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Aurora Institute

Making Room for Hardship in Positive Youth Development

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

ExclamationI had the chance to re-read the design principles from Carnegie Corporation’s Opportunity by Design and its partner Springpoint Schools the other day. And once again I find myself a bit in awe of the depth of the principles and the implications for how we think about what secondary schools might look like. The first principle is integrates positive youth development to optimize student engagement & effort. We don’t talk about positive youth development much in education – instead we talk about engagement, motivation, and effort. ObD describes this principle as:

  • Caring, consistent student-adult relationships that communicate high expectations for student learning and behavior
  • Clear expectations for student competencies and standards of performance
  • Opportunities for students to contribute to the school environment and have a voice in decisions
  • Encouragement of student responsibility for meeting learning and personal goals
  • Openness to and encouragement of family participation Integration of community participation, assets, and culture

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But something was gnawing at me as I thought about positive youth development. And then I realized what it was – sometimes discussions about positive youth development are just too positive.

By being so positive, they don’t create the room to talk about the real-life day-to-day hardships, challenges, trauma, and tragedies that shape the lives and development of adolescents. As Christina Rodriguez notes in Responding to the Student’s Dream: Lessons Learned from Positive Youth Developers in New Mexico, “A lot of our schools don’t seem to recognize the variety of students and what students need. There’s not a one-size-fits-all option.” The lives of our students vary – some may face discrimination because of the color of their skin, their accent, or a disability. Some may experience violence or abuse in their homes or in their neighborhoods. Many will hold fear close to their heart as they listen to parents worry about where the next meal with come from, how to pay for school supplies, or where they might find housing next month.

Meeting Students Where They Are

If we don’t remember that our students’ experiences may have impacted their development, their mindset about learning, or how they handle stress or fear, then we aren’t fully prepared to meet students where they are. All we have to do is put a placeholder in our guiding design principles that says Seeks to understand the impact of hardship on student’s lives and develop ways to support students in learning to manage, navigate, and resolve issues as they develop.

For most schools, this will be to ensure that there is capacity to provide trauma-informed care. This methodology helps us develop effective ways to respond to students who need help letting go of some of their defense mechanisms and build helpful skills to negotiate challenging situations. It also pays attention to adults’ well-being to ensure that they have the opportunity to express the emotional toll of facing the hardships of children’s lives head-on.

Certainly, students with a great deal of hardship also miss a lot of school. They may have health conditions, they may have been changing schools as parents seek better jobs or better living situations, they may be taking care of others or trying to juggle an ever-changing work schedule. This means that students are likely to be at a lower performance level than grade level or have big gaps in skills. I’ve written about this before – the number one thing we have to do is figure out the very best ways of responding to students with gaps in their skills. (See Meeting Students Where They Are: Accountability Paradox.)

Multiple Pathways to Graduation

However, districts will also need to think about the variety of schools and school options that are available to students. Some students are just not going to do well in the traditional structures of high school, even if it is more responsive. One big high school is unlikely to be able to meet the needs of all students. Districts need at least one option for students who need greater support and greater flexibility. They may require flex hours or evening hours because they have to work, care for family members, or take medications that leave them groggy in the early part of the day. Some may not see much meaning in education so will need strong thematic approaches that link them to opportunities to build meaningful workplace skills or seek to improve their communities. Many will need intense wrap-around services and intensive coaching in social-emotional learning.

As the article notes, the network of schools in the New Mexico Center for School Leadership seek to create more flexible pathways for students. I’ve visited ACE Leadership and was stunned by the fact that they were designing schools to meet student needs regardless of what their educational experiences might have been. I met students who were coming straight from eighth grade, while others were having to do ninth grade over because they didn’t generate enough credits. Some students had been expelled from high school and others were returning after dropping out of school. ACE Leadership is designed to be able to meet the needs of all the students because of flexible scheduling, daily social-emotional support, and strong partnerships with employers and the community.

We know that competency education is going to be helpful to any student who is “behind” in learning or credit, as it allows the teachers and students to focus on the specific skills they need. It is also organized in ways that provide students with the experience of being successful in learning; receive coaching in the habits of work and meta-cognitive skills; have additional instructional support if needed; and advance upon mastery, not seat-time. However, district leadership need to think about what the multiple options to graduation must be in order to ensure that 100 percent of the students in their communities build the skills needed for a diploma, including the ones that are over-age & undercredit and those that have left school but want to re-engage. This is what positive youth development is all about.

It’s also what continuous improvement is all about.

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