Engaging at-risk youth in youth development programs - Part 1

Discover strategies for engaging at-risk youth through collaborative community youth development and how Michigan 4-H staff can help make this happen.

At-risk youth are often the ones who can benefit most from the opportunities for personal development and the essential life skills provided by youth development programs. However, disenfranchised youth, those at-risk of dropping out school, involved in the juvenile justice system, runaways and homeless youth, seldom benefit from traditional youth programming. As a result, evaluation of youth programs often does not show a great deal of impact for “at-risk” audiences, as they are rarely reached.

How can we begin to engage this important population? Leaving the comfort of traditional programming while engaging youth in non-traditional settings can help bring disconnected youth into these types of programs. This will result in youth being more apt to participate and enable youth development professionals and communities to target this unreachable audience.

In Engaging Youth on their Own Turf , a review of six programs which successfully engaged at-risk youth, Kahn, Max and Paluzzi uncovered and highlighted some of the effective techniques these successful programs used to engage this audience. These include:

  • Having an ability to be implemented in diverse community settings and populations and to capitalize on already existing resources within each site.
  • Using community mapping to assess the attitudes, knowledge and beliefs that are then used to develop a community profile to assist program implementers in determining important areas of focus and recruit target populations.
  • Building on existing social networks to create awareness of program opportunities.
  • Providing activities that appeal to these youth while providing safe spaces and opportunities for teachable moments.
  • Providing an incentive program based on attendance which gives youth who meet a benchmark in participation special status and responsibility.
  • Utilizing peer training.
  • Recruiting adults who refrain from “preaching” to youth to build trust and work alongside youth as equals.
  • Building partnerships between agencies and youth development programs that help reach out to a specific target audience of youth in a “community.”
  • Piggybacking on an existing program that provides basic needs such as housing, medical services and food. This will draw in the target audience (second tier social program).
  • Youth development program partnering with agencies that serve or house at risk youth (i.e. detention centers, court-referred delinquents, wards of the court).
  • Requiring attendance at school and academic achievement to participate.

Community youth development involves creating opportunities for young people to connect with others, develop skills and utilize those skills, which allows them to be contributing members of their communities. If your group or organization has a desire to make an impact on the at-risk youth community, consider developing partnerships and creating a community strategy. Michigan State University Extension 4-H is a great place to start as one of the strengths of MSU Extension youth programs is the locally based staff. 4-H program coordinators and educators can often serve as links between community partners and are able to provide the resources of Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension.

For more information on engaging at-risk youth, read Part 2 of this series.


  • Kahn, A., Max,. J, & Pauluzzi, P. (2007). Engaging youth on their own turf: Creative approaches to connecting youth through community. Washington DC: Healthy Teen Network.

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