The Evidence Portal

Youth work theories and approaches

Informal education

Informal education informs traditional British youth work practice (Slovenko & Thomson, 2016; Davies, 2012a), which has influenced youth work practice in Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand), as Commonwealth countries. Jeffs & Smith define informal (sometimes called ‘non-formal’) education as: “the process of fostering learning in life as it is lived. A concern with community and conversation; a focus on people as persons rather than objects” (2005, p. 11).

Crucially, informal education is voluntary in nature and has a strong pedagogical commitment to “democracy, fairness and truth” (Gee, 2020, p. 108). Improvised, yet meaningful conversation that is guided by the young person characterises informal education.

Practitioners of informal education challenge young people to think critically, with a view to empowering them to act and make change (Corney et al., 2021).

Wood, Westwood and Thompson (2015) identify a series of techniques that illustrate how practitioners enact informal education. These techniques include “catching the moment … steering the conversation [and] creating a talking point” (Wood, Westwood & Thompson, 2015, p. 54).

‘Catching the moment’ describes the information imparted by the youth worker to a young person at an opportune moment during conversation. For instance, a young person might disclose feeling hungover, so the youth worker ‘catches the moment’ and instigates harm reduction by explaining ‘safer’ drinking practices such as drinking at a slower rate or drinking a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage (Wood, Westwood, Thompson, 2015).

‘Steering the conversation’ is a more direct approach that enables the practitioners to guide or steer the conversation where learning can occur through discussion and the exchange of viewpoints (Wood, Westwood, Thompson, 2015). ‘Creating a talking point’ might entail, for instance, the youth worker wearing a t-shirt with an eye-catching statement (Wood, Westwood, Thompson, 2015) intended to prompt learning by sparking conversation among young people.

Informal education is characterised by practitioner improvisation, conversational and experiential learning. This way of working does not lend itself to the measurability and outcomes-tracking required of evidence-based practice favoured by policy makers and funding bodies. For this reason, Slovenko and Thomson (2016) propose social pedagogy (see below) as a viable framework to replace informal education as the dominant form of youth work in the UK and other Commonwealth countries.

Social Pedagogy

‘Social pedagogy’ is alternatively known as ‘social education’, ‘critical pedagogy’ or “critical social education” (Batsleer, 2013, p. 229). Social pedagogy underpins European models of youth work (Slovenko & Thomson, 2016). The term ‘pedagogy’ refers to a particular kind of approach within education and teaching. The ‘social’ component of social pedagogy acknowledges that education and personal growth does not occur in a vacuum, rather within the context of a community within society (Slovenko & Thomson, 2016).

Social pedagogy is informed by critical theory and philosophy which emerged from the Frankfurt School in Germany during the twentieth century. Scholars of influence to social/critical pedagogy in youth work include Paulo Freire, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault (H. Sercombe, personal communication, September 12, 2022).

Slovenko & Thomson argue that social pedagogy shares the spirit of informal education, sharing key characteristics including “inclusivity, equality, work with groups (as well as individuals) and … treating young people with respect” (2016, p. 21). Most importantly, a social pedagogy framework enables the development of strong, trusting relationships between youth workers and young people.

Social pedagogues believe both that an individual is shaped by their environment and that an individual has the power to determine their own path (Slovenko & Thomas, 2016). The goals of social pedagogy are two pronged: the development of capable, independent, self-determined individuals and the development of community-minded citizens (France & Wiles, 1997; Slovenko & Thomson, 2016). Social pedagogy is informed by humanistic principles which compel practitioners to support disadvantaged members of their community, by helping them to live up to their full potential (France & Wiles, 1997).

In practice, social pedagogues favour creativity and co-production, where practitioners work alongside young people as equal partners in the completion of a task or project (Hatton, 2018, Slovenko & Thomson, 2016). Social pedagogy is a holistic practice which perceives learning to be an ongoing, lifelong process (Slovenko & Thomson, 2016) which justifies the positionality of the practitioner as equal, learning in partnership with young people. Creativity in social pedagogy is a vessel through which to enable young people to “maximise their potential, increase their ability to make decisions and improve their life chances” (Hatton, 2018, p. 157).

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has a significant and continuing influence of youth work practice today (Derkson, 2010). Ecological systems theory understands human development as occurring within the context of one’s environment. Shelton explains: “the person exists in a system of relationships, roles, activities and settings, all interconnected” (2019, p. 10). The theory proposes that power and change are multidirectional and complex – as the environment can change a person, a person can change their environment.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems framework is often depicted as a series of concentric circles starting with the individual at the centre moving outwards to the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem and the chronosystem. The microsystem captures persons and settings that are interrelated to the young person (Shelton, 2019); friends, school, their soccer team, for instance. The mesosystem functions as a porous boundary between the microsystem and the exosystem. Shelton explains that the mesosystem “incorporates all the settings, and the microsystems they contain, in which the person actively participates” [original emphasis] (2019, p. 71). The exosystem refers both to “the settings a person does not participate in, but that are consequential in development, and … the relationships of those settings to each other and to the settings in the person’s mesosystem” (Shelton, 2019, p. 91). For example, while the young person at the centre of the model does participate in the production of mass media in the exosystem, that young person’s fashion sense is likely influenced by depictions of popular fashion in mass media. The macrosystem comprises the overarching culture and ideas within which a society is organised. In Australia, Christianity and democracy would be two major ideologies located within the macrosystem. Finally, the chronosystem refers to time. Each individual and the systems that surround them also exist within a specific period of history which denotes specific levels of sociological and technological development. See the ‘Further reading’ box for more information on Ecological Systems Theory.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems model contradicted developmental psychology narratives (Derkson, 2010) of the 1970s which effectively pathologised youth (Sercombe, 2015). Unlike developmental psychology, which posits a highly individualised theory of human development, Ecological Systems theory understands young people in the context of their environment. Ecological Systems theory acknowledges both the impact of one’s environment on their development and the agency of that individual to alter their environment.

Further reading

For more on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, see Bronfenbrenner’s seminal works: The Ecology of Human Development (1979) and Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological Perspectives on Human Development (2005).

Also see: The Bronfenbrenner Primer: A Guide to Develecology (Shelton, 2019). 

Civic Youth Work

A civic youth worker seeks to empower young people to act on issues that matter to them in their community. Civic youth work is conducted with groups of young people, where the youth worker acts as facilitator whose actions are led by the goals and decisions made by the group of young people to undertake a project of their choosing (Roholt & Cutler, 2012). Roholt, Hildreth & Baizeman describe civic youth work as an “embodied invitation” (2007, p. 165) which invites young people to identify the issues they care about and to decide if and how they wish to address those issues.

Civic youth work is a democratic way of working that fosters active citizenry in young people (Roholt & Cutler, 2012). This practice is grounded in the belief that children and young people are inherently valuable members of society whose ideas and opinions are worth listening to taking seriously (see also ‘Rights-based approach and youth participation’). This belief challenges the idea that young people are not mature enough to be active citizens (Roholt & Cutler, 2012). Civic youth work instead empowers young people to construct or re-construct their identity as a person who is engaged in their community and capable of meaningful change. The very process of planning, setting goals and taking action can help young people to express “how they want to be in the world” (Roholt & Cutler, 2012, p. 175).

As a type of group work practice, young people involved in civil youth work must learn to negotiate group dynamics with other young people with whom they may not ordinarily interact. In addition to working well with others, young people also learn key vocational skills during their project (Roholt & Cutler, 2012). These skills may include public speaking, engaging with authorities or public officials and developing an understanding of bureaucratic processes.

Finally, civic youth work provides young people with a safe place to practice their newly acquired skills and to explore the intended and unintended effects of their project. In this space, youth can work together to become articulate in their arguments for change and to consult the youth worker facilitator for explanation and guidance where required (Roholt & Cutler, 2012).

Strengths-based approach

Youth workers who work from a strengths-based approach prioritise the existing skills and agency of young people above the ‘problems’ or ‘deficits’ for which they have been identified. The strengths-based approach can be found across a range of human service professions, including youth work. Most theories and approaches to youth work identified in this evidence review are underpinned by a strengths-based approach. Strengths-based youth work is sometimes also known as ‘asset-based’ youth work.

A strengths-based approach actively rejects practice which emphasises assessment of risk and organises care around the elimination of risk rather than on the holistic growth and wellbeing of the individual. Wood (2018) explains that strengths-based practitioners do not disregard risk factors, rather they seek to place an equal, if not greater, emphasis on protective factors, or strengths.

By focusing on strengths, a youth worker can gather more information to better inform their work (Wood, 2018). Asking a young person what is going well for them and about the relationships that are important to them might reveal a hidden support network or speak to the hopes and dreams of a young person that they may not have otherwise mentioned.

Knowing the strengths of a young person can help a worker to tailor solutions to support a young person in a way that is meaningful and sustainable, because it is designed to fit in with the young person’s life and goals.

In practice, a strengths-based approach can empower young people: “[w]hen a youth worker works from a strength based (as opposed to a deficit) model, power is shifted to the young people themselves and they are able to utilise existing skill sets” (Couch, 2018, p. 223).

Positive Youth Development

Positive Youth Development (PYD) is a strengths-based approach to youth work (Nolas, 2013). PYD draws on the principles of positive psychology, with PYD programming designed to “maximiz[e] the positive aspects of youth character and increase engagement through encouraging a sense of belonging and purpose, leadership, and formation of strong attachments within the community (Lerner et al., 2005 as cited in Maletsky & Evans, 2017).  Like other youth work approaches such as informal education or civic youth work, PYD lacks a set curriculum and is better understood as philosophy that underpins youth work.

As per the strengths-based approach, PYD steers clear of a deficit-based view of young people, instead perceiving risk to be a result of the challenging circumstances and lack of resources affecting the young person (Moensted, Day, Buus, 2020). PYD seeks to address ‘risks’ by countering negatives with positives. PYD programming is characterised by the development safe and supportive relationships with adults and fellow peers. Within the context of these supportive relationships, young people can develop prosocial behaviours and develop lifelong skills and competencies (Moensted, Day & Buus, 2020; Meschke, Peter & Bartholomae, 2011).

Nolas highlights that PYD is used in UK youth work as a targeted intervention to address “a range of youth problems including educational outcomes, substance misuse, delinquent behaviour and civic orientation” (2013, p. 2). While PYD can be employed in a targeted way, it is also suitable for more universal types of youth work. Meschke, Peter & Bartholomae explain that PYD is a form of “developmentally appropriate practice” (2011, p. 90) that highlights “the importance of psychosocial development and life course theory in promoting the health and well-being of youth” (Kurtines et al., 2008; Montgomery et al., 2008 as cited in Meschke, Peter & Bartholomae, 2011).

Despite the popularity of the PYD, multiple criticisms of the approach are identified by Nolas (2013). Though PYD acknowledges risk as a product of environment and resources, some authors argue that the approach still endorses harmful neoliberal ideas (Sukarieh and Tannock, 2011; Shildrick & MacDonald, 2006 as cited in Nolas, 2013). Specifically, critics claim that the PYD approach “promotes a decontextualised approach to youth and ignores the socio-economic landscapes that impact on young people’s leisure practices … and continues to universalise and individualise personal change” (Nolas, 2013, p. 2). 

Narrative approach

A narrative approach to youth work seeks to promote a positive conception of self in young people through the act of deep listening and re-framing by the practitioner.

Hartman, Little and Ungar explain that “[n]arrative practices are concerned with the stories that make up individuals’, families’ or groups’ identities” (2008, p. 47). When a young person speaks about themselves, their lives and their history, practitioners using a narrative approach will listen closely for an alternative reading of the young person’s narrative which highlights their strengths (Tilsen, 2018; Hartman, Little and Ungar, 2008).

This simultaneous process of listening to the young person and listening out for alternative interpretations is called “double listening” (White, 2000, as cited in Hartman, Little and Ungar, 2008). White posits that the narrative work is a way of “co-constructing meaning with young people to mobilize new understandings and create the conditions for them to live into preferred storylines and futures” (2018, p. viii). It is important to note that narrative approaches do not seek to minimise real risk or to excuse harmful actions, rather they function to help individuals rebuild self-worth and self-belief.

A narrative approach can also be applied to narratives told about young people at an organisational level (Hartman, Little and Ungar, 2008). A narrative approach can be used to counter the often deficit-based professional jargon and terminology that plagues the care sector. For example, instead of a practitioner describing to a young person as ‘borderline’, using a narrative approach the practitioner would describe the young person as having received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Using a narrative approach to shift our language helps to disentangle an individual from their perceived problems and reinstate personal agency (White, 2018).

Further reading

Tilsen’s 2018 text Narrative Approaches To Youth Work: Conversational Skills for a Critical Practice offers a comprehensive and practical guide for practitioners.


Last updated:

13 Feb 2023

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