Support for Efficacy and Mattering

Many community programs for youth incorporate multiple opportunities to build efficacy. Programs may vary in the extent to which they allow youth to participate in the leadership of the program. However, many programs believe that youth can play a variety of roles in designing, delivering, and evaluating activities. Youth participants may help identify needs and set goals; help design the structure, activities, and supports that will be attractive and accessible to youth; help staff understand what youth need and how to relate to them; help identify community and family issues that may be barriers for youth participation; and help create an environment for youth to positively contribute to their community. Some programs develop youth councils to systematically generate youth involvement. Others involve youth in responsible leadership positions around program activities, such as tutors, peer counselors, and event organizers (Burt, 1998).

Community programs for youth that incorporate opportunities for efficacy may, in fact, be youth-centered or run entirely by adults. In practice, what often matters from the adolescent’s perspective is the stance about youth communicated by program goals and philosophy. Are program goals focused on youth as resources or as problems? Do youth see programs as resources to help them grow or succeed, rather than as efforts to “fix” them? They are likely to avoid or leave programs that seem punitive or deficit-based and instead choose ones that acknowledge their assets and help them to develop their strengths. Youth-centered programs provide rich opportunities to support youth efficacy—for youth to experience leadership, assume responsibility, and develop problem-solving skills.

Faced with declining enrollment of youth over 13 years of age, Louisiana 4-H developed a survey to ensure that their curriculum and program strategy were designed around ideas that teens themselves indicated were of interest. They found that the topics of interest changed as young people got older. At higher grade levels, for instance, they were much more interested in jobs, careers, and options after high school. They also discovered that the traditional 4-H program topics of health, safety, and nutrition had to be packaged in terms of fitness or sports in order to attract adolescent interest. Although the youth did not want to discuss personal grooming, they were eager to participate in activities about fashion (Acosta and Holt, 1991). This program granted youth responsibility and supported efficacy by involving them in deciding the nature of the program activities.

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