A graphic indicating the process of virtual lenses.

Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles for Positive Youth Development: Virtual Programming Focus

September 9, 2020 - Elizabeth Wiener,

Michigan 4-H has developed seven guiding principles that help inform all staff members and volunteers who interact with youth across the state. These guiding principles are based on research in positive youth development. As programming has begun to shift to a more virtual world, these guiding principles should be viewed through a virtual lens. View the Michigan 4-H Guiding Principles for Positive Youth Development online.

Youth develop positive relationships with adults and peers.

Think about how to create an environment where youth can learn from adults and from each other. While you may be tempted to provide a lecture; however, first consider creating a dialogue between participants. Intentionally set the scene. Groups often progress through stages of group development from formation to adjourning, based on the level of interactions and trust. These stages inform how successful a group is when working together. In these unconventional times, these stages now need to be viewed with a virtual lens. They tend to take much longer with a group who is interacting in a virtual world. Setting norms can be much more difficult as it is more difficult to assess where the participants are physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Being authentic as an adult leader will help youth to develop trust in you and with the other participants. This can be done by incorporating icebreakers into the program; using open-ended questions for conversation or the chat feature; learning names, name pronunciation, and pronouns and using appropriately; and encouraging positive interactions among participants with collaborative or fun games or activities. View some great ice breaker questions online.

Youth are physically and emotionally safe.

In a virtual environment, safety for youth is vitally important and relevant. Per Michigan State University (MSU) Policy, at least two adults need to be present on all virtual programs and at least one of those two adults need to be a Gold-level volunteer or an MSU staff person You should consider saving the chat after the program is over as well as limiting the ability for participants to private message each other (this setting can be changed to allow participants to only message hosts). By saving the chat messages, any possible youth safety issues are recorded. Limiting the ability for private messages helps mitigate the possibilities of cyber-bullying. Assign one adult to monitor the chat, help with internet connectivity, mute a program participant if necessary, monitor participants’ body language and emotions, or stop the meeting if needed, especially if something inappropriate is shared. Also, take the time to think about how many youth will be engaged in the program. Do you need more than two adults? Be sure to password protect the platform and only allow registered participants access to the link and password.

Be actively aware of interactions with youth and their family members, which includes their home environments. An online environment provides a unique look into a youth’s home that might otherwise be unseen. Indicators of concern could include (but are not limited to) the scene behind them is excessively messy, self-disclosure of personal issues, loud background noises that seem to upset the youth, or threats or acts of violence toward self or others. If there is an imminent risk to the health and safety of the individual or others, call 911 immediately. If the youth is showing signs of distress and may not have the ability or skills to cope, reach out to the parents if it seems appropriate to do so, and contact the 4-H staff person in the county (or supervisor if you are a 4-H staff member). Many resources are available to share with youth and their families especially those appearing to be having a difficult time. 4-H staff members can provide support in accessing these resources. The Green Folder was developed to help persons identify a person in distress and provide guidance for assisting. 

Youth are actively engaged in their own development.

Youth can be engaged with the creation of their learning environments even from a virtual setting. First, have the teen leaders be a part of the planning process. Youth can serve as facilitators or leads for group activities in a virtual setting. Before conducting a program, explore how to keep youth at home actively involved. Can this be done through weekly games, interactive contests, or tasks for the youth to complete and report back to the group on? Or by sending a material list ahead of time so that they can come prepared to engage? Second, icebreakers help youth engage with each other in a group. What apps are available for youth to use? An example, the “Seek” app by iNaturalist, allows youth of any age to go outside and take a picture of a living thing and it identifies it right away. Youth can then relate their findings to others in a “Field Explorers” club, but the onus is on them to get outside to learn. Third, allow a space for youth to share what they want to learn. Ask youth about a variety of topic areas, and allow room for them to add their own. Provide a space for them to explain how they want to learn and receive this information. They will often have creative ideas that will meet their actual needs versus the perceived need. 

Youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.

Let youth drive the conversation whenever possible and leave space for discussion or questions. Keep objectives as open-ended as possible. Adult facilitators do not have to have all the answers, rather they help guide the youth through the questions. Consider keeping group sizes small to maximize conversation. Using features such as annotation tools, polls, breakout rooms, or other tools in your chosen virtual platform can also help youth learn and interact in various ways. Allow youth to develop the agenda and lead portions (or all) of the program or event. Be comfortable with silence so youth have time to think before they speak or respond in chat features. Silence can be more difficult to sit with in an online format as it is a challenge to read body language, but allowing the youth time to process is incredibly important. 

Youth develop skills that help them succeed. 

Screen time is a real concern for youth. How can we use it for good? Is your program teaching a skill, a passion for learning, or is it just “because”? Ten essential skills are important, and youth gain these when working in an online setting. These include communication skills, organizational skills, writing skills, the ability to meet deadlines, computer skills, teamwork, time management, self-starting skills, research skills, and problem-solving skills (St. Leo University, 2016). For more information, read this article from St. Leo University. Consider your program and how the use of technology and time online can enhance or support the development of these life skills. Continue to engage youth in critical thinking, leadership, and planning skill development as they participate in hands-on learning during 4-H meetings and events.

Youth recognize, understand, and appreciate multiculturalism.

Virtual programs allow youth to interact and converse with youth from beyond their local community. This expands the opportunity for youth to interact with others from a variety of races, cultures, and belief systems. However, many challenges face multicultural teams when face-to-face interaction is missing. (For more information, see the MSU Extension website Managing Difficult Conversations and Situations.) These challenges include providing effective communication, conflict management, and trust. To work through these challenges, prepare adult facilitators to work through a cross-cultural and diversity, equity, and inclusivity lens. This preparation should include (a) establishing a code of conduct for virtual behavior, which includes respectful discourse and the establishment of a sense of community; (b) modeling behavior that welcomes and honors each participant for who they are; and (c) spending time celebrating the similarities and differences we all share with each other. For longer programs, create a team values contract or ongoing group expectations agreement based on youth input. 

Youth grow and contribute as active citizens through service and leadership.

Virtual programs provide an opportunity for youth to teach each other from the comfort of their own homes. There is also a chance to meet and interact with youth and adults from beyond the local area. Service learning, historically, is predicated on an attachment to a sense of place, and that attachment is a precursor to engaging in action to care for localities and their inhabitants. Virtual learning provides an opportunity for both 4-H professionals, 4-H volunteers, and youth to consider whether service learning is geographically bound or if there is an opportunity to learn and serve beyond the immediate location. Learning from others and hearing the stories of other communities and lives can influence and affect activism and citizenship for youth. There are many opportunities for youth to learn on their own beyond the online platform through games, hands-on activities, or self-paced learning modules. 

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