Positive youth development occurs from an intentional process that promotes positive outcomes for young people by providing opportunities, relationships and support to fully participate. Youth development takes place in families, peer groups, schools, neighborhoods and communities.

– National 4-H Leadership Trust

The words youth development are often heard when discussing promising practices in engaging young people, but what does that mean and look like in the field of arts education? The National Youth Development Information Center offers a wealth of resources to help define youth development. Based on my recent experiences and classroom observations in the Artists-in-Communities (AIC) program, I find National 4-H Leadership Trust’s definition to be the most applicable to Performing Arts Workshop’s method of teaching young people critical thinking and creative expression through the arts. National 4-H stands above other definitions because it recognizes key components that are necessary to ensure quality arts programming particularly during out-of-school time. These components include: intention, process, relationships, opportunity, and community.

Intention. One of the Workshop’s requirements for all teaching artists is to create a curriculum overview with clear objectives prior to the commencement of their 10-30 week residencies. Artists, particularly those teaching in afterschool, usually respond with: How do I plan a curriculum when I know that it’s not going to look the same when I get there? AIC teaching artists know they may face inconsistent attendance, classroom space restrictions, and often more relaxed settings, which makes it challenging to execute lessons, and therefore, plan ahead. It makes a world of difference when a teaching artist 1) thinks about what an ideal class looks like and feels like prior to the start of class, 2) consciously integrates practices that will influence those qualities, and most importantly 3) vocally shares the objectives with the students at the beginning of the class. In the face of unforeseen classroom dynamics, something needs to ground the classroom and I believe the answer is in the objectives and shared intention. It is important to be adaptable and meet students where they are, but equally important is having a plan and desired outcome to guide the learning process.

Process. Youth development is a continuous process, a long process and slow process. It is important to understand that while a young person may not show their enthusiasm or even general opinion of the subject at hand at the moment, it does not equate ineffectiveness or absence of learning. Skill development, such as the youth outcomes the Workshop aims to achieve (i.e. self-efficacy, cultural understanding, leadership, etc.) does not begin or end in a weekly 45-minute arts class, nor does it occur in isolation. Any given student is exposed to a number of simultaneous influences (i.e. home, parents, peers, teachers, various institutions, various systems, etc.), both positive and negative, outside of the classroom. Workshop Artist Daina Block, who teaches hip hop dance in afterschool, illustrates a perfect example of how effective a single outcome can look over time. In January, she expressed, “Today was a class of reckoning. I have been constantly managing behavior, discipline and the emotional safety of students in class. As a result, I am touching little on my lesson plans. Although some days are much achievable than others, there remains an undercurrent of disconnection.” By March, “Given the space and time, Ricky was able to feel proud of his hip hop movement phrase. He invested his thinking mind to explore the variations of his once familiar and comfortable movements. A great accomplishment.” Three months may seem like a long time, but this just emphasizes the need for patience and commitment to the youth development process.

Relationships. In one of my recent site visits at Drew Elementary Afterschool, I witnessed a teaching artist demonstrate ways to encourage positive relationships. Her approach was subtle, yet extremely effective. When Workshop Artist Jesse Bliss asked third graders to read their written poems aloud, she requested they respect each other’s creative work by being attentive and appreciative. Her relationships with individual students are equally important. When a student suddenly brought up the fact that her mother is homeless, she simply responded with “It happens. It can happen to anybody, right? You can write about her.” Her response was very appropriate. It was simple, non-judgmental, and she gave the young girl’s comment a few moments of attention without de-railing from class objectives. Often enough, young people and their families experience some of the most difficult hardships including developmental and learning needs, abuse, neglect, homelessness, and familial incarceration to name a few. Their experiences can manifest into any sort of behavior in the classroom, which is one reason why creating a safe and comfortable environment for expression is critical. Art is intrinsically therapeutic and taking the time to build relationships with students makes a significant difference.

Opportunity. Youth Development research shows providing young people an opportunity to lead and make choices in the classroom can contribute to healthy development. Teens at Visitacion Valley Boys & Girls Club were offered class demonstrations, so they were able to choose the art form would be offered. As a result, students took ownership of their learning process and were engaged from the beginning. At Guadalupe Elementary Afterschool, 4th graders lead their peers in warm-up. In some of our long-term partnerships like ER Taylor Afterschool, Scott Phillips deepens his lessons each year by creating opportunities for young people to lead, create, express, and think for themselves. He does this by creating an advanced level class for those who have taken his class previously, learn quickly, or have outside experience in the art form. He also enthusiastically seeks out community events in which students can perform. This way, students will feel connected to each other and their community, as well as build confidence as blooming artists.

Community. National 4-H Leadership Trust mentions families, peer groups, schools, and neighborhoods in addition to community in their description of positive youth development. I believe that community encompasses all of these groups and a collaborative effort is absolutely necessary to ensure quality arts programming during out of school. When challenges arise, I begin to obsess about ways in which I can better support the site partner and teaching artist. What is missing? What is going well? What expectations are not being met? How can we get on the same page? What are concrete steps for next time? What are the qualities or types of partnerships that ensure success? And while all of these questions are important to address, the most important questions are What is best for the young people participating in our program? How can we work together to make this happen? In creating partnerships, the goal should be shared value of the arts through shared commitment to the young people involved. I believe any problem or issue that arises on a program level can be resolved when the conversation focuses on the youth and each party recognizes that they are a piece of the puzzle, sharing the responsibility with the community for positive change.

For more on the arts and youth development practices, check out
Performing Arts Workshop’s most recent publication, The Workshop Out of School.