Effective services for young people should be based on young people’s own perceptions of their needs and interests. Discuss.

Young people’s services are most effective when the needs and interests it seeks to serve are those perceived as relevant by the young people who will be using the service. It is an essential part of youth work to remember that not all young people have the same interests and aspirations. Young people differ by age, by neighbourhood, by academic or vocational aspirations. There are young people in employment, young people in education and training; finally there are young people not in education, employment and training (NEET). Not all young people are the same; however they share the common experience that they are at the margins of decision-making.

Young people should be able to get their voices heard by those in charge of youth services without having to struggle. If young people’s needs are at the core of a service, it should make a positive difference in their lives. It is my opinion that the effectiveness of any youth service largely depends on the level of involvement the young people have during the entire process. I believe it is important for young people’s services to have input from both adult and young people and during this essay will explain in more detail the importance of intergenerational involvement and the refreshed insight this can give all involved, which is then passed on to those both using and working in the youth service.

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Youth projects may have varying degrees of youth involvement. Jones and Perkins’ (2005) continuum of youth-adult relationship model has five levels which demonstrate how different working styles can affect young people.


Adult-Centered Leadership programmes are conceived and driven completely by adults, without employing any youth decision making, such as school sessions or army youth camps, both of which children and young people attend but do not have a say in the planning. Any project for young people must ensure the needs and interests of the young people are at the centre of the project, not adult perceptions of young people’s requirements or ‘what would be good for them’. Traditional youth programmes tend to perpetuate the adultist attitude by portraying young people as receivers and adults as providers – giving a very clear and dividing line between ‘them’ and ‘us’. This attitude belittles the identity seeking nature of young people and disparages potentially motivated youth.

An Adult-Led Collaboration includes programmes or situations where adults provide guidance for youth, but the youth have some input in decision making, albeit limited by adults’ discretion. Church youth groups for young people are a good example of adult-led collaborations where the main focus is decided by adults, for example putting on a play about Noah and the Arc, but young people have some say over what they are doing, perhaps by turning it into a rap night.

The Youth-Adult Partnership category is located centrally on Jones and Perkins’ continuum. This is a true working partnership between young people and adults. All participants have equal chances in using their skills, decision making and learning. All tasks are carried out with common goals in mind. This is a big challenge for all involved as young people take on high levels of responsibility and adults have to hand over their perceived power to young people. The hamlet of St. Clements in Cornwall has the ‘ageless garden’ project. This is a wonderful example of young people and adults working in partnership. People of all ages come together with the common goal of producing a beautiful garden with bold statements about the whole group and about them individually. Decision makers are aged from 4 to 93years old.

Youth-Led Collaborations are programmes or projects where youth primarily develop the ideas and make decisions while adults typically provide any needed assistance. Research of adult-led and youth-led community projects (Jones, K.R. 2005), has demonstrated a more positive response from all involved with youth-led projects than with adult-led projects. Young people were positive because of the level of autonomy they had as leaders of the projects. The adults generally displayed confidence in the young people’s abilities to manage the projects and were happy to be able to assist whenever needed.

Youth-Centered Leadership programmes are led exclusively by youth, with little or no adult involvement. A youth-centered leadership programme called DIG (Durham Inner-city Gardeners) has been in operation since 2000 Young people have developedcommunity gardens and initiated a weekly park maintenance scheme. The project has been designed and set up by young people for young people, with a minimum amount of assistance from youth workers and horticulturalists.

Positive input from adults is important; their professional and personal experience can provide invaluable insight into the productive running of a youth service. Adults however, can interpret the needs and interests of young people in a very different way than the young people themselves. Despite good intentions, it is easy for workers to provide a service they feel would benefit the young people, not one which is based on the young people’s perceptions of their needs and interests.

Studies by Gilliam ; Bales (2001) demonstrate the inaccuracy of adult’s perceptions of young people and a general lack of knowledge about positive trends in youth development. Gilliam ; Bales suggest that adults tend to view the lives of young people through their own lenses, thus relating to their younger years. By using their own remembered needs rather than involving young people and getting information about current needs and interests, there is a danger of providing services that have little or no relevance to young people’s needs. Failure to involve young people by asking how they perceive their current needs and interests can come across as a lack of concern about the realities of young people’s lives. This can cause further disconnection between young people and the adults.

Involvement in further projects may dwindle as young people become doubtful of being listened to. Young people feel frustrated they are unable to get their views across and can become resentful towards authoritative figures. This, usually unintentional, tendency to overlook young people’s views necessitates involvement from young people at all levels of providing services, so that the services provided are constantly relevant to its client group. As young people develop they naturally begin to search for their own identity; searching the world about them in a search to find answers to their many questions. They will flourish when given more power over decision making. Even the quietest young person will value the opportunity to put forward their ideas to adults in a constructive and safe environment.

Involving young people merely as token representatives will undermine effective youth involvement. Young people are very aware of whether they are being taken seriously or not and whether their contributions will be used to benefit youth services. It is important to be honest with young people throughout the whole process as to the extent of their involvement and how much their ideas will be used to shape the service concerned. If young people are given responsibility and allowed to implement plans and strategies, they begin to see that they can actually do things that make a difference. The opportunities provided for young people today will shape the future for us all.

“If we expect today’s youth to be tomorrow’s Leaders, we must give them a voice and equal opportunity to address community issues.”

Webster, N. College of Agricultural Sciences

When young people see that what they create produces real actions, they will want to participate more because they see that their work is being valued and is not just a token effort ‘to keep the children happy’. Young people want to know that their opinions count, that people will sit up and listen to what they have to say. They need to be given time to think about their opinions so they can voice them in a constructive manner and include feedback from other young people they are representing.

It is vital to keep the channels of communication constantly open between young people and adults and if young people are not actually involved in decision making processes, feedback should be given, explaining how their input was used and allowing them time to reflect and, if they feel it is right, to reassess the decision making process. If their opinions are not used, then they want to know why. Giving young people feedback not only allows them to understand what is happening but also lets them develop different ways of thinking that may be used the next time that they participate.

It is important that both young people and staff are adequately prepared for their involvement with youth services. Young people need to know in advance what exactly they are agreeing to be involved with. Those in charge of working with young people throughout the process will need time not only to prepare sessions, questionnaires etc but also to get to know the young people involved. They will also need to make sure they are reaching the right target group. There will be no point doing a consultation session with 18-19 year olds about the needs and interests of 14-15 year olds. Young people and adults will have very different and individual expectations about how to achieve successful cooperation. It is important that time and effort is placed on the importance of building both adults and young people’s partnership skills. Without that time commitment, efforts to involve youth will seldom succeed.

Genuine and effective youth involvement requires a serious commitment by an organisation and all staff members. Workers who intend to involve and integrate young people meaningfully into youth programmes will need to examine the organisational structure and culture in which they work in order to identify and dismantle any potential barriers to youth involvement. Moreover, staff must understand and accept that effective youth involvement often means changing rules and practices. For example, if funding does not cover expenses for meals, some young people may not be able to participate, hence ruling out financially disadvantaged young people. Programmes will then need to identify other funding sources to cover youth’s expenses. Other typical changes might include redefining business hours, modifying meeting spaces, and /or altering communication styles of involved adults and youth.

Youth services which are developed through a partnership of young people and adults may be highly effective in building young people’s interactive skills, increasing mutual respect and trust whilst reducing negative stereo-typing between different generations. Positive youth – adult interaction is a valuable part of young people’s development and can enhance their interpersonal, teamwork and leadership skills.

This benefits not only the young people and the adults who help in the process but also improves the service quality, making it more young people friendly, thereby having a greater impact on those using the service. Allport’s (1956) Intergroup Contact theory argues that bringing members of different groups together in an interactive setting (in this case, young people and adults, coming together to provide an effective youth service) has positive effects on the attitudes of ‘in-group’ members (those possessing power, privilege and status) towards ‘out-group’ members (those not in the ‘in-group circle, less connected, less visible and ultimately ‘less desirable’) therefore leading to less prejudice.

The initial perceptions that young people and adults have of each other are often false, with adults often unaware of, and uninterested in, the positive trends in youth development (Glassner, 1999). Adultist stereotypical views constrain young people’s potential by hindering their ability to put forward their ideas to adults. This can be due to insufficient opportunities provided for them to get their views heard and also lack of confidence and fear of being mocked. It is imperative that youth workers get past this and provide adequate opportunities for consultation with young people, in a safe and comfortable environment. Allport uses the Intergroup Contact Theory to provide four key conditions to a successful intergroup relationship :

1. Equal status amongst all involved

2. Common goals

3. Intergroup cooperation, demonstrating individuals skills and qualities

4. A sense of shared values and support of authority, laws or customs

Young people are more likely to be interested in a youth service if they feel a sense of ownership of the project. They should be able to see that their time and commitment makes a difference and is acknowledged by others. Accreditations such as Youth Achievement Awards give an official recognition to Young People’s positive contributions.

Youth workers need to be aware of the legal framework relating to all issues arising in work with young people. This awareness enables us to inform young people about their legal rights, and ensures that we work within the relevant legal boundaries set out in UK, European and international law. It is important to recognise that statutory duties prescribed by government have direct implications upon youth work.

It is now a legal requirement that everyone delivering services to young people is proactive in tackling discrimination. Every day young people are treated unfairly simply because of stereotypical, ageist views created by adults. It may also be because of other issues, such as their gender, race, disability or sexual orientation. It is unlawful to discriminate against anyone for these reasons and it is the duty of youth workers to fight against these prejudices.

National, regional and local planning regarding working with young people has stemmed from the Government’s strategic document ‘Every Child Matters’ (November 2004). Every Child Matters: Change for Children is a Governmental approach to the well-being of children and young people from birth to age 19. The Government’s aim is for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:

1. Be Healthy

2. Stay Safe

3. Enjoy and Achieve

4. Make Positive Contribution

5. Achieve Economic Well-Being

These five outcomes underline the importance of children and young people well-being and should be at the centre of all policies and approaches involving young people under 19 years old, or 25 years old for young people with learning difficulties.

The Youth Matters green paper states the importance and value of young people’s involvement with youth services, both nationally and locally. “We need to convince young people that their contribution matters and to create the opportunities and support to sustain their engagement.” The paper reiterates the need for young people to receive impartial, information and advice from adults, whilst having their views heard and taken seriously. It is important to obtain effective engagement and participation with young people.

It is only latterly, as a result of documents such as ‘Every Child Matters’, that the majority of agencies have begun looking at youth engagement/consultation and decision making processes, in a more strategic, structured and youth orientated manner. In March 2005, the first Children’s Commissioner for England was appointed. The Children’s Commissioner’s role is to give children and young people a voice in Government and in public life, paying particular attention to gathering and putting forward the views of the most vulnerable children and young people in society; promoting their involvement in the work of organisations whose decisions and actions affect them.

In October 2006, analysis of children and young people’s plans was undertaken. It showed that local authorities were consulting young people about their needs and interests but that they were not following green paper guidance. An analysis of 132 children and young people’s plans conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), Youth Work Themes in Children and Young People’s Plans, showed suggested that only half of England’s local authorities were acknowledging Youth Matters in their plans and fewer than 10 refer directly to its proposals. The “youth offer” underpinning the green paper was referred to by less than one in three plans. However this doesn’t necessarily mean local authorities are not involving young people. All the plans stated that there was consultation with children and young people, or consideration given to their views during preparation of the plan. This is a positive step, proving yet again that young people are keen to be involved in and are happy to be engaged with, participation and consultation in their local areas.

Local youth services need to ensure that they are providing the appropriate services for the young people in their area, taking into account the differing needs of their target audience. Studies by Jones ; Perkins (2005) have shown significant differences between young people’s involvement and interaction with adults in rural and urban youth services. Those in rural areas tended to be more trusting and enthusiastic about sharing their thoughts and ideas with adults than young people in urban areas. Negative attitudes from adults appeared to have a more traumatic effect on the young people living in rural areas. This could be related to the fact that most of the young people involved in rural studies had some previous knowledge or contact with the adults concerned.

Rural young people were more likely to make statements such as ‘that lady is my gran’s friend Sara from the WI…’ when referring to youth workers and other adults involved in the projects. Young people in large urban areas often did not even know who their neighbours were, let alone an adult worker. They were more reluctant to join youth projects but once they were involved became very passionate about their needs being put first within youth services. They were put off contributing their ideas further by derogative comments but did not appear to be personally offended. This suggests that different approaches should be used when working with young people in rural and urban areas as their experiences and ways of relating to adults are very different.

In Cornwall, Youth Matters has had a really positive impact. The Children ; Young People’s Partnership and the Cornwall Youth Service’s Youth forum are determined to make a difference to the lives of young people growing up in what can be a very solitary place to live. The forum and the partnership believe that ‘every child and young person living in Cornwall has the opportunity to achieve their full potential.’ The importance of listening to young people is evident and many young people are really using the opportunity to make sure people acknowledge the strength and validity of their views. “All politicians say that young people are the future, but never do anything about it. We are also the present so youth councils are a way of getting our voices heard. We care about what goes on as well. Youth councils have the power to change things. Where I live has become more youth friendly since there has been a youth forum. It has opened people’s eyes to young people’s needs and what we want, not what they think we want. The county council is making an effort to consult young people about how we feel” (Young Person, aged 16, Cornwall Youth Service’s Youth forum).

Most youth work charities in Cornwall have worked with the ethos of putting young people’s perceived needs and interests at the centre of their projects for many years. When ‘Hear Our Voice’ Young people’s Mental Health Project was set up, the initial purpose was to get young people’s needs heard within the Mental Health Sector in Cornwall. They found that young people, when offered a safe, non-judgemental environment in which to talk, voiced their concerns very clearly and concisely about mental health issues relating to them and their families.

Fears or concerns they had and feelings of inadequacy when stuck in the middle of what could certainly be described as an ‘adultist’ mental health system came flooding out, as young people realised they were being taken seriously and their input could change things for the better. Services within the NHS now frequently use Hear Our Voice to get a real understanding of how young people really think and feel. Consultation reports are written in a young person friendly style and feed back talks are done by both young people and workers. Over the years, young people in Cornwall who are at risk of, or experiencing, mental health problems have found this interactive approach very productive as a way of getting their voices heard.

Mendler (1992), states the importance of making children and young people feel valued. He believes there are five things all young people need:

1. To feel and believe they are capable and successful.

2. To know they are cared about by others

3. To realise they are able to influence people and events

4. To remember others and practise helping them through their own generosity

5. Fun and stimulation.

We live in a society where many of these needs are not being met. There are young people who do not feel capable and cared for; who have no knowledge of how to use their influence in a positive manner, if at all; who do not have good social skills or the ability to empathise with others and for whom fun and stimulation is a rarity. It is the Youth worker’s role to be a prominent feature in their lives and help to fulfil these needs, so that today’s children and young people will recognise their true value and be able to meet the needs of their own children in the future. In order to try and achieve this, young people should be made to feel welcome within a youth service and know they are being valued as a young person and as an individual. There should always be room for improvement and adaptations as the needs and interests of young people change. It is important to identify local young people’s needs and develop programmes and facilities based on reliable knowledge of what young people most want and need. Varied programmes, previously agreed by young people and workers should be provided presenting choice and opportunity to all service users.

The importance of involving young people at all levels of a youth service cannot be understated. Youth work facilities must insist on ascertaining the needs and interests of the young people who will be involved in a project. Then, hopefully together with the young people themselves, the project can be improved or adapted to meet the needs of today’s youth. The whole involvement process should be a positive and enlightening experience for all involved as they take advantage of the opportunity to really get to know people who seem so very different from them.

They start to acknowledge and appreciate other people’s thought processes and learn from one another’s experiences. From those differences come similarities – I believe Mendler was correct in his thinking; no matter how different our life experiences, there are similarities in our individual needs. We all want to succeed, to feel cared for, to have positive stimulation in our lives and to have our views listened to and acted upon and to. Involving young people in the construction, implementation, maintenance and improvements of services which are for them, brings out the generosity and thoughtful side of both young people and adult’s natures using methods individual to them.

By rejecting the preconceived stereotypes present in today’s society, young people and adults can work together to produce more efficient services for young people, present an future, provided this approach is continued. Workers and young people can share their skills and experiences, learning from each other constantly. Successful intergenerational partnerships forged through youth orientated services can create much more productive attitudes as negative perceptions are brought to light, dismissed, and peoples attitudes about other generations change. Prejudices can be reduced and deep bonds created.


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