect their lives. It involves giving young people a voice and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes that impact their well-being. This core principle of positive youth development underscores the valuable contributions that young people can make to program planning. Young people are experts in their own experiences and can provide unique insights and perspectives that can inform and improve programs and outcomes.

Why involve youth in planning?

There are benefits to youth and adults alike when young people are engaged in program planning in a meaningful way.

Benefits and opportunities for youth:

  • Programs are more relevant and able to meet youth needs
  • Civic development (skills, attitudes, awareness)
  • Social and emotional development (belonging, efficacy, connectedness)
  • Vocational / professional development (skills, confidence, social capital)

Benefits for adults:

  • Organizations reflect and respond to youth concerns
  • Programs are more effective and equitable
  • Organizations produce programs that are more appealing to youth
  • Organizations are more appealing to potential funders
  • New coalitions/partnerships emerge to address issues

Ultimately, meaningful youth engagement in program planning helps to create programs and services that are responsive to the needs and preferences of young people, resulting in better outcomes and greater impact.

Key Supports for Youth Engagement

To facilitate meaningful youth engagement in program planning, it's important to take the time to create a safe and supportive environment where young people feel comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions without fear of tokenism. Both youth and — critically — adults need to be prepared to work together effectively.

Organizational Support

Involving youth in decision-making roles requires commitment at the organizational level. This type of youth engagement is a form of shared leadership, and organizations should be prepared to:

  • Share power
  • Compensate youth
  • Schedule meetings at times convenient to young people
  • Prepare youth and adults for their roles and for a shift in norms

The case for youth engagement in program planning must be made and backed up with the time and effort to recruit, welcome, and prepare youth for their role in the program development process. Consider potential obstacles to participation for all parties as well as potential obstacles to success. What can you do to smooth the path to successful collaboration?

Prepare Adults

Adults must be prepared to shift their own thinking so that they can authentically share power and decision making with youth. One barrier to youth engagement in program planning is adultism, described by John Bell as "the behaviors and attitudes which flow from negative stereotypes adults hold about youth."

Consider training adults to understand their own adultism and prepare them for youth-adult partnership. (See training resources below.)

Prepare Youth

It is also crucial to provide training and resources to young people so they can effectively participate in program planning and decision-making processes. Like adults, young people need to understand the purpose, goals, and context of the project. They need to understand the time and attendance commitments that are expected. What is their role? What do they need to know and do in order to participate successfully? What can they expect from their adult partners? Where can they get support along the way?

Examples of Ways to Involve Youth in Program Planning

There are many ways that youth can be involved in program planning. Ideally, this should be built into the planning process from the beginning. examples of Involving Youth in Positive Development include the following and more:

Needs assessment

Learning about needs directly from youth is an important way to start your project. Methods might include community mapping (asking "what physical barriers and opportunities already exist and where are gaps for improvement?") and focus groups or interviews to explore issues and needs that are priorities for youth programs.

Identifying strategies to meet needs

While adults may have program ideas that have worked in the past, involving youth in discussions and plans for new programs can lead to making relevant updates and new strategies that will lead to more effective youth engagement and positive youth outcomes. Youth can help create activities that will be of particular interest to their peers while effectively conveying program content.

Promoting program/activities to other youth

Young people know best what messages will resonate with their peers when sharing information about a program. Youth should have a lead role in promoting and presenting information about the program and the activities that will be offered. When their peers describe what is available — and how these opportunities were developed based on youth interests — young people are more likely to become interested in participating. Note, however, that young people's role should not be limited to program promotion.

Providing technical assistance on youth culture

Adults have a lot to learn from youth. When young people are involved in program planning they can share information about youth culture with adults. Youth can share what interests young people in general, and provide expertise to adults on the use of innovative technologies.

Once youth have participated in a planning process, be sure they see the results of their work. How was the final program changed because of their input?



10 Steps to Planning Programs with Youth

Adam F. C. Fletcher, a longtime specialist in youth engagement and the founding director of the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement, outlines the critical steps for this form of youth-adult partnership.

Involving Youth in Program Planning and Implementation

The video outlines the value of and strategies for engaging youth in program planning. ETR.

Training Resources for Adults

Positive Youth Development 101: A Training Manual

The Positive Youth Development (PYD) 101 curriculum offers an orientation to the youth development approach for professionals new to the field of youth work. The 12-hour curriculum is structured in five distinct sections, each of which may be presented as a stand-alone workshop. ACT for Youth.

Positive Youth Develoment 101 Online Courses

PYD 101 Online is a series of short courses intended to introduce PYD to new youth work professionals, volunteers, and advocates. These stand-alone, interactive courses may be taken in any order. Each course can be completed in about 30 minutes. ACT for Youth.

Positive Youth Development Network Webinar Series

These recordings can be used for professional development for all professionals and volunteers who work with adolescents. ACT for Youth.


Youth-Centered Design (YCD) Toolkit

Under the motto "Design with children and youth, not for them," the YCD Toolkit provides a process, guidelines, tools, and techniques to include child and youth voices in the development of meaningful programming that reflects their needs. One Youth Canada.

Youth Listening Session Toolkit

Youth Listening Sessions (YLS) offer an opportunity to meaningfully engage youth, signaling that their opinions are valuable, and incorporating their voices into program discovery, planning, implementation, and evaluation. The lessons and tools shared in this resource have wide applicability for any organization seeking to more meaningfully and equitably collaborate with young people. HHS Office of Population Affairs.

Being Y-AP Savvy: A Primer on Creating and Sustaining Youth-Adult Partnerships

Being Y-AP Savvy is an informational and training resource for those who want to teach adults the fundamental principles and practices of youth engagement. ACT for Youth.

Youth Programming Assessment Tool (YPAT)

YPAT is both a tool and a planning process. It was designed to help youth-serving organizations reflect upon their programming and practices and identify areas for improvement. Youth voice is a critical part of the YPAT assessment and planning process. USAID.

Youth-Engaged Program Planning in Governance

Youth Voice One Vision

Youth Voice One Vision, the City of Rochester Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, is dedicated to connecting, training, and advising Rochester's youth leaders, city governance, adult advisors, and community stakeholders. The goal is to establish a diverse membership of youth who can provide expertise in various fields and inform and impact policies related to youth issues.

Building Effective Youth Councils

Meaningful youth engagement is critical for the creation of sustainable, widespread, high-impact change in the systems and settings that can either support or hinder young people's progress. This guide is designed to help states and localities create or strengthen their own youth councils. Forum for Youth Investment.