Youth Programs Can Improve Engagement by Reducing Barriers and Strengthening Relationships

By Akiva Liberman, Sham Habteselasse, Sam Hanft, & Kristin Anderson Moore, Child Trends

Why do programs for youth and young adults often struggle to recruit, retain, and engage participants long enough and deeply enough to achieve the programs’ intended outcomes? Too often, the youth who could benefit most from programs seem the least likely to participate and become engaged. Researchers have raised these concerns about various types of programs, including out-of-school programs that aim to develop skills and academic competences, programs to encourage positive youth development more generally, and programs that promote career preparation and workforce development. Programs can reduce barriers to participation and take advantage of existing community and personal relationships to bolster retention, but implementation of improvements can be challenging and may require further research.

Child Trends reviewed the available literature on improving program engagement,[i] but found little methodologically strong research that could guide programs with actionable suggestions. Moreover, the existing research is often conducted with program participants and misses the youth who are least likely to participate in programs.

In our review of the literature, four basic themes emerged as field-sourced suggestions for improving program recruitment, retention, and engagement.

  • To improve recruitment and participation, programs should identify and address barriers to program attendance, such as transportation and its costs, child care, food, and scheduling issues. Given COVID-19, limited access to computers and the internet among some potential participants present additional barriers to engagement.
  • Programs can use financial incentives to improve recruitment and retention, especially for young adults. However, incentives should be used strategically because monetary incentives may at times undermine motivation. While incentives can help with recruitment, other factors—such as relationships with staff, program activities that interest youth, or activities that help participants achieve their goals—seem to matter more for retention and active engagement with program content.
  • Involving recruiters from the community that is being recruited can improve recruitment, as can drawing upon existing relationships and connections—especially among particular populations that are not well-represented among program recruiters or staff.
  • Making programs interesting, fun, and enjoyable for young people—for example, through fun activities with peers—can improve engagement with afterschool programs. Although not much discussed in the literature, this strategy may also be relevant for workforce development programs.

The recent literature also consistently stresses the importance of positive, respectful, and supportive relationships between youth and staff for retaining young people and promoting active program engagement. Cultivating these high-quality relationships may pose some challenges for program implementers, and the literature provides insufficient guidance for how to do so. Improving implementation may require that programs focus on contextual features and supports that promote implementation—sometimes called implementation drivers. That is, what supports help staff build and sustain strong positive relationships with clients?

Efforts that have identified implementation drivers for relationships include the following:

  • Child Trends researchers have developed the PILOT tool to assess the degree to which positive relationships and safe, developmentally appropriate programs support positive young adult development. PILOT includes items in five different domains, each of which is divided into items concerning staff practices (e.g., whether staff are supportive, nonjudgmental, respectful of culture and identity) and those that concern staff training.
  • The Search Institute has developed “How Does Your Organization Invest in Relationships?”—a tool that helps organizations assess their investments of time, their hiring considerations, whether they clearly articulate expectations, their dedicated training, and their use of data.
  • Positive relationships thrive on sustained interaction. MDRC researchers have emphasized the importance of staff retention, which, in turn, requires manageable caseloads, competitive salaries, other measures to limit staff burnout, and opportunities for professional development.

While the recent literature shows some consensus regarding which factors could increase youth engagement, improving some of these factors (such as the quality of relationships) may not be straightforward. Implementation research offers some suggestions, but more robust recommendations on improving youth engagement in programs will require additional research—on both the factors that improve youth engagement and on how these factors might effectively be implemented.

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