Youth Development Services

March 7, 2005 at 3:40 pm  •  Posted in Youth Development by  •  0 Comments

By Mark Mattaini, DSW, ACSW

Specialization and Youth Development Services
Community-Building Services
Counseling and Healing


Three major types of services that support positive youth development are particularly important: socialization and youth development services, community-building services, and counseling and healing services. All are areas in which professional social workers have specialized expertise, working in partnership with community-based organizations like neighborhood associations, community schools and religious groups.

Socialization and Youth Development Services

Social workers and educators have worked to provide socialization experiences for youth for over a century, and such services are among those that have been proven to support positive youth development.

Programs in recreation and community centers, camps, Boys and Girls Clubs, sports leagues, after-school programs, and volunteer youth development organizations like the Girl Scouts and 4-H can have an enormous impact on building personal and social competence among young people, and on the development of a firm positive identify. Such programs allow young people to experiment with new activities and progressively face new challenges in ways that build self-confidence.

In many cases they also provide opportunities for youth to gain experience in working and dealing respectfully with persons of other races and cultures, to connect in healthy ways with the opposite sex, and to appreciate people who may differ from them in a wide variety of other ways. Such experiences prepare young people for to the contemporary social world.

The best of these programs can serve, in the words of social worker Bonnie Benard, as “turnaround places”—places where even youth who are struggling may find the support they need from inspirational adults and peers to turn their lives around. Professional social workers are involved in these programs as youth development workers, program planners, and administrators, roles for which their education in human development and programming specifically prepares them.

Community-Building Services

Young people flourish in flourishing communities, including school and neighborhood communities. While many such communities are characterized by high levels of risk factors including crime, threat, harassment, and emotional or physical violence, a good deal is now known about how to build strong, non-violent communities of empowerment.

For example, the PEACE POWER strategy (based at Jane Addams College of Social Work in Chicago) brings together staff, youth, parents, and community members to construct cultures of respect, responsibility, and shared power in schools, neighborhoods and youth-serving organizations. Social workers Janet Finn and Barry Checkoway have persuasively argued that young people should not be looked at as primarily “problems to be solved.” Instead, with proper support in discovering their personal gifts and channeling their energy, young people can serve as tremendous resources for their communities, and in the process build their own competence through real world experience.

Community-building efforts give opportunities to refine collaboration, problem-solving and leadership skills, while having a meaningful impact on the world. All of the most effective prevention programs, in fact, rely on constructing positive cultures of shared power that support and reinforce prosocial behavior, rather than on merely discouraging antisocial behavior.

There are many examples of outstanding community-building work that relies on the power of youth. Rites of passage programs, for example, often draw on traditional cultural values, spirituality, and practices. Some such programs, for example, are grounded in the African-centered Nguzo Saba—Seven Pillars of strength. These programs assist young people to find their cultural place in the world, and to make their own unique contributions to their communities.

Among many other types of community-building efforts are youth boards who serve as reviewers for mini-grant programs that support projects designed by other youth, youth-led social awareness programs like the development of Gay-Straight Alliances, youth as field interviewers for planning projects, youth as peer mentors, and a wide range of community service projects. For example, community-enhancement projects like community murals, sculpture, and gardens can be designed and implemented primarily by youth, and provide opportunities to learn and use a wide variety of skills from mathematics and art to working with the local political system.

Counseling and Healing Services

Social workers have long been involved in counseling and therapy services with youth and their families, as well as providing shelter and safety services for those most at risk. In recent years, however, a great deal has been learned about effective ways to maximize the benefits of counseling services.

Consistent with the research on supporting resilience, the best individual and group counseling services often emphasize enhancing protective factors discussed earlier, building connections with health social networks and mentors, and assisting youth to find and grow their own unique strengths and power.

Even for young people who are deeply involved in antisocial behavior, counseling that focuses on identifying and supporting a youth’s gifts, and teaching life skills in an environment of recognition and support is usually more effective than a primary emphasis on what he or she is doing wrong.

There is power in supporting youth in their awareness of social injustice—poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia—by structuring ways to collectively confront injustice. Work in schools often brings students from different backgrounds together and can expose them to different perspectives and cultures. Schools with able adult models can also serve as laboratories for learning what is required to maintain cultures of peace, for example.

Many young people in our society have experienced serious abuse and trauma, find themselves in highly conflicted family situations in which everyone finds themselves hurting, or become involved in actions that bring them into conflict with schools or the law. Approaches that lead to healing, including family treatment, family group conferencing, mutual aid and empowerment groups and healing circles can facilitate such healing.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Social Workers or its members.

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