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The Keys to Positive Youth Development Pt. 2

November 13, 2013 All Articles, Nonprofits and Communities Tags: , , , , , , , , , , 0 Comments

To read part one of this Q&A, click here.

nFocus: We understand how youth form their relationships with others. This understanding has changed due to an increase in technology use. What are some steps a person can take to leverage technology to help improve a youth’s developmental relationships?

Pekel: The early research we’re observing seems to suggest that if technology is used to help facilitate person to person interaction, then it will make it more likely for an adult to form a developmental relationship with a young person.

Technology opens the possibility of more one-on-one interaction. When I was a high school teacher, I had 189 students one semester. With that many students, it can be difficult to have one-on-one, in person interaction with everyone. If you’re interacting with the young person via social media or email, however, you are able to interact with them while still doing other tasks.

However, this must be approached cautiously. Young people can consume technology in a way that strongly limits their social interaction. I believe.  In some cases, it may be that when youth are more focused on what’s happening on a screen, it takes time away from forming positive developmental relationships.

nFocus: What advice would you have for teachers who might feel overwhelmed by the idea of forming strong developmental relationships with each of their students?

Pekel: It can be daunting to think about building developmental relationships with every young person in a class or afterschool program. However, our early work is showing that the right kind of limited interaction can have a very big impact.

It can be motivating for youth to know that an adult is interested in their spark.  When I was teaching high school I had a student who hated school but loved snowboarding.  I  started to periodical ask him about snowboarding, even though it was something I knew nothing about and that didn’t have anything to do with the subject I was teaching (which was global studies at the time). Our conversations about snowboarding changed how he approached me and my class.   Brief interactions with kids can still be the building blocks of a developmental relationship if they happen in the right way.

nFocus: You’re also beginning to further research developmental communities. What are they and what are some of the components surrounding them?

Pekel: We’re in the early stages of thinking about developmental communities – and by that term, we mean communities where the idea that it takes a village to raise a child is more than a nice slogan – where people who are not related to kids or who don’t get paid to work with kids still make the positive development of young people a very high priority.

There are a lot of efforts in the United States today to get communities mobilized around education. These different models try and get all of the arrows in a community pointed in the same direction from cradle to career, and that can be valuable. We would like to understand, however, why many of those efforts never go beyond the people who work at what might be called the “grass tops.” It is important to engage the people who live and work at the “grass roots.” We hope to study communities where the grass tops’ efforts to improve education and youth development authentically connect to the grassroots’ efforts.

Our work on developmental communities is an effort to understand what it will take to move beyond a narrow focus on education reform to create a broader social movement for young people’s success.  That has happened before in American history, and it needs to happen in the fields of education and youth development.  For example, the civil rights movement went far beyond the organizations that started it and genuinely engaged the hearts and minds of millions of people. The same thing happened with the women’s movement and the environmental movement.   So how can that happen on behalf of young people in a community today?   It’s a complex yet relevant question.

nFocus: How will your work on developmental communities potentially change and improve this circumstance?

Pekel: We brought a diverse group of people from across the Minneapolis and St. Paul communities together for a day long design lab. Everybody agreed that community engagement was critical but there was no common definition of what was meant by either “community” or “engagement.” One of the issues with this “grass tops to grass roots problem” in collective impact is that we haven’t defined what is meant by community engagement.

Youth in K-12 spend about 15 percent of their lives in school, so the other 85 percent obviously has a huge impact on what happens to them. If we’re going to achieve the educational objectives that we have set for our kids and our country, we’re going to have to leverage that other 85 percent.  That means we have to talk to people outside of youth development and re-think how we approach community engagement.

nFocus: Your report also describes a method called the CHANGE process, which is aimed at giving communities a strategy for create meaningful change. Can you describe this process?

Pekel: The CHANGE process is:

C – Convene your team and create your vision
H – Hear young people’s voices and experiences
A – Analyze, integrate and interpret data
N – Name strategies for engagement and impact
E – Evaluate and share progress

Our hope is that we will be able to work directly with communities in successfully implementing the CHANGE process. With this process in place, we believe communities and organizations can create positive change by implementing an impactful, youth-focused approach.


Kent Pekel is the CEO of Search Institute, the leading organization dedicated to discovering what kids need to succeed. Pekel has spent more than two decades working in education and youth development, beginning as a high school teacher before advancing to Executive Director of Research and Development in the Saint Paul Public Schools and Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium. Now the CEO of Search Institute, Pekel works closely with communities, schools and youth programs to create and sustain the developmental relationships that help young people acquire skills that are essential for success in education and in life.

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