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Competencies in Youth Work

What does it take to be a good youth worker? To address this question we first need to clarify: what is a youth worker? In the U.S. there is no clearly defined youth work profession or degree. Instead there are many professional titles and education tracks for those who work with young people, such as teachers, childcare workers, counselors, and advocates. No matter what the title, degree, or setting, we define youth workers as professionals or volunteers who work with youth to facilitate young people's growth and development. Positive youth development is the unifying language they speak.

Core Competencies

In the Positive Youth Development 101 training, we ask new youth development professionals, "What skills, knowledge, and attributes do youth workers need in order to be effective?"

Participants typically identify internal attributes such as being patient, caring, authentic, open-minded, trusting, flexible, approachable, and having a sense of humor. Occasionally they mention concrete skills such as communication, teaching, and facilitation skills, or knowledge areas such as adolescent development, cultural competency, and program development.

Do we have to assume that good youth workers just have what it takes? Do they simply intuit how to engage with young people? Having great instincts and the ability to create rapport with young people gives some youth work professionals a head start. But we also need to build the skills and knowledge that enable us to manage programming, create inclusive program environments, and nurture young people's development through youth engagement and positive relationships. There are many competencies important to effectiveness that can be fostered over time through training and reflective practice.

The National Afterschool Association's (NAA) Core Knowledge, Skills, and Competencies for Afterschool and Youth Development Professionals (2021 edition) breaks down core competencies into ten content areas. Competencies in these areas, which are detailed in the NAA publication, can be assessed with staff to create a professional development plan. For useful tools and information, see the ACT for Youth resources below each NAA competency category.

  1. Child/Youth Growth and Development

    Understanding and applying the principles of learning and development.

  2. Learning Environments and Curriculum

    Supporting youth and families through positive, developmental environments and experiences.

  3. Child/Youth Observation and Assessment

    Conducting culturally sensitive child/client assessments in partnership with families and other professionals serving the individual.

  4. Relationships and Interactions with Children and Youth

    Building relationships that are informed by an understanding of adolescent development and characterized by positive interactions, high expectations, and support; managing group dynamics and activities equitably and skillfully.

  5. Youth Engagement, Voice, and Choice

    Seeking and valuing youth input; supporting and advocating for opportunities and roles that allow youth to build on their strengths, take on responsibilities, and contribute to decisions that affect themselves and others. Note that youth engagement is not the sole responsibility of competent staff — organizational and policy support is critical.

  6. Equity and Inclusion

    Disrupting personal biases, engaging in ongoing personal learning and self-reflection, continually building culturally responsive practice, valuing diversity, advocating for equitable policies and practices. Note that while personal bias against any identity group must be addressed for staff to be effective, competent staff alone cannot create equitable, inclusive, and accessible program environments; organizational support is needed.

  7. Family, School, and Community Relationships

    Understanding the roles of family, school, and community in youth development; creating positive, strength-based connections with the other adults in a young person's life; engaging in joint planning; ensuring that young people's needs are met through community services and resources; advocating for positive youth development approaches.

  8. Safety and Wellness

    Creating environments that are safe and trauma-informed, and that promote wellness.

  9. Program Planning and Development

    Understanding program/agency philosophy, approach, goals, and ethical standards; meeting regulations and standards; participating in planning and evaluation; using resources; ethical practice.

Given the diverse educational backgrounds of youth workers and the lack of professional development tracks specific to youth work, most youth work professionals have to rely on community-based training and professional development opportunities, if any are available. The Positive Youth Development 101 curriculum and activities can be used to provide training in several of these competency areas.

A Reminder: Organizational Support is Essential

Even if we have the most competent youth work professionals imaginable, our organizations are not designed to be fully inclusive of youth.

If a PYD approach is to be adopted and sustained, new policies, practices, and support at the organizational level — not just the program level — are essential.