Wake Forest University study shows how youth programs foster responsibility in teens
February 6, 2009
Youth programs that include boring or difficult tasks are more likely to develop responsibility in teenagers than those that are all fun and games, according to a study of youth programs and responsibility by a Wake Forest University psychologist. The study appears in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.
Programs for adolescents need to be engaging, but situations that ask young people to make sacrifices and do difficult things for the good of the group are most likely to foster responsibility, said Dustin Wood, assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest and lead author of the study.
“Some programs for young people probably focus so much on entertaining members that they shy away from the activities that are most likely to help members become more responsible,” Wood said. “Our research is a reminder that getting youth to do hard work for a purpose is a key to moving them toward becoming responsible adults.”
Reed Larson and Jane Brown at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, co-authored the study.
Wood and his colleagues surveyed 107 high school students in 11 extracurricular programs. The programs included 4-H and FFA chapters, a high school production of “Les Miserables,” a community-based youth activist group, a school-based media arts training program and a variety of other school and community groups.
Wood wanted to find out what characterizes programs that foster responsibility and determine the role that demands and expectations play in the process.
The teens were interviewed about their experiences in the program and asked how they had changed from participating in the program. The researchers also gathered information from interviews with adult leaders of the programs as well as from site observations.
About a quarter of the students reported becoming more responsible. These youth consistently mentioned performing tasks within their programs as a key to developing responsibility, Wood said.
For one student, that meant caring for a pig for an agricultural project. For another, it meant giving up time with friends to spend long hours in rehearsals. For others, it meant fulfilling the expectations of leadership positions in their group.
Volunteering for specific tasks was also an important element in the development of responsibility. When teens willingly took on tasks, they were more likely to persevere and to later indicate that they had become more responsible.
Program leaders also influenced the development of responsibility, Wood said. Youth reported becoming more responsible when leaders had high expectations for them. “Leaders who encouraged youth to take ownership over demanding tasks and roles provided conditions for youth to demonstrate that they could be depended on in meaningful situations,” he said.
In the study, Wood identified three programs with substantially higher numbers of youth reporting increases in responsibility.
“These programs had leaders who stressed youth accountability,” Wood said. “They refused to let youth off the hook if they failed to accomplish tasks they had agreed to complete. In contrast, in programs where youth did not gain responsibility, leaders sometimes finished uncompleted tasks themselves.”
Some of the findings would probably surprise a number of psychologists or youth program leaders, Wood said. “They would be surprised by the implication that a more ‘hard-nosed’ leadership style might be better suited to promoting certain developmental outcomes.”