Adolescents’ development of skills for agency in youth programs

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 1.00.13 PMLarson, R., & Angus, R. (2011). Adolescents’ development of skills for agency in youth programs: Learning to think strategically. Child Development, 82 (1), 277-294.


An objective of many youth programs often focus on  the development of agency skills, referring to “cognitive tools, including insights, precepts, knowledge, and action schemas that youth might employ to help them achieve goals.” The current research sets out to examine what types of agency, or strategic thinking skills adolescents learn in youth programs as well as uncovering the process of how these agency skills develop.


Qualitative methods were used to examine how youth in arts and leadership programs develop skills for organizing actions over time in order to achieve desired goals. The study interviewed 712 ethnically diverse youth (ages 13-21) coming from 11 different high quality youth programs; 6 were leadership programs that focused on projects involved in planning community activities and lobbying governmental agencies, and 5 were arts and media programs in which youth created individual artwork or joint productions.  Youth were interviewed by a single interviewer, every two weeks, and 64 youth were contacted for 2-3 year follow up interviews.


What youth learned: The analyses of youth interviews revealed 3 major themes for types of youth agency skills:

1) Mobilizing effort:learning to devote the energy and time to their work

– common theme reveals that successful work requires effort and they had gained                                            abilities to deliberately mobilize and regulate that effort

2) Concrete organizing skills: learning rules to organize the tasks or elements of their projects

3) Strategic thinking:  “use of advanced executive skills to anticipate possible scenarios in the                steps to achieving goals and to formulate flexible courses of action that take these possibilities                   into account”

– strategic thinking directs youth toward achievement of meaningful and challenging                                                        real-world goals and away from risk behavior (Romer, 2003).

How youth learned:

1) Demands of the Work:  youth reported their learning was impelled by two types of demand

complying with a priori requirements such as deadlines, standards, and rules for their projects

–  engagement in tactical challenges those are obstacles that are inherent within the youth’s                    project , including “problems they had to solve, steps they needed to take, and interpersonal transactions they wanted to optimize to achieve a desired end”

– i.e.) interpersonal demands, finding a venue below a certain price, getting people to                                                     show up, proper lighting

2) Learning from Outcomes of Work: youth reported learning from observing the short                  and         long-term results of their actions, including learning from both successes and negative outcomes

3) Advisors’ role in supporting youth’s development of agency skills:

Directive Advisor: helped structure, control or steer work on projects

– this directive style was significantly related to youth’s development of mobilizing effort

Facilitative Advisor: helped in supporting youth’s control of their projects (i.e., supporting      decision-making, providing help when asked)

– facilitative advising was significantly related to youth learning strategic thinking skills


The findings provide a detailed classification of what types of agency skills teens are learning in youth programs and also how they are developing these skills. Additionally, this study hold two implications for policy, (1) the need for a better understanding and development of youth program models that provide youth with control of manageable experiences, yet engage them in challenges of real-world context and (2) train program facilitators in methods of nondirective assistance or “leading from behind” as opposed to a more directive approach.

These implications can be easily translated into the realm of youth mentoring – promoting a need to focus on the development of youth agency skills as part of mentor training. Specifically, mentors should focus on learning nondirective assistance and strategic thinking as part of mentor training.


This article was summarized by UMB doctoral student Laura Yoviene.