Spring 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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Who's the Real Teacher

Teenagers say who taught them life skills.

Olivia P. Collins
College of Human Ecology
Kansas State University - Manhattan

As Extension professionals, most of us understand that the goal of 4-H experiences is to help young people become self-directing, productive, any contributing members of society. One way we try to do this is by developing life skills. These life skills are much more than the physical skills of sewing or grooming an animal for show. They're a combination of acting, thinking, and feeling. They help 4-Hers function as adults in society and accept responsibil ities for community leadership. They include the ability to communicate, inquire, solve problems, make decisions, and respond and relate to other people and the environment.

Life skills enable a person to:

  • Perceive and respond to significant life events.
  • Live in an interdependent society.
  • Lead a satisfying life.
  • Function effectively in a changing world.

If we, as Extension educators, believe that developing young people's potential through life skills is indeed a goal of the 4-H program, then we should determine whether 4-Hers perceive that this learning takes place. To explore this question, I studied 4-H adolescents' perceptions about life skills development through 4-H and the influences on this process.

Learning Life Skills Through 4-H

In early 1984, rural Nebraska teens were asked to participate in a survey on life skills development in 4-H. All 4-H youth aged 13 to 19 in 11 Nebraska counties were, with the consent of their parents, asked to voluntarily complete a written questionnaire. The names of these 4-Hers were provided by the Extension chairperson in each county. These 11 counties were systematically sampled using the "nth number technique," with the first county randomly selected. The survey sample consisted of 358 teens-62.8% girls and 37.2% boys.

Percentages and frequency counts were used to describe the respondents' perceptions about life skills development. A Likert-type scale used to assess these perceptions had the following response choices: very much, much, some, very little, none.

Subjects reported that they'd learned life skills through 4-H. Of the six skills measured by the survey's life skills inventory, the respondents said they learned "very much" about relationship skills; "much" about communication, problem solving, decision making, and inquiry skills; and "some" about relating to change.

The t-test was used to examine the difference between the reported life skills development of boys and girls. Girls rated their total learning of life skills in 4-H higher than did boys. They also rated their learning of communication skills, problem solving, and relating to change skills significantly higher than did boys. On the other hand, no significant difference existed between boys' and girls' ratings on decision making, inquiry skills, and relationship skills.

Family Members' Influence

Percentages and frequency counts were also used to describe respondents' perceptions about who influenced their life skills development through 4-H. Subjects reported both family members and friends influenced this development. Most often mentioned were mother and father, 4-H leader, and 4-H friend my age (see Table 1).

Table 1. Respondents' perceptions about who influenced learning life skills.
Influentials Number Percentage
Mother 321 89.7%
4-H leader 274 76.5
Father 269 75.1
4-H friend my age 225 62.8
Adult friend 157 43.9
County Extension staff member 128 35.8
Sister 110 30.7
Former 4-Her 107 29.9
Brother 102 28.5
Teacher 87 24.3
4-H junior leader 73 20.4
Grandmother 72 20.1
Grandfather 66 18.4
Other older relative 57 15.9
Other relative close in age 55 15.4
Extension staff state level 17 4.7
Extension staff at district level 15 4.2
Other (self, boyfriend) 4 1.1

Although the same four people most frequently were considered to be influential by both boys and girls, they ranked these people differently in order of frequency. Mother was mentioned most frequently as influential by both boys and girls, but father was rated as frequently as mother by boys and fourth in frequency by girls.

Brothers and sisters were seen as somewhat influential by both boys and girls, with same-sex siblings mentioned more frequently than oppositesex siblings. This was also true for grandparents: the same-sex grandparent was seen as influential more often than the opposite-sex grandparent (see Table 2).

Table 2. Respondents' perceptions by sex about who influenced learning life skills.
  Males n = 133   Females n = 225
Influentials n   %   n   %
Mother 115   86.5% Mother 206   91.6%
Father 115   86.5 4-H leader 175   77.8
4-H leader 99   74.4 4-H friend my age 158   70.2
4-H friend my age 67   50.4 Father 154   68.4
Adult friend 60   45.1 Adult Friend 97   43.1
County staff 50   37.6 County staff 78   34.7
Brother 40   30.1 Sister 75   33.3
Former 4-Her 38   28.6 Former 4-Her 69   30.7
Sister 35   26.3 Brother 62   27.6
Teacher 35   26.3 Grandmother 53   23.6
4-H junior leader 26   19.5 Teacher 52   23.1
Grandfather 24   18.0 4-H junior leader 47   20.9
Grandmother 19   14.3 Grandfather 42   18.7
Other older relative 18   13.5 Other older relative 39   17.3
Relative my age 16   12.0 Relative my age 39   17.3
State Extension staff 7   5.3 District Extension staff 13   5.8
District Extension staff 2   1.5 State Extension staff 10   4.4

Implications for Extension

The findings of this study suggest implications for professionals at two different levels: (1) the philosophical or policy level and (2) the practical or program level. At the philosophical or policy level, the results indicate (at least for this sample of rural 4-H adolescents in Nebraska) that life skills are perceived to be learned through 4-H experiences and that some people, especially parents, are more frequently influential than others in this development.

Consequently, these findings help to confirm that the 4-H program is, at least in part, accomplishing its mission as set forth in 4-H in Century III by helping young people develop life skills that will enable them to become self-directing, productive, and contributing members of society.

This study also has implications for professionals at the practical or program level. According to these results, 4-H can provide an opportunity to enhance positive family interaction. Extension professionals should try to develop or continue programs that contribute to this positive interaction between parents and their children. 4-H experiences that combine the skills and interests of parents and children will help them grow as individuals and as families.

Extension professionals should also develop or continue programs that involve in leadership roles those people identified as significant by the adolescents in this study, paying special attention to the prevalence of same-sex significant others.

As Extension professionals consider the implications of this study, they might consider surveying the teenagers they work with about how their feelings compare with the findings of this study. Face-to-face interaction may provide not only a springboard for understanding and involvement, but also added insight into the characteristics that make a person or a program component an influence on life skills development.