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Development in Youth Work: Critical Theories and Questions

YouthREX just completed another run of our professional development certificate for Ontario youth workers: Critical Youth Work: Bridging Theory and Practice. We piloted three cohorts earlier this year and have since held the certificate in Ottawa and Peel. In November, we will engage with youth workers in Thunder Bay and in the new year it will run in London. Over three full days youth workers critically analyze key issues and practices that impact youth wellbeing. Course content is facilitated by YouthREX staff and by sector specialists, including youth. But what makes the course come alive is the youth workers in the room who bring a wealth of experiences, insights and skills to the conversation.

For four of the cohorts, I have had the privilege of facilitating a workshop that reviews and critically considers the dominant theories of youth development. Before we begin I ask participants to reflect and try to articulate their theory of youth development.

I like us to remember, before we launch into dominant models, that each of us already has a theory, or theories, that inform our work with youth that are grounded in experience, knowledge, and values. The value of reviewing the dominant models is that it allows us to situate our own work and that of our organizations and the sector within broader conversations.

I always emphasize that this is an ongoing conversation and that there are certainly other important theories that inform and structure work with youth. As we will see, the models that are dominant now have developed over time and will continue to develop as we learn more.

I begin the workshop with a brief overview of the history of youth work. The dominant models of youth work have their origins in Western societies and emerged around the time of the Industrial Revolution. As societies shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy, young people moved from rural to urban communities in search of work. These were the first ‘disconnected’ youth. When these disconnected youth could not find work, when they were not employed, in education, or training (the original NEET youth) they became a population of concern and a variety of organizations and interventions were designed to support their social and economic integration.

Fast forward 150 years and the youth sector has become relatively more formalized, and the structures that we work with and in have shifted, but youth development remains a core focus. 

What is youth development?

First, youth development is a process of biological, social, emotional, cognitive, and moral maturation (ie. ‘growing’ or ‘coming up’).

Second, youth development is an organized process of guiding the development (as in community development) of youth. In this case, youth are viewed as community resources and assets that should be developed for the good of individuals and communities.

Third, youth development happens when youth themselves lead development. We can call this youth-led community development.

Presently, the dominant models of youth development are resilience and positive youth development (PYD). Both models build on meeting youths’ basic needs: food, housing, safety and belonging. Additionally, they both draw on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model which pays attention to nested and intersecting contexts of child and youth development.

PYD and resilience models both consider the internal and external factors that support development (see here for examples). Resilience models, and there are many (we are into the fourth wave of resilience theory, at least), additionally look at risk and protective factors and each can have internal and external dimensions.

A note on ‘risk’: Risk has its origins in epidemiology and was originally meant as a population level descriptor. When resilience theory was applied to youth development it looked at individual youth and tried to understand what enabled them to endure or overcome their ‘risk profile’. The confusion over risk and its relationship to resilience and the characterization of individual youth as ‘at risk’ has received significant criticism. Young people who are labeled ‘at-risk’ argue that the label creates stigma and is misapplied. They refocus the question of risk on the structures that create ‘risk’ and further challenge youth workers to also focus on youth assets and strengths. As a result of these and other criticisms, resilience theories are now back to considering nested contexts more dynamically and noting that intervention strategies to support youth wellbeing must take into account multiple developmental contexts and their interrelations.

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is similar to resilience theory in that it focuses on internal and external development contexts. Like resilience theory, PYD takes into account critiques levelled at prevention models of youth development that focused mainly on stopping anti-social ‘bad’ behaviour. Critiques of prevention approaches include their lack of development opportunities for youth. Therefore, two popular mantras of PYD are “prevention is not promotion” and “problem-free is not prepared”. Moreover, all youth, and not just youth facing barriers to inclusion, can benefit from intentionally designed opportunities for positive development. PYD ushered in a paradigm shift in youth work that saw us move from a focus on fixing youth to recognizing youth strengths and assets.

A critical social-justice approach to PYD goes a step further in that it examines and strives to change structures that negatively affect youth development opportunities and outcomes. Critical PYD engages the ‘isms that we cannot see but that seriously impact youth opportunities and which include, but aren’t limited to: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, cixgenderism, ablism, colorism, and sizeism, among others. A critical PYD approach not only sees youth as assets but works with youth to challenge and address the root causes of systemic inequity.

Throughout the workshop, participants animate the content by offering their questions, perspectives, experiences, critiques and suggestions in relation to the various models of youth development. One of the opportunities in youth programming now is to better understand how to design programs that are responsive to youth who have diverse identities, experiences, and life contexts and that take into account and challenge structures that create barriers to equitable positive outcomes. While the models we review in the Critical Youth Work certificate are quite generic, the work we do is highly specific and is always embedded in unique and very dynamic contexts.

What critical youth workers do on a daily basis is to take an array of factors into account, including their personal background and the politics of youth work, and engage in relational practices that create positive opportunities for and with young people.

The primary goal of YouthREX’s Critical Youth Work Course is to bridge the theory and practice gap. When we hold theories up to practice and practice up to theories, we begin to see synergies and alignments, as well as opportunities to understand and conceptualize our work differently. Youth development theories will continue to evolve and youth workers and youth have critical contributions to make.

Rebecca Houwer,
Knowledge Exchange Manager, YouthREX