Agency in Youth: Learning from Challenges

by: Allen Fowler

peers-questioningThe youth’s face testified to a continuing frustration. We were at a job readiness training, about halfway through the summer work program, and taking some time to reflect around how the workplace experience was going. One young person spoke to having to put up with daily ribbing and ridicule, mostly because of their youth and inexperience. They had approached their supervisor to address the dynamic to no real avail, and now they were airing their grievance to a group of peers. I had to fight my impulse to wade in immediately, but I purposely sat back and let the youth offer their advice and insights. Suggestions ranged from answering in kind to approaching the supervisor again to trying to land a new job and then give two weeks’ notice. None of them seemed to provide an immediate solution but all were offered in support and provided grist for the mill. I held my tongue because one of the goals of employability training is to develop in youth and young adults agency, the capacity to navigate workplace challenges independently.

The Signal Success curriculum bases its methodology on the best practices to foster and augment skills development. Some of the key components surrounding the development of agency in youth are:

  • Offering project-based activities – providing opportunities for group work where clear goals and deadlines create the need to organize, prioritize, communicate and collaborate.
  • Structuring effective reflection – using open-ended questions to offer youth the chance to make or anticipate connections between one context and others (work, school, family, personal, etc.)
  • Framing outcomes through feedback – offering feedback that explores and boosts the role of strategic thinking in achieving goals.
  • Facilitating more than directing – resisting the urge to step in and “fix” things; giving youth room to think through their challenges; letting them approach you when they determine that guidance would be helpful.

Working in concert, these components provide young people with a rich foundation from which to establish a more effective practice of independence and agency. Youth report that when given freedom and control over a project or challenge, they find the process demands creativity, flexibility, discovery and strategy. The practice they gain from these workshops prepares them for their job sites. In turn, workplace learning experiences offer youth and young adults real life, real time challenges and thus the opportunities to think strategically and develop agency.

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