December 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT6

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Listening to the Youth Voice in Planning Leadership Development Programs

Information on youth was collected in a leadership development conference to provide tools for educators to use when incorporating a leadership activities into various programs. Teens perceived that in sessions where audience participation and interactivity was encouraged, knowledge gain was greater. However, youth did feel that session length played a role in their ability to engage fully in the topics and more time than 50 minutes was needed to develop deeper understanding. Recommendations include engaging youth in all areas of Extension programming and placing youth on program planning and advisory boards to ensure programs are relevant to youth.

Jacklyn A. Bruce
Assistant Professor
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Sam Nicola
Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development
Penn State Cooperative Extension
Sunbury, Pennsylvania

Tamella Menke
Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development
Penn State Cooperative Extension
Mercer, Pennsylvania


President John F. Kennedy said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other." Given the increased emphasis on leadership development in all Cooperative Extension programs, it is important to know if the needs stakeholders and the organization are being met during programming.

Because leadership development programs are delivered in a variety of ways, there is no single way to assess the professional and personal growth and development of participants. To begin to address this issue, data was collected from teens after participation in a state leadership conference. Questions included an assessment of the impact of the variety and topics of sessions offered, perceived expertise of session presenters, and knowledge gain and projected use of concepts discussed in the sessions.

What the Researchers Found

The research team conducted program evaluations with a pool of young people attending a statewide leadership development program for teens that incorporates interactive workshop sessions, keynote speakers, and service to others. Respondents were able to articulate:

  • In the workshops they attended, information was presented at a level they could understand and to which they could relate.

  • Workshop session presenters delivered well organized sessions.

  • Workshop sessions provided participants with information that they could take home and share with other youth and adult volunteers in their home communities.

Youth participants identified that in sessions where presenters encouraged audience participation they perceived a greater increase in knowledge gain. In conjunction with audience participation, youth also expressed that hands-on activities that assisted them in drawing connections between session content and real-life situations were an important educational tool. In sessions where presenters did not incorporate interactive techniques, participants reported a lower perceived knowledge gain.

After attending the conference, youth showed a greater interest in the topics presented, felt they increased their knowledge of the subject matter, and believed that they would be able to incorporate the use of the concepts in their everyday lives. However, youth also identified that 50-minute sessions were not long enough to deeply engage in the topics being presented and expressed the need to lengthen the sessions.

Tools for the Future

These findings demonstrate how important it is to pay close attention to the needs to of our youth participants in order to keep them fully engaged in leadership development programming.

Tool 1: Engage youth in roles of progressively increasing responsibility in all areas of Extension programming, not just traditional 4-H programs.

Cantrell, Heinsohn, and Doebler (1989) found that youth perceive a positive relation between life skill development and participation in leadership activities at succeeding levels of leadership responsibility ("club", "county", and "beyond county"). This group of researchers also found that leadership skill development increased when 4-H members had leadership experience beyond their club level. As youth develop and sharpen leadership skills, they become more equipped to be placed in roles of progressively greater responsibility.

This vast pool of talent and leadership can, and should, be utilized to increase the breadth and depth of the Extension programming team. Not just in traditional areas like 4-H/You Development where older youth can become teen leaders, but in all areas of Extension programming, these young people can become leaders and role models for younger audiences, peers and adult constituents. Extension increases in visibility and in turn, youth have further opportunity to apply the skills they are developing.

Tool 2: Develop programming that is hands-on and goes beyond traditional leadership experiences; think outside the box.

This preliminary data begins to develop a picture of a new type of learner; individuals who want experiential, hands-on training in all areas of their learning, not just in the traditional project areas. They want to be engaged in learning in interesting ways, that is thought provoking, and that shows them how to apply skills to their own unique experiences. As these young people continue to grow and take on other roles in our organization, we may need to adjust the ways in which Extension presents information to fit these new stakeholders. When making contact with program presenters, the importance of interaction and hands-on activities should be stressed.

Tool 3: Maintain a lock on what topics are important and relevant to youth leadership development from a youth perspective.

One way to involve youth is to invite them to sit on programming planning and advisory committees. Several studies provide evidence that organizations that are successfully retaining older youth members are those organizations that offer opportunities for youth to participate in leadership, decision making, and relevant service activities (Kirshner, O'Donoghue, & McLaughlin, 2005; Pittman, Tolman, & Yohalem, 2005; Walker, Marczak, Blyth, & Borden, 2005). In conjunction with keeping the topics relevant, programs provided to youth should be developmentally appropriate for the participants. If educators make certain that youth programs are quality programs, fit for the audience that is being addressed, youth taking on leadership responsibilities will follow naturally (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). This provides youth with "room to grow" to take on the kinds of leadership roles discussed above.


Cantrell, J., Heinsohn, A. L., & Doebler, M. K. (1989). Is it worth the costs? Journal of Extension [On-line]. 27(1).Available at:

Eccles, J., & Gootman, J. (2002). (Eds.) Community programs to promote youth development. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Kirshner, B., O'Donoghue, J., & McLaughlin. (2005). Youth-adult research collaborations: Bringing youth voice to the research process. In J. Mahoney, R. Larson, & J. Eccles(Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development- Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, N.J.

Pittman, K., Tolman, J. & Yohalem, N. (2005). Developing a Comprehensive Agenda for Out-of-School Hours: Lessons and Challenges across Cities. In J. Mahoney, R. Larson, & J. Eccles(Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development- Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, N.J.

Walker, J., Marczak, M., Blyth, D., & Borden, L. (2005). Designing Youth Development Programs: Toward a Theory of Developmental Intentionally. In J. Mahoney, R. Larson, & J. Eccles(Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development- Extracurricular activities, after-school and community programs. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, N.J.