Youth Development: Elements to help children develop positively

By Alvarez Dixon

Almost without warning my little girl has transformed from the dimpled darling who loved to swing beneath her father's bicep to a sophisticated young lady who would rather watch Internet videos and spend her daddy's money at the mall. The dimple is still there, but I'd have to stand on a ladder to swing her on my arm today.

Her development is not yet over, and there's nothing I can do to stop it. I am thinking of ways to prepare myself for the day she drops the bomb on me that she has a boyfriend and his initials are not J.B.

But preparing myself is not nearly enough. As a youth development professional, I have learned that my daughter's growth and development, like that of every child, is inevitable — but it is not guaranteed to be positive without some effort.

Like many parents, I look to after-school programs and other forms of youth engagement activities to help me create the right set of experiences for my daughter that will ensure her positive development.

Not all programs are created equal. Some programs have more structured activities than others. Some are staffed by seasoned educators; others rely on adults who are well-intentioned if not experts in youth development. Regardless of the staffing pattern and program structure, it is important for parents and youth workers to be aware that the environments we create for young people must be intended for positive development.

Researchers have shown that there are essential elements of youth development that, when present in a young person's life, dramatically increase the possibility that kids will grow into successful adults. These elements are what parents should seek when considering an after-school program — and what program providers should consider when planning activities and settings for youth enrichment and engagement.

So just what are the essential elements? The answer is BIG-M: Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery.

First, belonging: Youths benefit from a positive relationship with a caring adult who will act as an adviser, mentor or advocate and who helps set boundaries and expectations. Youngsters feel like they belong when the environment is welcoming to all who wish to participate and there is emotional and physical safety.

Second, independence: Kids should see themselves as an active participant in their futures. By creating opportunities for self-determination and decision-making, youths get to practice taking responsibility for their experiences and their actions. We should be looking for programs that give youths a voice and opportunities to make choices about activities and outcomes.

Next, generosity: Youths need an opportunity to value and practice serving others. Acts of generosity may be in the form of community service or in helping other kids from another program. When youths engage in acts of generosity, they begin to value others in the world around them. Suddenly they don't feel as alone after considering the lives of others.

Finally, mastery: Programs should give youths opportunities to become masters in a subject area. Mastery is the building of knowledge, skills and attitudes and the effective use of skills and knowledge. When kids are masters in a subject, they begin to see themselves as valuable and capable of achievement.

As an educator for the 4-H Metro youth development program, I partner with after-school programs and other youth-serving agencies to help ensure positive development using BIG-M.

Our motto is "to make the best better" by developing hands-on learning and exciting youth enrichment activities that will teach kids to use their heads for clearer thinking, their hearts to greater loyalty, their hands to larger service and their health to better living.

If you are interested in volunteering with 4-H Metro or in learning more about our work in urban communities, please contact me.

Alvarez Dixon is a University of Illilnois Extension Educator for the 4-H Metro youth development program. He can be reached at 333-7672 or via email at alvarezd@illinois.edu.

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