August 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB2

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Self-Perceived 4-H Leader Competencies and Their Relation to the Skills Youth Learn Through 4-H Youth Development Programs

This article reports the results of a statewide survey to assess the influence of perceived 4-H volunteer leader skills on the life skills 4-H youth learn. Results indicate the most important skill a volunteer leader possesses is to ensure the physical and psychological safety of 4-H members. This includes keeping youth from hurting each other's feelings; keeping youth from bullying each other; managing conflict between youth; making sure that the facility where 4-H youth meet is safe. These results emphasize the importance of the careful recruitment, screening, training, and management of 4-H volunteer leaders.

Loretta Singletary
Professor and Extension Educator
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Yerington, Nevada

Marilyn Smith
Professor and Youth Development Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Elko, Nevada

William P. Evans
Human Development and Family Studies
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, Nevada


4-H programs rely heavily upon adult volunteer leaders to provide hands-on instruction, support, and guidance to 4-H youth members. Previous studies have found that youth learn life skills through their participation in 4-H (Smith & Finley, 2004; Boleman, Cummings, & Briers, 2004). Research also indicates that youth development programs with specific features directly lead to positive developmental processes in youth (Eccles & Appleton-Gootman, 2002; Lerner, 2004). When adults provide experiences with such features and programming, they promote the developmental assets needed by youth for positive developmental outcomes (Walker, 2003; Yohalem, 2003).

Purpose and Objectives

The purpose of the study reported here was to assess 4-H volunteer leaders' perception of the life skills youth learn through 4-H and the specific skills volunteer leaders possess to promote positive development of 4-H youth. Further, the study examined which leader skills help predict the perceived life skills youth learn through 4-H program participation.


The data for this study derive from a statewide survey administered to Nevada 4-H parents and volunteer leaders. The survey assessed the perceived life skills youth learn in 4-H programs and the adult volunteer skills needed to promote positive developmental assets in 4-H youth. Therefore, one set of items measured volunteer leaders' perceptions of life skills youth learn through 4-H. A second set of items measured volunteer leaders' perceptions of their individual skills to promote positive development in 4-H youth.

Survey Questions

1. Youth Life Skill Items

A set of items measured volunteer leaders' perceptions of the life skills youth learn through their participation in 4-H. Questions were based on related aspects of a model that identifies six outcomes of successful youth development: Confidence, competence, caring, connection, contributing, and character (Blyth, 2000). In addition, Nevada's "core concepts" framework for teaching youth life skills was added to this set of life skill items (University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, 1993). Both youth development frameworks were used to develop 15 questions related to life skills youth learn through 4-H program participation. These skills include the following.

  • Dealing with conflict
  • Communication skills
  • Relationship-building skills
  • Self-esteem
  • Organizational skills
  • Decision-making ability
  • Self-confidence around others
  • Public speaking skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Future career choices
  • Self-responsibility
  • Ability to trust others and be trustworthy
  • Knowledge about particular 4-H project
  • Goal setting
  • Value of community service

Each of these items featured a Likert-type scale using a five-point response structure with 1 being, "As a result of 4-H, my child is learning very little" to 5, "As a result of 4-H, my child is learning very much." All questions included the choice "Don't Know."

2. Volunteer Leader Skill Items

Eighteen leader skill items were developed using the conceptual framework from the National Academy of Science report, Community Programs to Promote Youth Development (Eccles & Appleton-Gootman, 2002). This report synthesizes a wide array of youth development research to determine what program features are associated with successful youth outcomes. Critical indicators of quality youth development programs featured in this report were adapted for use with 4-H volunteer leaders.

Each item featured a five-point equally weighted scale from 1, "I need a lot of improvement at this," to 5, "I am very good at this." All questions included the choice "Don't Know."


A panel of community-based 4-H Program Coordinators in Nevada reviewed early drafts of the questionnaire. Additionally, a panel of university-based youth development experts reviewed the final questionnaire. The purpose of the reviews was to identify missing attributes and to check for clarity and comprehension of survey questions. Finally, the survey was piloted by a sample of retired volunteers who were not a part of the study.

Participants in the study included all adult volunteer 4-H leaders and parents of currently enrolled 4-H youth members in Nevada. Each 4-H parent and volunteer leader received in the mail a two-page questionnaire with instructions and a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. A cover letter was included that explained the purpose of the survey, including that the survey was anonymous, the procedures that would be followed to ensure confidentiality, and thanks for their input. Because the investigators emphasized anonymity of responses and desired to avoid tracking respondents, the cover letter and questionnaire were mailed once. The one-time data collection protocol received exemption from the University Human Subjects Committee and did not require consent forms.

Budgetary constraints precluded repeated attempts to contact survey recipients who did not respond to the initial mailing. Other methods to increase participation rates included news releases and reminders in local newspapers, the statewide Extension newsletter, and local 4-H newsletters. The newspaper and newsletter articles notified 4-H parents about the survey so they could watch for it in the mail, complete the survey, and mail it back as directed. The survey cover letter included a personal message from the Dean of Cooperative Extension encouraging participation in the survey.


Out of the total number of volunteer leaders and parents who received the postal mail survey (3,074), 576 (19%) returned completed questionnaires. Of these, more than half (56%) were volunteer leaders. This study focused on the volunteer leaders in the sample.

Descriptive statistics, using SPSS, were used to analyze the survey results. A review of the data indicates that volunteer leaders rated the 15 life skills youth learn through 4-H very positively. Leaders also rated the 18 adult skill items positively.

For the purposes of the study, the 15 youth life skills items were combined to create one scale--life skills 4-H youth learn. Cronbach's coefficient alpha was computed for this scale and found to be high (.96) (Carmines & Zeller, 1979). In addition, the 18 adult skill items were combined to create seven scales that represent the seven critical indicators for positive youth development discussed in the National Academy of Science report. Abbreviated labels for each of these seven scales are provided in parentheses. These scales also produced adequate to high Cronbach coefficients as shown below.

  1. Physical and psychological safety (SAFE) (a=.80);
  2. Efficacy and mattering (MATR) (a=.76);
  3. Opportunities to belong (BLNG)( a=.87);
  4. Positive social norms (NORM) (a=.77);
  5. Appropriate structure (STRUC) (a=.78);
  6. Supportive relationships (RELAT) (a=.82);
  7. Opportunities for skill building (SKILL) (a=.83).

Table 1 illustrates the ranked means for the 18 adult skill items and their relationship to the seven scales or critical indicators noted in parentheses.

Table 1.
Volunteer Leader Ranked Mean Scores of Their Perceived 4-H Leader Skills



Adult Youth Development Skill



Number of Respondents

(SAFE) Make sure 4-H facility is safe




(RELAT) Listen to youth




(NORM) Ensure 4-H youth act appropriately




(BLNG) Help youth feel important to 4-H program




(NORM) Let youth know I have high expectations




(BLNG) Help 4-H youth feel part of special group




(RELAT) I'm easy to approach




(STRUC) Make sure 4-H youth are occupied




(SAFE) Keep youth from bullying each other




(STRUC) Provide age-appropriate activities




(MATR) Encourage youth to take leadership




(SPRL) Understand "youth" point of view




(STRUC) Conduct activities that challenge youth




(RELAT) Relate well to youth from different cultures and backgrounds




(SAFE) Manage conflict between youth




(SKILL) Teach 4-H youth life skills




(SAFE) Keep youth from hurting feelings




(SKILL) Teach 4-H youth social skills





A regression analysis was conducted to measure the influence of perceived 4-H leader skills on the perceived life skills 4-H youth learn through their participation in the program. The youth life skills variable was regressed, through a stepwise procedure, against the seven leader skill variables. Table 2 illustrates the regression results.

Significant and positive relationships were revealed between life skills youth learn and leader skills concerning youth physical and psychological safety (β = .301, t (234) = 4.26, p < .01) and efficacy and mattering (β = .175, t (234) = 2.48, p < .05). The adjusted Rβ (.172) indicates that the model explains 17 percent of the variance. Although some variables were intercorrelated, there was no statistically significant problem with multicollinearity.

These results reveal that physical and psychological safety, and to a lesser extent, efficacy and mattering, are critical skills 4-H leaders perceive they possess that influence the life skills youth learn through participation in 4-H. Physical and psychological safety includes keeping youth from hurting each other's feelings; keeping youth from bullying each other; managing conflict between youth; making sure that the facility where 4-H activities occur is safe. Efficacy and mattering involves challenging and engaging youth through 4-H programs and activities. Specifically, this includes encouraging youth to take on leadership roles and conducting activities with youth that are challenging to them.

Table 2.
Volunteer Leader Skill Variables Predicting Life Skills Youth Learn in 4-H

Volunteer Leader Skill Variables

Volunteer Leaders (n = 322)

1. Support for Efficacy & Mattering


2. Opportunities to Belong


3. Physical and Psychological Safety


4. Appropriate Structure


5. Supportive Relationships


6. Positive Social Norms


7. Opportunities for Skill Building


*p = .05. **p = .001.


Conclusions and Recommendations

Present results reveal the importance that certain 4-H adult leader skills place in promoting youth development among 4-H involved youth. Key leader skills, such as providing for the physical and psychological safety of youth and challenging and engaging youth, appear to be important elements that lead to enhanced life skills among youth, at least from the perspective of 4-H leaders. In addition, leaders rated highest their skill to "make sure the 4-H facility where we have meetings is safe." These results provide baseline data and suggest direction for leader recruitment and training efforts that build upon strengths that leaders report they possess.

We are encouraged that volunteer leaders rated their skills high overall and that these skills were linked to perceived increased learning by youth. These adult skills provide an important foundation for 4-H youth experiences and have long been stressed in 4-H volunteer training. For example, leader preparation in Nevada requires that volunteers receive training to recognize child abuse and neglect. More recent leader training policy requires leaders to sign an "Agreement of Social Conduct" that emphasizes the importance of physical and psychological safety of youth. The agreement specifically prohibits, for example, the use of profanity, tobacco, and alcohol at 4-H events and meetings.

Additionally, Nevada's 4-H policies stipulate that youth wear protective helmets during horseback riding events and that a minimum ratio of youth to adult chaperones must be present at 4-H camp. Unfortunately, other important competencies were rated lower, including keeping youth from hurting each other's feelings and teaching social and life skills. These areas can be addressed through future leader training and supervision.

Obvious limitations of this study are the small response rate and the fact that the results are specific to Nevada 4-H. Recommendations for future research include replicating this study in various regions of the U.S. to determine if the results are similar. Since the authors have presented these results at two national conferences (CYFAR and NAE4-HA), several youth development professionals have requested replication of this study in their states. Ideally, replication in additional states would include multiple mailings to increase survey response rates.

Additional areas for future research include surveying 4-H youth about life skills they perceive they learn through 4-H. A survey of 4-H youth could identify ideas for ways to improve 4-H programs and volunteer leadership, as well as to understand if the skills leaders believe are important for positive development outcomes match those of youth.

Finally, future research needs to identify the specific role of volunteer leader training in increased learning by 4-H youth. The research described here indicates that leader enforcement of safety policies and similar efforts appear to translate positively into how well leaders believe 4-H youth learn. Foremost, the 4-H organization has an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of its youth participants. In addition, present results reveal that engaging youth in learning activities that are challenging as well as educational is linked to positive youth outcomes. These findings, as well as the skills in which leaders rated themselves lower, provide direction for leader training that can strengthen 4-H programs and promote life skill development among its youth members.

Effective leader training programs must develop the skills necessary to achieve success in teaching 4-H youth. This success in turn motivates and serves to retain volunteer 4-H leaders (Van Winkle, Busler, Bowman, & Manoogian, 2002).


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