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Why Can't we Get them to Stay?

I had the opportunity to be part of a conversation last week with a group of individuals who work in youth-serving organization and wanted to get together to talk about the challenges of recruiting and retaining teens in their programs The group was convened by the Bartol Foundation, of which I am a board member, at the request of one of the grantees.

Not surprisingly, the group named all of the challenges that the research has identified when it comes to recruiting and retaining teens. And, also not surprisingly, they had also found their way to some strategies that have proven to work to attract and keep this age group coming to a youth program. What I plan to do in this post is share with you some of the key ideas from our conversation and offer a few suggestions for people who may also be faced with similar challenges. I’ve created a table below to help highlight a few key points that the group raised, which are completely consistent with the research. Following the table, I have shared some suggestions for what we know about what works to get teens to your program and to keep them there.


First, ask yourself: What makes your space, programming, staff and offerings inviting? And then ask some teens! Ask what makes them come to your program? What should you keep doing more of? Less of? Invite them to be partners in designing an exceptional experience they want to be a part of and also be responsible for keeping engaging, meaningful and fun!

After that, the next best thing you can do for yourself and for your staff is get really familiar with the development needs of teens, specifically the group you are working with. This includes understanding their moral, social, cognitive, physical and emotional development and needs. And, then you should design your programming and activities in a highly intentional way to meet their needs. This not only pertains to your programming, but should also include any interaction you have with them. Are you and your staff capitalizing on teachable moments? Are you making explicit the things they are practicing with you, the experiences they are having with you and the connection or implications they have for real-life situations? Programming and activities should include chances for leadership, activities that encourage them to explore & express their cultural, sexual, ethnic, and gender identity. And they should be connected to future goals related to life after high school. They should offer experiences for teens to develop skills though internships and apprenticeships. And lastly, they should deepen their social capital by connecting them to individuals and experiences they may not have access to on their own. For more about that, read this blog post I wrote, which also includes specific examples and a downloadable PDF for your reference. The next thing worth focusing on is your staff. Are they passionate about working with teens? Are they able to set caring, consistent relationships? Do they have and set high expectations of the teens in your program?

If you are going to invest any resources, put it in your staff. I'm going to put myself out of work by saying this but forget buying expensive curriculum. Work with staff to provide both structured AND informal time for them and teens to get to know each other. This is really critical to developing trust. It also helps staff gauge youth’s interests and helps them to build activities and experiences they may not otherwise have. A resource that maybe of use to help with this is the The Search Institute’s Developmental Relationship Framework. Last but not least, get out of your program and go find out what others are doing. And, take some teens with you! Your peers here in Philly, and across the country have come up against some similar challenges and some may have found solutions that would be easy and effective to implement. Others, may take some time or require intense planning or additional resources. And then, when you’ve found something that works, find a way to share with others, so invite people to come to visits/observe your site. Write about your success story in a journal like AfterSchool Matters or publication like YouthToday. I hope this helps! We also talked about the key differences between recruiting middle schoolers and teens, so keep an eye out for that as an upcoming blog post. Resources: New Directions for Youth Development, Wiley Publishing: They have some of the best, most accessible research by topic/theme of youth development. You can find back issues here. Specifically recruitment/retention: Afterschool Alliance: National League of Cities: Journal of Park & Recreation: Afterschool Matters:

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