Empowering Youth as Their Own Change Agents

  • Article
  • July 12, 2016

As health and wellness professionals, we’re always looking for more effective ways to inspire healthy changes among our clients, especially youth. As adults, we remember that adolescence can be a time to of stress, transitioning from childhood to young adulthood. In an effort to help youth navigate this vital life stage, professionals working with youth sometimes focus on adolescent problems which may not promote positive youth development.

Empowerment theory on the other hand requires adults to reconsider their approach as a way to enhance positive development, offering an alternative for developing health and education programs for youth. It suggests that consideration of youth competencies and development of opportunities for them to get involved is fundamental to positive youth development. Several programs designed to help empower youth to be active agents for positive change include: Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES), Fuel Up to Play 60 and AdVenture Capital (AdCap):

  • YES was developed to increase youth community engagement and cohesion through intergenerational partnerships to complete their community change strategy. YES involves an active learning curriculum designed to help youth gain confidence in themselves, connect to their community and plan and implement a project that will be helpful for their community or school.
  • Similarly, the Fuel Up to Play 60 program, launched by National Dairy Council and the NFL, engages youth - elementary through high school - in the process of promoting healthy eating and physical activity among their peers. Youth work with school personnel to develop strategies for promoting healthier lifestyles. Working in thousands of schools nationwide, youth in the Fuel Up to Play 60 program have developed educational programs for their peers, helped transform cafeteria choices in their schools and created programs tailored for their schools to get youth moving more.
  • The GENYOUth’s Adcap program seeks to empower and motivate creative, curious and bold student entrepreneurs ages 13 and older to make health and wellness changes in their schools and communities.

Empowering students, as is done in programs such as these, can help youth gain self-confidence and leadership skills which can help in healthy physical and psychological development. Research suggests that empowered youth work harder in school, engage in other positive social behaviors and are less likely to use alcohol and drugs or become involved in violent behavior. Empowerment also requires attention to social and contextual factors to help adolescents navigate through this key developmental phase. This means that adults can also play a significant role in guiding them to healthy choices, gaining confidence in their capability to make a difference in their world, thinking critically, connecting with others and taking action to help improve the world around them. Thus, an empowerment approach includes youth as allies in our efforts to make our communities and schools safe and healthy places.  

As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and empowerment theory ensures they have an active role in the process.

If you’re interested in learning more about Youth Empowerment Theory, click here for a presentation I recently delivered at NDC’s Childhood Health and Nutrition Research Conference. In addition, click here to read GENYOUth’s Report on Youth Empowerment or read a recent blog post on how youth empowerment matters.

(Continuing education credits available for registered dietitian nutritionists).