Primary Sources: How Setbacks in Youth-Led Projects Promote Strategic Thinking

A young man attempts to push an obstacle out of his way.

Adolescents’ Development of Skills for Agency in Youth Programs: Learning to Think Strategically” (abstract). Reed W. Larson and Rachel M. Angus. Child Development, Vol. 82, Number 1 (2011).

What it’s about: Larson and Angus wanted to see if youth development programs help young people learn to set and achieve goals—a set of skills known as agency.

The University of Illinois researchers interviewed 108 youth ages 13 to 21. Participants were enrolled in a local arts or leadership program, which engaged them in projects like staging a local musical, advocating for better school policies or planning a day camp for fourth graders.

Interviewers talked to participants every two weeks or so, to discuss their experiences and look for common themes. More than half of participants completed a follow-up interview two or three years after their projects ended.

Why read it: Being able to establish and pursue goals is valuable for young people approaching adulthood, yet the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and problem-solving is often still developing in adolescents. Research on the impact of youth development programs on skills like strategic thinking and goal setting may help family and youth workers develop more effective programming.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: In the interviews at the time of the projects, many participants talked about "working hard" or "doing what it takes" to meet their project demands and deadlines. But teens who were aware of exactly what it would take to finish their projects didn't necessarily follow through or develop an independent ability to set goals.

Participants who ran into unexpected challenges, on the other hand, learned to think strategically as they walked through what caused the problem and how they might solve it and move forward. Youth also showed gains in strategic thinking when their advisors took a hands-off approach instead of telling them what to do. Larson and Angus theorize that those young people knew they could reach out for advice even if they would be making a final decision. That feeling of being supported may have helped them to grow.

In their follow-up interviews several years later, the authors found that many participants had held onto the skills they picked up as teens. One college student said campaigning to improve school policies taught her always to have a backup plan in case a situation doesn't work out as expected. Another participant said that recognizing the impact of his decisions has motivated him to avoid gang life and enroll in college.

Larson and Angus say further research is needed to develop program models that expose youth to real-world challenges while making sure they are connected to caring adults. They add that such programs--whatever they look like--will help youth develop strategic tools that can smooth their path to adulthood.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on Positive Youth Development in our digital library.

We also offer two online guides related to this topic, "Positive Youth Development: An Introduction" and "Putting Positive Youth Development into Practice."

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families.

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