Students Offer Lessons on Enhancing Engagement in Youth Programs

By Deja Logan, April Wilson, Hannah Netschytailo, and Valerie Martinez, Reprinted from Child Trends

Effective engagement with youth in programs is an essential element for those programs to achieve their desired positive outcomes. For example, a program that aims to support healthy relationships among youth is unlikely to be successful if enrolled youth do not participate in activities, or simply stop attending program sessions or listening to the information provided. At the same time, though, it can be challenging for programs to engage youth, especially if they do not find the content appealing or feel that their perspectives are not integrated into the program. One of the best, most effective, ways to engage youth is to talk to them, given that they are the experts of their own experiences.

In this brief, we highlight four programmatic engagement strategies provided by ninth-grade students. We close with additional resources to help youth-serving professionals and program staff promote greater youth engagement.

Background Context

This brief is based on feedback from ninth-grade students who had participated in a larger evaluation of a social-emotional program delivered across four high schools in rural North Carolina.[1] Based in the principles of mindfulness, the program aimed to improve the social and emotional competence of youth and support their healthy relationships. Upon program completion, 42 students participated in nine focus groups designed to evaluate their experiences in the program and provide suggestions for future enhancements. (See Table 1 for youth background characteristics).

Table 1. Background characteristics of youth in focus groups

Percentages may add up to more than 100 due to rounding.
* Information suppressed when N<10 students.
** The multiple race category encompasses all students that endorsed being more than one race. These races included American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Asian, and White.
*** Other gender suppressed for confidentiality.
**** Same sex, neither sex, and questioning sexual attraction categories had to be combined for confidentiality purposes.

Lesson 1: Tailor content to youth to make programming more useful and relevant to their contexts.

Our youth respondents were more engaged in programming when the content presented was relevant to them, provided new information, and seemed beneficial. These youth wanted program materials to feature scenarios tailored to their age and lifestyle. For example, a video that models conflict resolution among teens could take place in a school cafeteria or at a sports practice, and feature actors who are young people. Our youth respondents also felt that certain topics—like stress management, conflict resolution, and warning signs in romantic relationships—were particularly relevant to their lives.

What youth find most relevant may differ depending on a given program’s context, but program staff should ask youth for their input before, during, and after the program ends. In addition, our youth respondents wanted program content to be representative of their diverse identities and lived experiences (e.g., including BIPOC people [Black, Indigenous, and people of color], non-English speakers, people of various religious beliefs, and LGBTQ+ people [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning]).

“I just thought it was really useful and it can really help someone. It’s important that we learn it because some people can take advantage of us at this age … I feel like it should be taught a bit more, not just in a program like this. That’s why I liked it—practicality.” – Student speaking on learning about warning signs in a romantic relationship

Lesson 2: Create surroundings that are comfortable for youth during program sessions.

Ensuring that program surroundings are comfortable for youth may increase the likelihood that they will be engaged. For example, our youth respondents discussed wanting to choose where they sit, or who they practice program activities with in the classroom. Providing young people with this autonomy—in both school and non-school-based settings—may reduce their resistance to engaging in program activities with peers with whom they do not feel comfortable or know well. Prior to discussions that are personal or sensitive, facilitators can also build space within programming for youth to become familiar and connect with each other. In addition, youth respondents indicated that participation in select activities and discussions should not be forced, especially if they are uncomfortable with the contents or circumstances. In such cases, staff could incorporate alternatives to participation that do not require youth to be publicly vulnerable. Finally, students suggested that programs consider the physical space they provide for activities. Students generally liked activities that involved movement (see Lesson 4), but also noted the need for sufficient space in the class to accommodate this movement. Program facilitators should consider conducting activities that require space in a different area, like in a gym or outside.

Lesson 3: Create an environment that is judgement-free and inclusive.

Respondents told us that, when program staff create an environment that is judgement-free and inclusive, youth are more comfortable participating in activities, more connected to the program facilitator, and more likely to model being judgement-free and inclusive as well. Setting this standard at the start of the program may help staff build relationships with youth and develop a culture that promotes engagement. Staff who made connections between the content and their own lived experiences also became more humanized and relatable, according to youth. Furthermore, students felt more willing to participate in activities when staff demonstrated openness and fully participated in the activities, too.

Lesson 4: Diversify program activities to engage different types of learners.

Incorporating diverse activities into a program may increase engagement among youth and appeal to different types of learners. Our youth respondents noted a strong preference for interactive activities instead of lecture-style delivery. They suggested interactive activities like group work and incorporating activities that require movement and creativity, like role playing. In addition, youth also wanted to spend time outdoors and go on program-related field trips.

“I would agree with the interactive things [we could do in class]. I mean, getting up to do stuff instead of just sitting down, listening to something. That’s just linear and boring and straightforward, and you’re not holding your attention because you just sit there. So that’s what I liked about it.” – Student speaking on what they enjoyed in the program

Useful Resources

Youth in this study presented helpful ideas to promote their engagement—and that of their peers—in programs. Ideally, youth perspectives and voice would be included in all stages of programming, including design, implementation, and evaluation. These resources provide additional information to promote youth engagement.

Funding Acknowledgment

Funding for this project was provided by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Grant: 90ZD0023-01-00


[1] We do not name the program in this brief because the summary does not represent evaluation findings. Instead, we drew on ideas mentioned by student participants that are applicable to the broader field of youth programmatic engagement. Detailed evaluation results from the broader study will be published in 2025/2026.

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