Youth Participation

Aleksandra Chodasz, Piotr Cykowski

"Participation is about the division of power and adults should share it with young people."1

We often hear about young people, who don't participate, don't go to the elections, it is hard to get them interested in anything. Participation of young people is something more than being active. It is giving young people some of the power of adults. It is therefore the delegation of some responsibilities for shaping of reality. Particularly in areas that by definition are to benefit young people: in school, youth organization or project.

Giving ground to the young is not easy. It often requires giving up of traditional, widely-held mode of operation. Recognizing that initiatives can be safe and successful also without evident adult leadership and that it is worthwhile to give young people space for taking action. How can we give that ground? For example by giving each student the possibility to run for a position in a school self-government or providing with support during the formation of Youth City Councils.

Participation of young people demands time and financial expenditure of adults but, above all, carries with it psychological challenges such as necessity to deal with anxiety and other emotions, to distance from oneself, to improve equal-terms communication and cooperation. It is tempting to adopt passive attitude towards the idea of involving young people in decision making processes. But isn't the complete rejection of participation of young people an action that is disadvantageous to the whole society? How young people will act when they become adults without previous experiences in decision making, cooperation, leadership, forming partnerships? Will they become active citizens? If yes, will they be successful?

This article presents conclusions drawn from the experiences of Foundation in the area of creative civic education of young people and from feedback of the participants of workshops for adults working with young people on interpersonal competences conducted by Foundation in July 2013. Also, we based our work on the widespread models of participation created by Harry Shier, Roger Hart and on materials created by practitioners of the "Youth in Action" programme. During the process of acquiring knowledge and experience in this area we realized that it is a subject of great importance, one that can present a serious challenge for people working with young people. Therefore the article is an attempt to answer the question whether it is worthwhile to take up this challenge.

How much power to the youth

"One cannot talk about young people without speaking of the future and one cannot talk about the future without speaking of young people2"

Participation of young people is not simply tearing them away from computers nor encouraging them to any kind of activity. This is quite serious challenge connected with the democratization of public life. There are many developments that bring us closer to this problem, among others the ongoing debate on lowering the voting age, growing in numbers school democratizing projects or numerous opportunities offered to young people by various funds intended to support grass-roots initiatives.

According to UNICEF3 participation relies on the joint decision making process that concerns individuals and communities in which individuals live. According to this premise it is both one of the fundamental civil right and one of the marker of democracy.

The matter of expressing one's views by minors regulates Convention on the Rights of the Child which is used as a strong argument by experts on the participation of children and young people. It is worthwhile to note that this point of view on participation is related to the right of young people to be heard but also shapes the attitudes and competencies they would take to the future and which are extremely important in a democratic society. There belong the respect for personal dignity (irrespective of age or any other consideration) and the ability to assert one's rights.

The practice indicates that young people coming from school environment where emphasis was put on subjective functioning of students willingly become involved in activities benefiting others.

According to Karolina Goclon, one of the participants of workshops conducted by "Quality Life" Foundation young people involve in actions when they "feel adults' support - adults indicate that they see them as reputable and capable people, that they see their potential and are not afraid to trust them.

According to UNICEF activities taken to increase the participation of children and young people also have greater significance - they positively influence the growth and changes concerning whole societies. This seems extremely important in the context of juxtaposition of demographic ageing with dynamic changes sweeping through our society, for example in the field of technology. More and more often, and increasingly, the exchange of knowledge and experience is in the opposite direction than commonly assumed. It is young people who can teach elders about new technologies. So it is worthwhile to make use of this potential by creating appropriate channels of expression for young people and taking into account their ideas and opinions.

"Young people are active, because they want to change something in their community, want to act on behalf of others, make good use of their free time to gain experience in all kinds of activities, to share their skills, knowledge" - says Ewa Pisarz, pedagogy student at the Rzeszów University, who participated in the interpersonal skills' workshop conducted by the Foundation for adults working with young people.

Harry Shier, the practitioner with many years' experience at working in formal education in the UK, as well as in many other poorer countries also writes about benefits of involving young people:

I am 99% certain that giving students the opportunity to comment on the decision making process at the school will improve - whether directly or indirectly - both the atmosphere and the conditions for learning, which in turn will bring better grades.4

Participation in practice

One cannot force active participation in public life on anybody. For example, going to the elections - and thus making decisions about one's own environment - is not mandatory in most countries. Taking responsibility for the world around us is a learning process, so it's also a challenge for those who work with young people. Therefore it leads to a quite obvious conclusion that it is the school that should be the first place where these mechanisms are implemented, and which has considerable responsibility in this respect.

According to the report "Student self-governance in the education system"5, school councils in our country are "one of the worst functioning and most forgotten of democratic institutions." The report quotes data showing that the participation of young people in school councils has positive impact on their activity in other fields, it also indicates that the activity and functioning of the councils leaves much to be desired.

Fortunately, we have many sensible teachers who, even under the existing schemes and structures are able to get out of their role and risk delegating some of their prerogatives to young people and also to take advantage of initiatives supporting school self-management. Programs such as "Student Council" and "Parliament of Children and Youth" offered by the Centre for Civic Education6 or "Youth Dictrict Councils as a mechanism for public consultation" for local communities 7 implemented by Civis Polonus Foundation.

The above-mentioned projects, and also many other activities supported by "Youth in Action" programme funded by the European Commission, become part of the trend of non-formal education, i.e. education that goes beyond walls of the schools, and draws from experiences for example of NGOs and - if it is run well - supports voice of young people in their communities. The projects "Log on to action" and "Log on to euro-action" were implemented by "Quality Life" also in this manner. Young participants, with the support of the Foundation's staff and collaborating experts, defined local problems and took the initiatives aimed at positive change acting creatively in the city space and organizing the session of the Youth European Parliament8.

The current programme "Citizen PRO" implemented by the "Quality Life" Foundation in partnership with the Association of Drama Practitioners STOP-KLATKA in Sub-Carpathian and Mazovia regions also focuses on getting young people involved in the process of creating and implementing events for the school and local community9.

When young people want to act

Whether young people want to participate in activities initiated by adults, or whether they will plan and implement their own activities, depends on many factors. Now we want to mention a few factors that were particularly emphasised during the work with young people participating in the projects in the city of Jarosław.

Young people want to take action when adults are patient, positive, encouraging. Unfortunately, first positive reaction, even the promise of participation on the part of a young man or woman may mean nothing. Young people often have had many negative experiences, for example, having to participate in activities that were demanding and not really rewarding. They also have heard many messages from their schools and parents that learning and household chores are the most important. More important than interests and personal development. Very often young people have to convince not only themselves but also their parents and teachers that it worthwhile to do something not in the syllabus. We discovered that our role is to support young people by providing the information and arguments.

And keeping judgemental comments to ourselves when they do not react so enthusiastically to activities we propose.

This is what one of the participants wrote about the beginnings of the project:

So this is how it is with my class, at the beginning all were in favour, but only me showed up. This is the first meeting... I'll sit for a while and see what happens next, I can always resign later. But after the first meeting I could not wait for the next one. I wanted to meed other people because I'm in the second grade and still know people from my class only.

Young people want to act because they are curious, want to grow and experience something new. Participants of "Log on to action"observed:

In my case it was curiosity: how it would look like and how can you change anything here. There is nothing to do here. And now you could take a walk around Jarosław, do something.

It was also the need to change something in my lifestyle, to be able to spend time differently.

Many young people who joined our project wanted to learn something useful and related to cultivating their interests and passions. One of the participants said:

It was the cultivation of my passions [that drew me to the project]. If somebody like to paint, he or she went to the graffiti group. Interest, doing something we can't do in the school.

I was definitely drawn by the improvisation and graffiti workshops that were scheduled at the beginning of the project. Young people also liked the fact that the project enabled them to choose other forms in which they could realize their own initiatives for the community - in this way young people drew us in the direction of mapping, film making and happenings. Equally important for them were the workshops actively developing communication and cooperation competences. One of the participants said: "I like it that we are shown the mechanism of reaching to other people."

Young people do not want to live a second-rate life. They want to grow - for the pleasure of it, but also with the outlook for the future.

Models of the youth participation

Many projects are created without examining the needs of young people, with no margin for their comments on the proposed actions. Often, they told us recalling their experiences, the most important are the results written in the contract by and between an organization and a sponsor, school principal or another institution.

Such situations are the first three rungs of the "ladder of participation" from the model of participation developed by Roger Hart. These are the activities seemingly involving young people in something but they have nothing in common with true participation, they are rather the examples of manipulation and abuse. Subsequent levels describe the actual participation - starting from assigning tasks and giving information, through consultations and drawing young people into decision-making process, through passing initiative and leadership to young people - to making joint decisions - young people together with adults - which is to guarantee the use of the potentials and resources of both groups.

Pic. Ladder of participation - a participation model by Roger A. Hart

Harry Shier came up with an interesting model that also serves as a practical tool to verify the feasibility of youth participation.10 It points to the fact that participation can take place on different levels. Levels of youth participation depend on the following conditions that are fulfilled by adults:

Pic. The path of youth participation based on Harry Shier's work.

The first levels at which young people's views are taken into account, carry out the provisions of Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the top ones young people together with adults runs the organization. This is a good practice for young people although they lack the knowledge and experience of adults. Shier even spoke about participation of children, believing that it takes time to learn it so it must be practised from an early age to prepare a person to make responsible decisions later in life.

Shier points out that the involvement of adults in the process of "giving power" to young people (apart from personal preparedness and communication competences of people who decide to do so), also requires the implementation of measures that will open space for young people. It can be for example enabling young people to create their own projects and apply for funding through NGOs or schools, school principals meeting with students' representatives who want to make changes in the school or appointing Youth City and District Councils and supporting their activities. What often requires changes in current statutes and other regulations and adoption of new procedures and standards in the organization or institution. Attaining higher and higher levels of youth involvement we take up new responsibilities. Therefore, we drew up some questions based on Shier's theory that can help adults working with young people.

Where we are and where we want to be in the process of engaging young people

Questions determining the readiness of adults

  • Are you ready to take actions enabling the implementation of a given level of youth involvement?
  • Are you willing to listen to young people, support them in expressing their views and take them into account?
  • Where is your inner limit of involving young people? Are you ready to involve young people in decision making and management of the organization?

Questions determining the potential in the organization

  • Does your organization/institution gives young people the opportunity to participate?
  • Do you undertake appropriate actions and adopt methods facilitating youth participation?
  • Did you make changes to the existing procedures and do you create new ones that will facilitate youth participation?

Questions determining the commitments of the organization

  • Does your organization/institution has developed standards providing young people with the opportunity to participate?
  • To what degree young people can expect to be not only heard but also included in decision-making and management of the organization? What specific solutions adopted in your organization guarantees that young people will actually be included?

We believe it is worth the while

Young people, though inexperienced, contribute to community important values and attitudes such as courage, ease of experimentation, dynamism and willingness to sacrifice for important causes. Values​​, which in many cases older people are already missing. Hearing young people out, understanding their needs, enabling them to tell about their problems and aspirations, if properly prepared and treated, allows broader look at the surrounding reality. This may seem labour-intensive and time-consuming, but actions taken in this way will be more fully attuned to the rapidly changing reality.

Participation certainly does not mean giving ground on the assumption that young people will see how difficult it is and realize that without our help (knowledge, life experience) they will not succeed. It is a process requiring appropriate organization, support, listening and hearing out the needs, aspirations, dreams and anxieties of young people. Above all, it requires a belief that this approach is justified.

1 Working with young people effectively. A companion to youth participation, Pracownia Badań Innowacji Społecznych Stocznia.

2 "Youth 2011" Report, The Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland, Warsaw 2011

3 Hart R. A., Children's Participation. From Tokenism to Citizenship, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF 1992

4 Shier H., Pathways to Participation Revisited, Centre for Education in Health and Environment Matagalpa, Nicaragua 2006

5 Witkowski J., Centre of Citizenship Education and Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2013

6 More about the programme at the website of the Centre of Citizenship Education Foundation:

7 More about the project at

8 More about the project at

9 More about the project at

10 Educational Package of Non-formal Academy of Project Quality (part 1. Youth participation), Foundation for the Development of the Education System