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MSU Extension Volunteer Learning Modules: Working with Youth


April 7, 2022 - Author:

This module provides volunteers with knowledge around the topics of ages and stages, positive youth development, the experiential learning model, youth-adult partnerships and setting boundaries.

Section 1: Ages and Stages

Children and youth develop at their own pace which means they don’t all reach the same developmental stage, or the same maturity level, at the same age. Experts often group the developmental characteristics of children and youth into these four major categories:

  • Physical development is characterized by patterns of physical growth and maturation. Physical changes can be difficult for some young people to handle, particularly if they don’t understand what is happening to them. Young people who mature physically before or after the majority of their peers are often teased.
  • Cognitive development includes thinking, problem solving, memory, and attention. The capacity to develop cognitively changes over time. Cognitive development involves increasing one’s ability to reason and use skills to make independent decisions. Young people have to make many choices every day. Depending on their cognitive development level, young people may find it hard to see the whole picture when making decisions.
  • Emotional development is the expression of one’s feelings about self, other people, and things. Young people often respond emotionally to their surroundings and are still learning how to express their feelings. Older teens often look like adults, but their emotional maturity is still developing.
  • Social development involves learning how to relate to others. Adult volunteers can be great resources to young people who are learning how to respond to others and interact in social situations.


Section 2: Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development is the ongoing process of building young people’s assets and strengths through their social, emotional, cognitive (thinking), physical, and moral development. Volunteers who know and understand the principles of positive youth development are more likely to help the young people they work with develop the skills that will allow those young people to thrive. Positive youth development is an important concept to understand when working with young people. It puts the focus on building the positive assets of young people instead of on trying to fix the deficits or negatives of young people (Lerner, Lerner, & Phelps, 2008). Concentrating on a young person’s positive attributes is much more effective than trying to change what we perceive to be wrong with them. Positive youth development builds on the Five C’s of youth development: competence, confidence, connection, character, and compassion (Lerner, 2004). Adults who volunteer with youth programs such as 4-H will recognize a close connection between the Five C’s and the objectives of most youth programs.


Section 3: The Experiential Learning Model

The Experiential Learning Model includes five specific steps:

  • Experience: youth do an activity
  • Share: youth describe their experience; often we can use the five sense to elaborate on the experience
  • Process: youth relate the experience to life skills, goals, and/or objectives
  • Generalize: youth make a connection between their experience and the world around them; they create relationships, find similarities and differences
  • Apply: youth apply what they learned throughout the experience to other situations or experiences in their lives; often this is described by using identified life skills.

Implementing the Experiential Learning Model in 4-H Programming:

This is a four-part series of MSU Extension News articles on using the ELM. The series includes links to other resources on the subject.


Section 4: Youth Adult Partnerships

Michigan 4-H Youth Development programs believes that we are not just building the leaders of tomorrow—we also are building leaders who are capable of leading today. Young people have the power to change the world like no other group can. They have innovative ideas, exuberant energy, and are ready to take on responsibility and leadership roles with adult allies.

Some basic techniques you can use to help ensure that your club or groups youth adult partnership succeeds include:

  • Giving youth time to talk—don’t always jump in with the first comment or decision
  • Setting up meeting spaces strategically to encourage youth involvement
  • Spending time building relationships through team building activities
  • Giving youth permission to use first names
  • Working on group collaborations
  • Establishing clear goals
  • Allowing youth to take on meaningful roles

Section 5: Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries is healthy for you and the people around you. Boundaries provide structure to your relationships. By setting and maintaining healthy boundaries, you will avoid the following:

  • Burning out prematurely
  • Feeling responsible for more than is really the case
  • Feeling used, disrespected, and taken advantage of
  • Developing a victim mentality
  • Feeling like you can’t say no to any request
  • Having youth and parents become overly dependent on you
  • Blaming
  • Developing one-sided relationships with no give and take



If staff, volunteer applicants, or current volunteers need additional assistance with learning modules they should contact a Volunteer Excellence Support Team (VEST) member or e-mail using the subject “Learning Module Assistance Needed.”


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