This second post on engaging youth in policy and program development shifts perspective from a theoretical model of youth engagement to a consideration of the principles and practices associated with implementing such a model successfully. It is possible to identify from the literature on youth engagement four essential principles for an effective and sustainable approach to engaging youth in decision-making. These principles are: to be youth centred; to be care centred; to be knowledge centred; and to be assessment centred. Some of the practices associated with each of these principles are detailed below.

Youth centred

Organizations that are youth centred in their approach to youth engagement:

  • Embrace youth as active community members with the right to a voice on social issues and the wisdom, skills and expertise to contribute to solutions;
  • Ensure that groups of youth that face particular barriers to participation are given opportunities to be involved;
  • Demonstrate their commitment to youth participation across their organization;
  • Encourage full youth participation and ownership in decision making and setting agendas;
  • Nurture young people’s assets and positive development (including providing opportunities for skill-building);
  • Give youth access to a space where they have ownership and control;
  • Allow sufficient time for youth to process information and ideas and translate them into terms that are meaningful to them; and
  • Are flexible with respect to youths’ needs (e.g. accessible meeting locations and times) and competencies (e.g. age, readiness, previous experience).

Care centred

Organizations that are care centred in their approach to youth engagement:
  • Create an environment where youth feel safe and can develop genuine and trusting relationships;
  • Are inclusive of and celebrate individual differences;
  • Offer respectful and consistent support/mentorship from a wide range of adult and young adult allies;
  • Provide youth with tangible supports, such as food, transportation, incentives and recognition; and
  • Offer a variety of social and team- building activities that are flexible, active, culturally relevant and fun.

Knowledge centred

Organizations that are knowledge centred in their approach to youth engagement:

  • Foreground learning as a reason to be involved;
  • Establish clear expectations and tangible roles and goals for youth involved;
  • Give youth the information they need to develop informed opinions on issues that are beyond their current experience;
  • Enable youth to acquire of a range of academic and life skills;
  • Provide opportunities for youth to expand their horizons and challenge their comfort zones, including travelling outside of their home communities; and
  • Support youth to see and to recognize the change they are effecting.

Assessment centred

Organizations that are assessment centred in their approach to youth engagement:

  • Build in opportunities for ongoing feedback – formally and informally;
  • Encourage reflective thinking;
  • Support ongoing learning and improvement – how are youth doing and what would they do better next time?
  • Engage in regular program evaluation that involves both youth and adults; and
  • Facilitate young people’s assessment (and improvement) of their youth engagement strategy.

Adult-youth relationships are key

The capacity of an organization to implement the practices listed above relies upon the quality of the adult-youth relationships that are at the heart of the youth engagement process. There is a consensus across the literature that “successful youth participation involves shared decision making and collaboration with adults” (City of Calgary, 2004, referencing the perspective of the McCreary Centre Society).

A recent survey by the Students Commission of Canada explored the meaning of “youth-adult partnership” for the adults involved in working with youth. Findings indicated that meaningful youth-adult relationships are characterized by (Students Commission, n.d.).

  • A balanced sharing of power;
  • Relationships that are both professional and personal in nature;
  • Having a shared purpose or goal;
  • Reciprocal learning;
  • Mutual and equally valued contributions;
  • Mutual benefits;
  • Mutual respect;
  • The adult not making assumptions about youth; and
  • The adult being honest, able to show their vulnerability, and being willing to be challenged.

The term used by the leading youth engagement experts across Canada (including, The Students Commission, The New Mentality, and The Laidlaw Foundation) to refer to the adults who work with youth in engagement activities is “adult allies”. The term foregrounds the collegial, supportive and collaborative nature of the relationship – that is essential to effective youth engagement. Youth engagement experts note the importance of providing training for adults to help them develop the kinds of skills and attitudes required to foster and sustain positive and meaningful relationships with youth.