NCFY Reports

Working with Young People in the Contexts in Which They Live

Imagine a young person you know. She’s standing in the middle of a red hula hoop. Around the hula hoop is a bigger, orange one. Around the orange one is an even bigger, yellow one. Each hula hoop represents the nested settings in which young people grow up: The red one represents the young person’s family, the orange one, the young person’s school, and the yellow one, the young person’s community. There are even bigger hula hoops too, representing things like mass media, culture, and public policies.

According to the developmental systems theory, every young person grows up within these hoops, or environments. Over time, as a young person passes through childhood and into adulthood, each environment influences and is influenced by the next.Understanding the different settings in which young people grow up, how these environments interact, and how to work with young people within these different settings is key to helping young people thrive.

Understanding Youth in Context

Many organizations and youth workers already understand the developmental systems theory, even if they don’t call it by name. 

For example, as director of mentoring programs at the Youth Justice Institute in Oakland, Calif., Kaina Terrazas Walker says, “Mentoring is more effective when the family is more stable. Kids need support at home to reinforce the mentoring process.”

The Youth Justice Institute also looks for mentors who are culturally aware, who understand life in the inner-city (where many of the young people they serve come from) and who speak the “language of the streets.” Walker says it’s important that mentors can identify with the young people’s culture and their struggles.

Those who work with homeless youth also know the importance of understanding youth in context. They know, sometimes intuitively, that helping homeless youth is usually more than a matter of finding housing and offering independent living skills or mental health services. It may involve working with their families to improve stability, working with schools to promote education, addressing the stigma of homelessness in a community, and advocating for policies that provide more affordable housing. 

Applying the Developmental Systems Theory 

Richard Lerner, director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, says that youth workers can apply the developmental systems model in other ways too. 

People are the most important resource. The bedrock of healthy youth development is a positive and sustained relationship with a caring adult, Lerner says. Because of the dramatic impact that a committed and caring adult can have on a young person, “people are the most important resource in every part of the ecology. And when people are most important,” he says, “there should always be enough resources to put young people on a better path.” 

Environments are interconnected. The good news, Lerner says, is that a positive relationship in one setting can make up for something lacking in another setting. So if a parent is unavailable or a teacher has been unable to get through to a young person, a religious leader, counselor, or mentor might be able to make a connection.  

And the number and quality of connections between settings have important influences on a young person’s development. For example, do parents and teachers communicate with each other? Are there similar expectations in various settings? Or are young people faced with different ways of doing things among friends and at home? The more connected their environments feel, the easier it is for young people to figure out their own values.

Individual differences matter. Not all young people will benefit in the same way from the same resources, Lerner says. Individual characteristics of each young person make a difference. Try to take stock of what assets each young person has and consider what areas could be strengthened. Looking at individual differences–both innate and by way of outside influences—helps youth workers provide more effective services.

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