October 2007 // Volume 45 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA8

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Quality 4-H Youth Development Program: Belonging

The purpose of the research described in this article was to determine if the 4-H experience meets the developmental outcome that promotes positive youth development, belonging and inclusive environment. Survey respondents tended to agree or strongly agree that they felt a positive sense of belonging and inclusiveness in 4-H. Second, as the degree of 4-H participation increases, 4-H members are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. For 4-H to be a quality youth development organization, it has a responsibility to ensure that programs promote a sense of belonging and inclusiveness among all 4-H members.

Sarah T. Hensley
4-H Youth Development
Lake County Extension
University of Florida/IFAS

Nick T. Place
Associate Professor
Agricultural Education and Communication
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Joy C. Jordan
Associate Professor
Family, Youth and Community Sciences
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida

Glenn D. Israel
Agricultural Education and Communication
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida


Youth professionals many times ask themselves what really makes a quality youth development program? The 4-H Youth Development program prides itself in providing quality programming to the youth it serves. According to Pittman (1993), the primary task of youth development organizations' is to promote the socialization of youth by helping them reach their full potential. As more youth are presented with the task of overcoming societal barriers that hamper positive development, it is important that organizations such as 4-H provide quality youth development programming that makes an impact on youth.

Youth-development has been defined as "the process of growing up and developing one's capacities in positive ways" (Walker & Dunham, 1994). Research studies reveal essential criteria that need to be present to meet the needs of youth. These criteria then become the essential elements for quality programs for youth to attain positive outcomes leading to less risky behavior, helping youth to be fully prepared to enter into society (Eccles, & Gootman, 2001; Pittman, 2003; Brendtro, Brokenleg, & VanBockern, 1992; Minnesota Extension Service, 1996; National 4-H Impact Assessment, 2001; Search Institute, 2004; Astroth, 2001).

Nationally, 4-H is advocating four essential elements that encompass the previously identified criteria (Kress, 2005). One of the essential criteria is for youth to experience belonging. Florida 4-H supports the mission of "providing supportive environments for diverse youth and adults to reach their fullest potential" (Florida 4-H Handbook, 1998) by identifying belonging and inclusiveness as one of the five key outcomes for youth engaged in 4-H. From a 2004 study of outcomes of 4-H members (Thomas, 2004), this article provides the findings related to Belonging and Inclusive Environment.

Background to the Study

The research is convincing that certain criteria are essential in order for an organization to promote positive youth development. Among these criteria is that youth feel a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. Research reports the importance of belonging. Many youth who are at risk need to "experience belonging in a supportive community."

An inclusive environment is one that allows a sense of belonging, encourages and supports its members, and offers encouragement through positive and specific feedback (Peterson, Gerhard, Hunter, Marek, Phillips, & Titcomb, 2001). The spirit of belonging is a powerful social value, as in Native American tribes, (Brendtro, Brokenleg, & VanBockern, 1992) that has transformed human relationships.

Having a sense of belonging motivates young people to show respect and concern, as well as making them more receptive to guidance from other community members. If a young person does not feel this sense of belonging, then they begin to search for "artificial belonging" in negative ways. It is important in all communities and organizations for youth to feel this sense of belonging. Other researchers who stress the importance of belonging are: Eccles and Gootman, 2001; Pittman, 2003; Minnesota Extension Service, 1996; and Scales and Leffert, 1999.

Karen Pittman (2003) stresses the importance of engaging young people in their own development, leading to feeling a sense of belonging and inclusiveness. When youth are valued and needed, then they believe that they belong and are more likely to stay involved in 4-H (Minnesota Extension Service, 1996). The National 4-H Impact Assessment (2001) also shows the importance of making sure young people perceive a sense of belonging. The statement "I feel like I belong in 4-H" showed an 89% response rate for strongly agree and agree.

The importance of feeling a sense of belonging leads to the attainment of positive outcomes for young people (Kress, 2005). The Search Institute (1996) stated that the more assets a young person has, the less likely they are to be involved in risky behavior. The feeling of being involved and belonging is associated with the asset of empowerment (Scales & Leffert, 1999). When youth feel valued and others view youth as a resource, then youth will make greater contributions to the organization to which they belong (Peterson, Gerhard, Hunter, Marek, Phillips, & Titcomb, 2001). Youth who have opportunities to make decisions "develop not only a sense of belonging and a strong ethic of responsibility, but also an understanding that they are accountable to themselves, their families, and their communities" (Scales & Leffert, 1999, p. 53). Outcomes achieved by youth when they have the asset of empowerment are:

  • Increased self-esteem and self-concept

  • Greater sense of personal control, sense of optimism about the future

  • Greater achievement of self-actualization

  • Reduced delinquency

  • Reduced violence

  • Increased social skills

  • Increased levels of moral reasoning and thinking

  • Greater social and personal responsibility

  • Decreased school failure

  • More effective parent-child relationships, more complex relationships

  • Reduced substance abuse

  • Greater participation in community activities (Scales & Leffert, 1999).

Youth who have the above attributes will further enhance their development and become more productive members of society (Scales & Leffert, 1999).

Research Methodology

The purpose of the overall study was to determine if Florida 4-H participants are attaining positive youth-development outcomes through the 4-H club experience based on their degree of 4-H participation (Thomas, 2004). The specific research question addressed in this article is: What differences exist in the development outcome of belonging and inclusivity due to the 4-H or non 4-H level of participation?

The design of the research was an exploratory study in which the researcher selected five counties representative of the state of Florida 4-H program. Counties were selected according to the attributes of geography, rural/urban character, poverty, race, and age. Both the US Census Bureau (2000) and the Florida reporting database, Blue Ribbon, (2001-2002 4-H year) were used to attain this data. The five purposively selected counties were: Duval, Escambia, Glades, Miami/ Dade, and Sumter. The population in this study was Florida 4-H participants between the ages of 13 and 18 as of September first for the 2001-2002 4-H year. There were 542 eligible youth who received surveys.

The instrument used for this study was a modified replication of a survey utilized at Montana State (Astroth, 2001). Researchers cross referenced the following surveys in order to ensure that the instrument was both valid and reliable: The National Impact Assessment, The Program and Activity Assessment Tool (Zeldin & Matysik, 2001), North Carolina State University 4-H, New York life skills, NELS: 88, Cornell Member's Only, University of Illinois Eight Critical Elements, Iowa State life skills, Montana State University life skills, Pennsylvania State University life skills, Texas A & M life skills, and the Search Institute. A panel of experts consisting of four graduate students and four faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Florida also reviewed the instrument for face validity. Recommended edits were made by the researcher prior to survey administration.

Data collection consisted of sending a pre-notice of the forthcoming survey that was inserted in county 4-H newsletters, a survey packet containing consent letters and the survey, and a third wave sent to non-respondents in the form of a reminder letter and another complete packet. The response rate was 16.2. The low response rate may have been due to using year-old enrollment data, faulty database, and non-support by the county.

The independent variable used to answer the research question was level of participation in 4-H and level of participation in non 4-H events and activities. The first participation variable was created to represent the amount of time spent in 4-H and the degree of involvement in 4-H. The same is true for the degree of non 4-H participation, which measured how survey respondents spent time in regards to school activities, non 4-H activities, and work. Factor analysis was used on the construct of participation to reduce correlated variables into a construct or in this case a single variable for each type of participation: 4-H participation and Non 4-H participation.

The construct of belonging and inclusive environment, representing the dependent variable under study, was established by cross-referencing different evaluation instruments from the above mentioned studies. Factor analysis was again used to validate this construct's validity and reliability. The variables used in the construct of belonging are shown in Table 1.

Table 1.
Belonging Variables Used in Factor Analysis

VariableFactor Loading
B1: 4-H clubs are supportive environments where I feel accepted for who I am..860
B2: All kinds of kids are welcome in 4-H..641
B3: In 4-H I have learned to treat people who are different from me with respect..730
B4: I feel like I belong in 4-H. .835
* The factor analysis yielded an Eigenvalue of 2.38, (explaining 59.54% of the model variation). The Chronbach's alpha measured the reliability of the index at .80. Mean belonging score of the model = 4.18, SD = 2.36. (Responses were reported on a five point Likert type scale ranging from strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree, and don't know.)


The findings of the presented research question reveal that as the degree of 4-H participation in Florida 4-H increases, members surveyed feel an increased sense of belonging and inclusiveness. This shows that, the more young people participate, the more they perceive that they belong and are a part of the 4-H organization. Having a sense of belonging and inclusiveness increases the likelihood of developing the positive attributes conducive to appropriate development. Having a sense of belonging may also encourage youth to stay enrolled in 4-H.

The response rate for the survey was 16.2% of the eligible population who received surveys. The limitation of this low response rate is recognized, making the researcher unable to widely generalize study results to all 4-H members. The low response rate also compromises the validity of the study results. However, the results of this research do provide a snapshot of Florida 4-H participants. The following conclusions were derived as a result of this research:

  • The degree of 4-H participation for survey respondents was a great deal higher than the degree of non 4-H participation.

  • Survey respondents tended to agree or strongly agree that they felt a positive sense of belonging and inclusiveness in the 4-H program.

  • As the degree of 4-H participation increases, 4-H members are more likely to feel a sense of belonging and inclusiveness.

The degree of 4-H participation according to the range or scores was very near the median. The highest score was a 44, and the lowest was a 2. The mean score for degree of 4-H participation was 19.8, with a standard deviation of 8.6. Regarding the degree of non 4-H participation, the highest score was a 23, with a mean of 9.53 and a standard deviation of 4.9. Therefore, survey respondents reported a higher degree of 4-H participation than non 4-H participation.

For the construct of belonging and inclusive environment, respondents reported a mean score of 4.2, with a standard deviation of 2.4. Therefore, it can be assumed that youth surveyed tended to agree or strongly agree that they felt a positive sense of belonging and inclusiveness in Florida 4-H programs.

The correlation of a sense of belonging and inclusiveness to the degree of 4-H participation was shown to have a Pearson R of .286 (.007). A regression model was also created in order to ensure that correlations were significant and not affected by age or gender. The regression model is shown in Table 2 for further reference. A sense of belonging was the first construct of eight showing a significant correlation with degree of 4-H participation. This was a highly significant correlation at the .05 level. The regression model shows that the slope for degree of 4-H participation was 2.7 (p < .001). This shows that an increase in degree of 4-H participation leads 4-H members to feel a greater sense of belonging and inclusiveness.

Table 2.
Youth Development Outcome Regression Results

 Y-InterceptDegree of 4-H ParticipationNon-4-H TimeAgeGender
* For gender a negative slope means that males scored lower and a positive slope means that males scored higher. Therefore, for this construct males scored higher.

Implications and Recommendations

The conclusions of this research suggest strong implications for 4-H Youth Development programs to promote a sense of belonging and inclusiveness among members. Educators and club leaders can use the findings presented in this research to show that youth do feel like they belong in 4-H. Therefore, we can deduce that 4-H is enhancing positive youth development through a sense of belonging and inclusivity. The results found in this study have been implemented in the county of the researcher in order to encourage growth and retention of older members.

If Extension is to be a quality youth development organization, 4-H/Youth Development has a responsibility to ensure that programs promote a sense of belonging and inclusiveness among all 4-H members. The following recommendations are suggested for 4-H educators to use in their programs in order to increase the sense of belonging and inclusiveness among members.

The Chaplin Hall Center for Children (Costello, Barker, Pickens, Cassaniga, Merry, and Falcon, 2000) gives these recommendations to help youth feel like they belong.

  • Give children and youth an opportunity to take risks and try new things.

  • Have rituals and other means to promote a sense of belonging to the organization, the program, and the group.

Another way to promote belonging is to build empowerment and allow youth to have a role in decision-making (Pittman & Wright, 1991). Participation in 4-H is voluntary, and members who do not perceive a sense of belonging or believe they are needed in the organization will limit their participation or resign. Leaders, volunteers, and 4-H agents can build empowerment by asking youth for their opinions and then listening and acting on their input. This idea allows youth to take ownership in 4-H.

Youth should be encouraged and get excited about being a part of an organization (Pittman, 2003). Encouraging youth can be accomplished through rewards given by leaders and peers for their successes and accomplishments (Peterson et. al., 2001). Groups should celebrate the success of all members and take pride in collective efforts (Scales & Leffert, 1999). This may be done by recognizing individual clubs for meeting goals and taking part in community service projects.

Youth should also be given jobs and play a part in the organization. Younger members can be recruited to lead pledges, pass out refreshments, and do other important jobs. Older members need to hold offices, chair committees, and then be given the permission to carry out their jobs with "help" from adults. Allowing teens to be leaders and to teach is shown to increase academic achievement (Russel, 2001).

Agents, leaders, and volunteers should promote a sense of belonging among 4-H members. It is important to ask youth how they feel and what adults can do to include them in all aspects of programming. Youth are a valued part of the 4-H organization, and who better to help the 4-H organization meet this key criterion than the youth themselves?


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