Ben Rheinheimer | December 18, 2020

I recently had the chance to run a virtual training on developing student’s leadership voice. It was a chance for me to do some more reflecting on what we can do to help youth step into vocal roles of leadership. In preparing for this training I was reminded of two things that greatly impact the likelihood of youth using their ability to speak up: efficacy and choice.

The first is the youth’s own belief in their potential to utilize their voice for good. Psychologist Albert Bandura proclaims that “Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives. Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave.” How are the youth that we work with finding and growing that self-efficacy? A few years ago, I worked with some amazing high school seniors. These three young men were greatly gifted and were well known for their ability to take on tasks and get things done like sitting on city council, re-working a school’s network, and helping create an environmental task force. However, when I talked to each one, they told me one of their biggest struggles when they were first in a room full of adults was knowing what to say. They weren’t sure of their role and how to appropriately voice it. Three ways that we can easily help youth build self-efficacy is through:

Success and Mastery – Even finding small ways for youth to regularly practice speaking up and sharing ideas can build confidence through practice. Ask them for recommendations on food or books, encourage them to report on a favorite hobby, or even just stay silent after a question until someone is ready to share.

Modeling – Helping youth see examples of other youth and young people making a difference can inspire action. Pass along YouTube videos of inspiring young people, bring in “youth” guest speakers, ask them to do research on other young people in a field of interest.

Encouragement – Notice the little things that youth do to assert their autonomy and voice and make sure to acknowledge it to them. Also share with them when others praise their work or input. Even if their answer is incorrect, thank them for being willing to step out and speak up and ask if they would like help finding the correct answer.

The second part of encouraging youth voice is recognizing that youth should not be demanded or even expected to speak up. Just because we are in a fantastic wave of experiencing youth leadership through voice and action, does not mean that every youth is ready to step into roles that you think they should take on. Part of using one’s voice is being able to feel autonomous over what is being said. Therefore, just because I think a youth should speak up about the environment or justice doesn’t mean they are required to or even ready to. Youth must feel as though using their voice is of their own volition and isn’t just what an adult wants to hear. However, we can do the work of making sure we continue to create spaces for youth voices if they choose to use them. The Simple Interactions framework challenges us to build relationships through reciprocity, which is the back-and-forth engagement of a youth or child and adult. In order to make sure this reciprocity is happening, we – as adults – can ask lots of questions, create space for youth to talk, show interest in the lives of youth, and take extra time to try to understand situations or emotions that youth are dealing with. In the end, helping youth find their voice is less about “doing” and more about “being”. So, my challenge for you this week is:

How will you be someone who listens to a youth?
How will you be someone who affirms a youth’s value?
How will you be someone who leaves space for youth to find and share their voice?

Ben Rheinheimer, Self-Efficacy Curator at ULEAD