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Competencies in Youth Work

Competencies in Youth WorkWhat does it take to be a good youth worker? To address this question we first need to clarify: what is a youth worker? In the U.S. there is no clearly defined youth work profession or degree. Instead there are many professional titles and education tracks for those who work with young people, such as teachers, child care workers, counselors, and advocates. No matter what the title, degree, or setting, we define youth workers as professionals or volunteers who work with youth to facilitate young people's growth and development. Positive youth development is the unifying language they speak.

Core Competencies

Core Competencies In the Positive Youth Development 101 training, we ask new youth work professionals, "What skills, knowledge, and attributes do youth workers need in order to be effective?"

Participants typically identify attributes such as being patient, caring, open-minded, trusting, flexible, approachable, and having a sense of humor. Less frequently, they mention concrete skills such as communication, teaching, and facilitation skills, or knowledge areas such as adolescent development, cultural competency, and program development.

Do we have to assume that good youth workers just have what it takes? Do they simply intuit how to engage with young people, how to nurture and support them? Some youth work professionals do have great instincts and are able to quickly develop rapport with young people. However, this does not mean that they start out with the skills and knowledge to nurture young people's development and create programming that challenges adolescents to stretch themselves. Skills and knowledge can be learned.

In recent efforts to professionalize the youth work field, core competency areas have been identified, providing guidance for professional development. In their review of Youth Work Core Competencies (PDF), the Next Generation Youth Work Coalition identified competency areas that were common to many existing frameworks:

  • Curriculum (program activities)
  • Safe and Inclusive Environment
  • Child and Adolescent Development
  • Cross-Cultural Competence
  • Connecting with Families
  • Connecting with Communities
  • Health, Safety, and Nutrition
  • Professionalism
  • Professional Development
  • Program Management
How each of these broad competency areas is operationalized and assessed will vary among different types of youth services and agencies.

Given the diverse educational backgrounds of youth workers and the lack of professional development tracks specific to youth work, most youth work professionals have to rely on community-based training and professional development opportunities, if any are available. The Positive Youth Development 101 curriculum can be used to provide training in several of these competency areas.

Building Expertise through Deliberate Practice

Core competencies are important, but are they sufficient? Do they provide youth workers -- in particular professionals who are just starting out -- the knowledge, skills, and good judgment needed to handle challenging situations and dilemmas?

Reed Larson has shown that youth workers experience a multitude of challenges or dilemmas every day [1]. Dilemmas are created by tensions between youth participants, staff, program structures, agency policies, cultural norms, and the realities of the complex world young people live in. Consider the examples below:

  • Pushing personal or professional boundaries:
    • Sean asks you for a ride home.
    • Nicole asks you to go with her to the prom.
       
  • In conflict with program/agency rules:
    • Will brings a knife to the program in case he has to defend himself on the way to the center.
       
  • Crossing cultural norms and expectations:
    • Naima wants to participate in the leadership training, but her parents do not approve because they do not see this as appropriate behavior for a girl.
How do youth workers learn to respond to challenges like these without harming or penalizing young people?

Walker and Walker suggest that professional development alone is not sufficient: youth workers need to be able to reflect and work through difficult situations, and also to learn from feedback and suggestions offered by experienced professionals. They recommend deliberate practice, defined as "taking on tasks that are appropriately challenging and chosen with the goal of improving a particular skill" [2]. Deliberate practice is best accomplished with regular, authentic feedback during staff meetings or in community round tables with other youth work professionals.

Resources

Youth Today: Out-of-School Time Research and Resource Hub
The Hub focuses on issues in the out-of-school time field. Each topic area includes links to articles, research, curricula, and other program materials. One especially relevant topic area is Professional Development, Training and Staffing.

Unpacking Youth Work Practice (PDF)
Frontline staff are key to the quality of youth programs. This Forum for Youth Investment commentary discusses relationships and dilemmas of youth work practice.

Worksheet: Deliberating Dilemmas (Word)
The questions on this worksheet can be used to guide discussion of a practice dilemma.

References

[1]   Larson, R. & Walker, K. (2010). Dilemmas of practice: Challenges to program quality encountered by youth program leaders. American Journal of Community Psychology 45, 338-349.
 
[2]   Walker, J., & Walker, K. (2012). Establishing expertise in an emerging field. In D. Fusco (Ed.), Advancing youth work: Current trends, critical questions. New York: Routledge.
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