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Pushing the Boundaries: Positive Youth Development and School Design

How much agency do we give students?

by JoEllen Lynch

As educators, our role is to support young people on their developmental journey toward adulthood. In order to help them grow, we must give them autonomy in their learning. Especially in high school, young people must be able to make real choices and experience the consequences of those choices. By giving them these opportunities, we help them become independent, responsive, discriminating thinkers who bring discipline, fortitude, and curiosity to their work.

Still, secondary school educators often run up against a core tension: how much agency do we give students? On the one hand, we want young people to have choice and build independence, but on the other hand we need to enforce certain non-negotiables, like coming to school on time. How do we set rules and boundaries that support their development? Is “discipline” in the traditional sense — merits, demerits, and detention, for example — helpful or harmful to adolescent development? How do we allow students to have voice and choice in their learning while still maintaining cohesion across the school community?

One example of this tension is the age-old dilemma of hats and hoodies. Years ago as Director of the first nationally recognized transfer school model, South Brooklyn Community High School, I was in the unenviable position of enforcing a no-hats rule throughout our school. While one part of me knew that wearing a hat does not tangibly impact a student’s ability to learn, another part of me knew how critical it was for staff to develop relationships with students. And do you know what a hat does? It allows a young person to not look you in the eye. It’s a barrier to establishing a relationship. A student can walk into your classroom, snuggle into their hat, and you’ll never know what they’re thinking or feeling.

As a staff, we made this rationale clear to students. We wanted everyone in our school community to understand that a hat ban was not an arbitrary vehicle for adult control. Rather, it was a deliberate step toward strengthening relationships between young people and adults. Still, looking back, constantly asking students to take their hats off was an incredible waste of time. Did we make up for it in eye contact? It’s hard to say. If I could do it again, I’m not sure I’d spend so much time on hats.

Whether we’re talking about hats, homework, or attendance, boundaries are important in the development of any school community. And they aren’t just important for new schools. These are decisions that must be made and recommitted to each year. The key is ensuring that these boundaries respond to the evolving developmental needs of young people — and that they support rather than hinder their learning. At Springpoint, we encourage our partners to have a process in place for building these norms with students at the start of every school year. Adults should engage young people in decisions about the school’s mission, vision, and core values. Teachers and leaders must be able to have open conversations with students about school-wide commitments and priorities. These conversations should be ongoing. The discussion is never over.

In all these decisions, it is important for us to be guided by the developmental needs of young people — rather than by our own need, as adults, for control.

Positive youth development is an approach that brings students’ developmental needs to the forefront, urging educators to build learning experiences that channel young people’s development in a positive direction. In the words of Michele Cahill, a national expert in urban education and positive youth development, “Youth development happens whether we want it or not. That is, it is a human process. So all we're all trying to do is influence the direction of it.” Our work in schools has shown that a positive youth development approach leads to deeper and more engaging student learning experiences and, ultimately, student success. Youth development-based approaches like restorative justice can give young people a voice in conflict resolution and boundary-setting. Transparency in grading and assessment can also enable student engagement and advocacy. Positive youth development is a holistic approach to teaching, learning, and school design.

The research on positive youth development theory is broad and deep. It draws from adolescent psychology, brain science research, and learning science. Among the many tenets of positive youth development theory, we believe that these five, drawn from across the field, are especially relevant for the design of learning environments that enable the personal development necessary for academic achievement:

  • Young people need caring, trusting, and supportive relationships with adults and young people.
  • Young people respond to high expectations.
  • Young people need opportunities to contribute (often referred to as “choice and voice”).
  • Young people need learning experiences that intentionally engage their interests, offer them opportunities to succeed, and provide feedback to enable them to reflect on their accomplishments.
  • These tenets are consistently present—young people know to expect them from the environment.

We believe school designers should embed these tenets in every decision they make, including those involving boundaries and rule-setting. Positive youth development, when most effective, is not relegated to after-school enrichment or non-academic contexts. It is not a course or a room or a job title. Rather, it is an approach that runs through every experience a student has in school, from the moment they walk through the door to their last interaction at the end of the day.

Our new paper, How Students Thrive: Positive Youth Development in Practice, is informed by current research on positive youth development and features concrete examples of what it can look like in practice. This report also features the voices of young people, who share how positive youth development practices have impacted them in and outside of school. We hope this report will benefit design teams across the field as they develop innovative new school models.

To read the report and more on positive youth development, visit our website: www.springpointschools.org. This report is part of a series of publications exploring what it takes to design and launch innovative new schools that serve all young people. You can read the first publication in this series, Designing New School Models: A Practical Guide, here.

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