Teens learn to lead in the real world


After-school programs where teens work through real-life problems are the best way for them to learn strategic thinking skills.

“In school you learn how government is supposed to work. In youth leadership programs, youth learn how government actually works. They also learn how to influence it,” says Reed Larson, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois.

Whether a teen is writing a computer program, planning an event, or creating an art production, the work rarely unfolds in a straight line, so teens learn to brainstorm and plan for unexpected twists and turns, he says.

Larson followed the development of strategic thinking in 712 interviews with 108 ethnically diverse high-school-aged teens. Six of the organizations studied were leadership programs that involved planning community activities, lobbying government agencies, or other activities. Five were arts and media arts programs where the teens’ work was presented to the community.

The research is published in the journal Child Development.

Teens in the program learned it’s not only good to have a plan, it’s good to have a backup plan as well. “In these programs, youth learn to navigate paradoxes, catch-22s, and the strange dynamics of human affairs.

“During adolescence, higher-order circuits of the brain are developing,” Larson says. “Teens become able to think at more advanced levels about the peculiar dynamics of the real world. They become able to strategize. But they learn this only if they have the right experiences.”

Skills learned in youth programs may not be available in regular classroom settings, but can transfer there as teens use strategic skills to become better at time management and setting goals.

The best leaders of youth programs strike a balance between providing structure and assistance while allowing teens to strategize and maneuver through challenges on their own, Larson says.

“The most effective leaders weren’t charismatic types who pulled kids along with them, showing them what to do. They were more often self-effacing, leading from behind.”


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