Essential elements of 4-H: Independence

Opportunities for self-determination and independent thinking help youth take on responsibility as they grow.

Girl riding a bike

There are many different ways to describe how 4-H youth programs work to enhance positive youth development. One way is to think about the essential elements of a 4-H experience, developed by National 4-H Headquarters. The components of mastery, belonging, generosity and independence all interact to provide a positive learning environment for youth. Michigan State University Extension recommends considering how each element can be fostered and improved in various 4-H settings.

Independence is a common goal of many youth development activities. This involves young people understanding how to complete tasks and projects on their own, practicing how to make their own decisions and becoming independent thinkers. As youth practice skills with adult direction, they grow their confidence to be able to accomplish them with less and less guidance. They can then see themselves as the creators of their own future.

Through opportunities to explore challenges and reflect on their experiences, youth can hone their skills. They can graduate from choosing their own projects, to solving problems in their club or school, to thinking critically about the world around them. As youth increase their skills and confidence in independent thinking, they can realize the influence they have on others. They will be better positioned to take on leadership roles as well as to see themselves as change agents in their communities.

How can we enhance a sense of independence in our 4-H youth? Here are some ideas.

  • If a skill or technique seems too advanced for youth to do independently at first, try demonstrating how to do it yourself, then doing it together, then letting the youth do it themselves. This process may take a few minutes or months depending on the skill you are trying to teach. Keeping in mind the end goal of having the youth do it themselves will help guide the way you demonstrate and talk about it.
  • Encourage youth to set goals at the beginning of the year for what they want to master that year. Learning about how to set SMART goals can help their goals be more effective. Having youth take the lead in their goal setting helps them take ownership of their own learning and lets them see they can determine their own future.
  • Empower youth to make decisions about their own development and then stand by their decisions. Oftentimes adults feel they know more and want to tell youth how to make the “right” decision, but this doesn’t help youth gain independence. Instead, find age-appropriate places for choices, increasing the responsibility and type of choices as they mature.
  • Incorporating experiences such as trips, exchanges or service learning into your group can really enhance what your members are learning. Delegating responsibilities for a group project or trip can help youth learn independence in a very real-world setting, while still having the safety net of caring adults.
  • Officer positions and other leadership roles are great avenues of learning independence. Older youth can be practicing leadership skills in a safe environment, learning that they can influence others through decision making and action, as well as helping to teach younger youth and model independent thinking.

4-H settings are a great place for youth to learn and practice independence. If they are already excited about a topic area, they will feel more willing and capable to take on independent roles as they master skills. In fostering an element of Independence in the 4-H experience, we can help youth better understand themselves and be able to think on their own.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2017 Impact Report: “MSU Extension: Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

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