Engaging at-risk youth in youth development programs - Part 2

Taking the five Ps of positive youth development into consideration can strengthen your community youth development strategy.

 As discussed in Part 1 of this series, at-risk youth are often the ones who can benefit most from youth development programs like 4-H. At-risk youth can include an array of youth in different situations, including disenfranchised youth, youth out of school, youth at risk of dropping out school, youth involved in the juvenile justice system, runaway youth and homeless youth. However, this population is often never served or under engaged and these youth often eventually become a liability in their community because of poor decisions or situations. To address this challenge, your community might consider developing a community youth development strategy to target this population.

In Engaging Youth on their Own Turf, Kahn, Max and Pauluzzi provide some essential tips to follow when implementing creative approaches to reaching youth like these in nontraditional communities. They indicate the importance of talking to youth in these communities and getting their input regarding their interests and needs. Kahn, Max and Pauluzzi also advocate for using available resources to begin building a program to reach this audience, although they believe strategy is more important than resources at the onset. Once the program begins to flourish, additional resources will be easier to find if the program can demonstrate it is meeting an identified need.

Lastly, Kahn, Max and Pauluzzi encourage youth service organizations to collaborate and create partnerships with agencies that serve these youth as the best means to reach this underserved audience. Before proceeding to the next stage of action, beginning a youth program that targets this population, they suggest ensuring the following criterion is established:

  • Community network is created.
  • Community profile is developed.
  • Target populations are identified.
  • Connection is made with the target population.
  • Target population needs have been assessed.
  • Resources are gathered.
  • Existing community networks are built upon.
  • Partnerships with programs that already serve at-risk populations are formed.

Once the community reaches these goals and begins implementing these strategies to start their program, they should also take into account the five Ps of positive youth development. The five Ps can help communities build stronger, more sustainable and farther-reaching programs. As explained by Huebner (2003, pp. 352-53), the five Ps include:

  1. Possibility and preparation: ensure there is a diverse range of opportunities available to youth and survey youth to get their opinions on activities.
  2. Participation: examine how youth are really spending their time; identify who existing programs are actively recruiting and how they are recruiting. Consider availability of programs and accessibility of locations.
  3. People: identify the people who currently interact with youth and determine how they are viewed by youth (as a threat, resource, mentor, etc.).
  4. Places and pluralism: identify what resources are available to youth and ascertain if transportation is a barrier to participation. Create collaborative efforts to provide access and appropriate space.
  5. Partnerships: include youth in planning and implementing programs to ensure programs are attractive to youth.

As illustrated by the five Ps, much of the literature regarding youth engagement points to the important step of including youth in policy development and action. The most effective way to work with young people and meet their needs is to see them as experts in their own experiences and as members of their own community with a valued perspective. Youth have the right to share their experiences and serve as a resource as potential consumers of the services offered. By including the at-risk youth you are targeting in the planning process, they can help to identify what works and doesn’t work and offer insight into how to best reach their “community.”

If you’re looking to start a youth development program in your community, contact Michigan State University Extension regarding resources and potential partnerships.


  • Huebner, A. J. (2003). Positive youth development: The role of competence. In Villarruel, F. A., Perkins, D.F., Borden, L. M., &Keith, J.G. (Eds.), Community Youth Development (341-353). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • 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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