Promoting Youth Leadership

What are Youth Development and Leadership & Why are They Important?

Research supports the premise that both youth development and leadership programs positively shape the growth of young people with and without disabilities. Youth leadership programs build on solid youth development principles, with an emphasis on those development and program components that support youth leadership.

Often, and mistakenly, the terms “youth development” and “youth leadership” are used interchangeably. Youth development is a process that prepares young people to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood through a coordinated, progressive series of activities and experiences that help them to become socially, morally, emotionally, physically, and cognitively competent. Youth leadership is an important part of the youth development process. Youth leadership is both an internal and an external process leading to (1) the ability to guide or direct others on a course of action, influence their opinion and behavior, and show the way by going in advance; and (2) the ability to analyze one’s own strengths and weaknesses, set personal and vocational goals, and have the self-esteem to carry them out.

Youth development experiences are connected to positive outcomes in youth, including decreases in negative behaviors (such as alcohol and tobacco use and violence) and increases in positive attitudes and behaviors (such as motivation, academic performance, self-esteem, problem-solving, positive health decisions, and interpersonal skills). Participation in leadership development experiences is linked to increased self-efficacy and the development of skills relevant to success in adulthood and the workplace such as decision-making and working well with others. Building self-advocacy and self-determination skills, an important aspect of leadership development for youth with disabilities, correlates with making a successful transition to adulthood.


The Five Areas of Development

Some common competencies and desirable outcomes emerge from a review of youth development and leadership research. The competencies and outcomes are best articulated in a framework created by the Forum for Youth Investment that organizes the range of youth development outcomes into five developmental areas: working, learning, thriving, connecting, and leading. Youth development programs strive to provide supports, services, and opportunities that help youth, including youth with disabilities, achieve positive outcomes in all five of these areas. While youth leadership programs also help youth achieve positive outcomes in all five areas, they place more emphasis on developing competencies in the areas of leading and connecting. Intended outcomes and examples of program activities for each of the five areas.

Working refers to the development of positive attitudes, skills, and behaviors around occupational and career direction. Positive outcomes that fall under this area include demonstrated work-readiness skills and involvement in meaningful work that offers advancement, satisfaction, and self-sufficiency. Activities such as career interest assessments and summer internships help youth achieve these outcomes.

Learning refers to the development of positive basic and applied academic attitudes, skills, and behaviors. Beneficial outcomes that fall under this area include rational problem solving and critical thinking. Activities such as group problem-solving games and contextualized learning using academic skills to complete a project help youth achieve these outcomes.

Thriving refers to the development of attitudes, skills, and behaviors that are demonstrated by maintaining optimal physical and emotional wellbeing. Beneficial outcomes that fall under this area include knowledge and practice of good nutrition and hygiene and the capacity to identify risky conditions. Activities such as workshops on nutrition and hygiene and role-playing adverse situations help youth achieve these outcomes.

Connecting refers to the development of positive social behaviors, skills, and attitudes. Positive outcomes that fall under this area include quality relationships, the ability to build trust, and effective communication. Activities such as adult mentoring, positive peer interactions, and team-building exercises help youth achieve these outcomes.

Leading refers to the development of positive skills, attitudes, and behaviors around civic involvement and personal goal-setting. Beneficial outcomes that fall under this area include a sense of responsibility to oneself and others and the ability to articulate one’s personal values Activities such as the opportunity to take a leadership role and participation in community service projects help youth achieve these outcomes.

“Five Areas of Development with Related Outcomes and Activities”, provides intended outcomes and suggested activities for each of the five areas of development. The chart includes youth leadership program-specific outcomes and activities for the “connecting” and “leading” areas.

Organizational and Program Components

Youth development and youth leadership programs for all youth, including those with disabilities, consist of the same basic components necessary to build on each youth’s capabilities and strengths and address a full range of developmental needs. Youth leadership programs place an additional emphasis on certain components central to leadership development. The key components of youth development and leadership programs can be divided into organizational components — practices and characteristics of the organization as a whole that are necessary for effective youth programs — and programmatic components — the practices and characteristics of a specific program that make it effective for young people. In addition, there are some components that comprise a disability focus that programs should include in order to meet the needs of youth with disabilities.

Organizational Components

Both youth development and leadership programs need to be supported by an organization that has all of the following characteristics:

  • clear goals related to the development of young people;
  • youth development-friendly staff;
  • connections to the community; and
  • youth involvement.

Youth leadership programs must emphasize the importance of involving youth in every facet of the organization, including serving on the Board of Directors, strategic planning, and other administrative decision-making processes

Programmatic Components

Youth development and youth leadership programs should do all of the following:

  • provide varied hands on and experiential activities;
  • provide opportunities for youth to succeed and to take on various roles in the program;
  • encourage youth involvement in developing and implementing program activities;
  • establish high expectations for youth, and allow them to experience the consequences of their choices and decisions;
  • involve family members when possible; and
  • provide the opportunity to interact with a mentor or role model.

Youth leadership programs place a particular emphasis on involving youth in every aspect of program delivery. Practically, this means that youth have:

  • multiple opportunities to observe, practice, and develop leadership skills;
  • experience progressive roles of leadership ranging from leading a small group to planning an event;
  • receive education on the values and history of the organization; and
  • learn to assess their own strengths and set goals for personal development.

Organizational and Program Components”, provides an overview of all the organizational and programmatic components relevant to youth development and leadership programs, including those relevant to serving youth with disabilities effectively.

Disability Focus

The outcomes in all five areas of youth development are relevant for all youth, including youth with disabilities. Youth with disabilities can and should be included as participants in youth development and leadership programs along with peers without disabilities. There are some additional components that programs should include in order to meet the needs of youth with disabilities fully. On the organizational level, it is important for organizations and programs to have:

  • physical and programmatic accessibility;
  • willing, prepared, and well supported staff with knowledge of how to accommodate youth with disabilities;
  • national and community resources for youth with disabilities; and
  • partnerships and collaborations with other agencies that serve youth with disabilities.

On the programmatic level, the additional components for meeting the needs of youth with disabilities include:

  • involving peers and adults with disabilities as mentors in order to give youth with disabilities as well as those without disabilities the option of selecting these individuals as their mentors;
  • providing self-advocacy skill-building activities for all youth in programs focused on developing leadership skills (self-advocacy skills are especially important for youth with disabilities as they transition into adulthood and employment);
  • providing opportunities to learn about the history and culture of individuals with disabilities, including disabilities laws, policies and practices; and
  • providing independent living information and assessment for youth with disabilities and those without disabilities (while important for all youth, initial and ongoing assessments for independent living that center on careers and employment, training and education, transportation, recreation and leisure, community resources, life skills, and financial independence and planning are especially critical in programming for youth with disabilities).