The Evidence Portal

Youth Work Interventions that foster agency and empowerment

Relationship-based youth work

The importance of the relationship between youth work practitioner and young person is foregrounded in much of the youth studies literature. For example, McMillan, Stuart and Vincent (2012) interviewed a number of students (n=7) attending an alternative school program supported by youth care practitioners in Canada to explore how these youth view the work of the practitioners and its effect on them. The young interviewees attributed the relationship between practitioner and young person as the basis for effective work and positive academic and socioemotional outcomes from the program. Additionally, these students emphasised the importance of constant engagement via both passive and persistent engagement strategies employed by the youth care practitioners as key to effective work between themselves and the practitioner

The importance of continuity and consistency in the relationship between practitioner and young person was also highlighted in a study exploring young people’s experiences in and out of care and with youth services in Belgium (Naert, Roets, Roose & Vanderplasschen, 2019). In this study, the authors interviewed 25 young people to explore their perspectives of the care and support they had received and found that three major themes emerged: 1) a need for footholds in moments of existential chaos; 2) the importance of timing of interventions to correspond with youth’s perspectives; and 3) the importance of youth’s impact on their own care pathways.

These recurring themes emphasise the importance not only of a reliable and consistent relationship, but also one that is responsive and adaptable to the needs of the young person at particular points in time, and that foregrounds their own voice in decision-making processes.

Overall, these studies highlight the need for a more nuanced understanding of youth work relationships and provision of support that considers a young person’s personal identity formation and development, their circumstances and their voice. 

The literature also emphasises the significance of professional support and supervision for youth workers that considers the practitioners’ personal and professional identity in relation to the youth with whom they are working.

A case study of the relationship between a Black male youth worker and a young Black man in the UK sought to explore how the employment of male youth workers promotes desistance from crime among young men (Harris, 2022). Harris found from this case study, that the men’s investments in different discourses of masculinity were more significant than their similarities in racial or class backgrounds for promotion of desistance. Consequently, Harris emphasised the importance of professional support and supervision of male youth workers that foregrounds their own personal and professional identity so as to better understand their resources of masculine and street capital in relation to the young person they are seeking to engage.

Finally, the importance of trust, rapport and a boundary-enabled relationship are also highlighted in the literature as critical to an effective relationship between practitioner and young person. For example, Crisp (2020) interviewed 10 sport coaches with experience in community coaching to explore their perceptions of ‘best practice’ in sport intervention programs with young people. From these interviews, Crisp found that development of a trusting, boundary-enabled relationship between coach and the young people was the key to the success of effective programs. 

Challenges in relationship-based youth work practice: Maintaining appropriate boundaries

Establishing and maintaining a relationship between practitioner and young person that is conducive to their personal development and growth has particular challenges. Much of the youth studies literature in this space focuses on strategies for setting, maintaining and/or blurring professional boundaries in relational youth work practice. Sercombe (2007) offers an outline of best practice strategies in managing professional boundaries. More specifically, Murphy and Ord (2013) discussed the appropriate use of worker self-disclosure which frequently occur in youth work practice.

Hart (2017) similarly advocates for a more nuanced understanding of professional boundaries in youth work practice, suggesting that relationships are multifaceted and fluid and do not easily conform to rigid professional boundaries and arbitrary guidelines or rules. An earlier ethnographic study undertaken by Hart (2016) that explored four youth clubs operating in north-east England found that young people are adept at maintaining boundaries and demonstrate a consciousness of the organisational boundaries that constrain youth workers’ practice. Consequently, Hart suggests that youth workers give greater credence to young people’s capacity to set and work within boundaries and consider greater collaboration in the negotiation and maintenance of professional boundaries with their client youth.

Youth participatory action research

Youth participatory action research is youth-led research which engages young people as co-researchers in the design and administration of research projects focused on social problems that impact their lives.

The overall aim of these research projects is to involve young people in the transformation of collectively produced knowledge into practical solutions that can precipitate community-level change (Hall, 2020).

Research suggests these youth participatory action research programs bolster leadership, the desire to contribute to community change, as well as empowerment and self-esteem among participating youth (see Ozer & Douglas, 2013).


STARTTS – Sporting LInx

Program that uses sport to promote social connection, empowerment and leadership among refugee youth

What does it aim to do?

Sporting Linx targes youth from refugee backgrounds between the ages of 14-18 and aims to engage them in sporting activities to promote social connection, empowerment and leadership.

How does it do it?

STARTTS works closely with individual schools to customize programs to address the specific interests and needs of their refugee student cohort.

Youth-adult partnerships

Youth-adult partnerships, also termed ‘youth-driven’ programs or practices, similarly prioritise young people’s right to participate in democratic processes via collaborations between youth and adults that aim to improve youth-serving organisations or resolve broader problems that impact communities (Hall, 2020). While these partnerships are conceptually and structurally diverse, they all seek to give primacy to the youth voice in decision-making processes, and foster supportive adult relationships (see Ramey, Lawford & Vachon, 2017). Generally, these programs aim to develop skill-building and individual empowerment through shared activities that take a variety of forms.

Ramey, Rose-Krasnor and Lawford (2017) explored the association between young people’s construction and expression of their sense of identity and the degree of youth voice, collaborative youth-adult relationships and youths’ program engagement across 194 youth participating in youth-adult partnerships. The authors found that all three characteristics of youth-adult partnerships (youth voice, collaboration and program engagement) predict youths’ capacity to actively seek out, evaluate and use self-relevant information in their construction and expression of their sense of self, while program engagement served as a unique predictor.

Spier’s (2013) evaluated a park design ‘walkshop’ in which young people participated in a simulated consultation walk with a view to redeveloping an urban park. This study demonstrated that this program transformed students’ understanding of the park and increased their sense of creative agency as social actors able to shape public spaces. Generally, research has shown that youth-adult partnerships foster empowerment, a sense of control and self-esteem among youth (see Zeldin, Christens & Powers, 2013; Zeldin et al., 2014; Zeldin et al., 2016). 

Youth organising

Youth organising, youth social action or youth activism programs are defined as ‘a youth development and social justice strategy that trains young people in community organising and advocacy…to alter power relations and create meaningful institutional change in their communities’ (Listen, Inc, 2003, p.9).

Originally, youth organising programs emerged as an intervention within the positive youth development movement, advocating for programs that develop interpersonal capacity among participant youth within safe and structured environments (Hall, 2020). The youth organising approach extended this aim to encourage development of sociopolitical capacity (i.e. the capacity to consider local issues and broader sociopolitical issues in tandem and work towards resolving inequities), and community capacity (i.e. a commitment towards collaborative change and skill-building) among participant youth.

Youth organising programs can take a variety of forms. Generally, these programs converge around prioritisation of youth voices in program processes including relationship-building, problem identification, action planning and implementation.

One ethnographic research study of a youth-led peer-support program sought to explore the role of young people in determining, creating and applying change processes for their peers, and ultimately, enhancing processes of empowerment and agency (Moensted & Buus, 2011). Using interviews with program participant young people, volunteers and staff, the authors found that when participations were offered a dual role by the program, both receiving peer support as well as facilitating change processes for others, this gave them a voice, and reinforced their rights to be involved in transforming their situations.

Youth organising programs require careful consideration of service delivery needs. Blanchet-Cohen and Brunson (2014) explored staff practice in the context of a youth-led program that engaged marginalised youth in social change through youth-led grants in Canada. The authors interviewed youth workers and managers to better understand how these youth-led practices were supported, both logistically and in principle, across the organisation and found that support was required at multiple ecological levels including individual-level, group-level, setting-level and organisation-level. Ultimately, Blanchet-Cohen and Brunson (2014) emphasised the importance of training for practitioners overseeing and managing youth organising programs.

Overall, research has shown that youth organising programs and approaches bolster leadership and the desire to contribute to community-level changes, as well as empowerment and self-esteem among youth (see Schwartz & Suyemoto, 2013).


Northern Sydney Local Health District – Northern Sydney Youth Health Promotion:

Employs a group of local young people aged 15-24 to promote the health and wellbeing of young people

What does it aim to do?

The Northern Sydney Youth Health Promotion (NSYHP) aims to promote the health and wellbeing of local young people by focusing on issues such as tobacco, alcohol, emotional and social health and obesity.

How does it do it?

The group of local young people employed by NSYHP (Youth Consultants) to undertake this work are trained and mentored by a Youth Health Promotion Coordinator & Social Wellbeing Manager. This team of 10-12 Youth Consultants offer a unique perspective and insight, encourage meaningful dialogue and consultation between young people and healthcare providers, youth services, schools, local councils, planners and policy makers.

Anticipated outcomes:

The Youth Consultants use their unique perspective, local knowledge and creative skills to improve young people’s engagement with health and wellness.  Youth Consultants engage with young people at events and develop strategies to address issues that affect young people.

Needs-led youth work

Needs-led youth work prioritises youth participation in decision-making and care processes while also requiring a continuous focus on the young person’s needs, and practitioners’ showcasing of needs-led attitudes and skills (Metselaar, van Yperen, van den Bergh & Knorth, 2015).

In their systematic review of needs-led programs for school-aged children and their families, Metselaar, van Yperen, van den Bergh and Knorth (2015) found that most studies reported an association between clients’ involvement and engagement in the program and positive outcomes, such as  improvements in youth behaviours, parenting stress, client satisfaction, completion rates, youth safety, wellbeing and empowerment, and service coordination. Practitioner attitudes and skills that were significantly associated with positive outcomes included listening to clients and working in partnership with them (Metselaar, van Yperen, van den Bergh & Knorth, 2015).

By contrast, only a few studies in this evidence review attributed these positive outcomes to the attention given to the clients’ needs. Further research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of this approach for achieving positive outcomes.

Bramsen, Kuiper, Willemse & Cardol (2021), developed a manualised needs-led youth work tool called MyPath. MyPath is designed to prepare young people in out of home care for life outside of care or support. MyPath seeks to develop youth autonomy and participation by facilitating self-reflection and goal planning. An accompanying instruction manual for youth work practitioners guides professionals through the tool and emphasises the importance of prioritising young people’s voices while they work through their reflective tasks. A pilot study of this tool found that it was usable and facilitated strengthening of young people’s autonomy as well as meaningful participation. 


CREATE – Your Future program:

Provides young people with the skills and knowledge required to effectively transition from OOHC to independence

What does it aim to do?

The Your Future program (CYF) aims to impart the life skills and self and community awareness required to successfully manage the challenges of everyday life by translating knowledge and values into abilities that enable young people to excel.

How does it do it?

CYF uses an experiential approach to learning, encouraging young people to explore their own knowledge, beliefs and experiences. The workshop modules are designed to engage young people of all learning styles by balancing visual, auditory and tactile activities and approaches.

Anticipated outcomes:

In addition to achieving skill-based competencies such as managing finances, being healthy and navigating the rental housing market, young people are also guided through the steps required to think critically, make informed and independent decisions and understand their identity and role in the community.

Last updated:

15 Dec 2022

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