Positive youth development is an intentional process that promotes positive outcomes for youth by providing opportunities that build on young people’s strengths and fostering positive relationships with peers and caring adults (Youth.Gov, 2020). 4-H uses many different strategies to promote the healthy development of youth; but how do we know if positive youth development is really happening in our clubs and programs? One way to be confident that your club is nurturing opportunities for positive youth development is to look for signs that positive youth development is taking place. In the business and education realms, this is known as “continuous improvement.” Continuous improvement is using information (such as data, observation, or self-reflection) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of an educational program or initiative (Clark et al., 2013). 4-H has been doing continuous improvement from the very start, when the 4-H Motto “make the best better” was adopted in 1920 (4-H History Preservation Program, 2010). Evaluating the 4-H program is a shared responsibility between faculty and staff and volunteers and helps us demonstrate the 4-H Motto to our members. While the evaluation of the total 4-H program tends to be more formal, volunteers can use feedback, self-reflection, and quality standards to continuously improve the programs so that youth can have the optimum positive youth development experience. This blog post offers three solid strategies to help 4-H professionals, volunteers, parents, and youth leaders continuously improve the 4-H groups or clubs they work with.
Feedback helps 4-H staff and volunteers close the gap between our current performance and desired performance (Pearson, 2016). Our desired performance is that 4-H experiences provide opportunities for youth to thrive while exploring their sparks in a safe environment, guided by a caring adult. Feedback should be relatively simple. You can solicit feedback from youth, parents or even other volunteers. One simple way to get feedback from younger youth is to have them complete the Clover Feedback Form. Youth can write or draw a picture about what they learned, what they would like to learn, what they enjoy about 4-H (how it makes them feel), and what they would change if they could.
Self-reflection is like feedback, but instead of asking others to describe what is (and isn’t) taking place 4-H staff and volunteers reflect on what worked well and what could be enhanced to encourage positive youth development in their club or program. Self-reflection can help 4-H professionals and volunteers reflect on what is working well and what can be improved. Some questions you might ask yourself include (adapted from Thiran, 2018):
- Is my reason for being a 4-H volunteer/youth leader the same now as it was when I started?
- Do I make myself accessible to my members, parents, and other volunteers?
- Do I seek input or feedback from my members and parents?
- If I were a 4-H member, how might I rate myself?
- Is my club/program vibrant? If not, why not?
The 4-H Quality Checklist is a simple tool to see if elements of positive youth development are taking place in your club or program. The checklist can help identify areas where your club is strong, as well as areas for improvement.
Taking time to check in with yourself, your members, and your parents can provide opportunities to apply our motto “Make the Best Better.” Leaders and 4-H professionals should set aside time at least annually to evaluate where the club or program is, and whether it is providing opportunities for youth to experience positive youth development. After spending some time thinking about continuous improvement for your club or program, discuss your findings with your local 4-H professional.
- Clark, S., Hironaka, S., Carver, P., & Nordstrom, L. (2013). Continuous improvement in education [white paper]. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/carnegie-foundation_continuous-improvement_2013.05.pdf.
- 4-H History Preservation Program. (2010). 4-H Motto, Creed, and Pledge. https://4-hhistorypreservation.com/History/M-C-P/.
- Pearson. (2016). Providing Educational Feedback [white paper]. Higher Education Services. https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/one-dot-com/one-dot-com/us/en/pearson-ed/downloads/Feedback.pdf.
- Thiran, R. (2018). 5 Self-Reflection Questions Leaders Should Ask Themselves. Leaderonomics.com. https://www.leaderonomics.com/articles/leadership/5-self-reflection-questions.
- Youth.Gov. (2021, March 10). Positive youth development. Youth.Gov. https://youth.gov/youth-topics/positive-youth-development.
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