Does Staff Training Improve Youth Work?

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Jutta Dotterweich

Youth worker training is getting more and more attention, but the largely unanswered question for funders is whether it makes a difference. A recent evaluation of the widely acclaimed Advancing Youth Development (AYD) curriculum provides answers that are both encouraging and disheartening.

The 2006 evaluation of New York State’s AYD training, covering a five-year period, confirms that youth workers are absorbing the learning objectives of the curriculum.

Apparently, however, something gets lost where the proverbial rubber meets the road. While workers say they leave the trainings feeling charged up, valued and armed with a new understanding of youth development concepts, the day-to-day realities of youth programming often prevent them from implementing what they’ve learned.

The goals of the AYD curriculum, created in 1990 by the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development (AED), are to teach youth workers about youth developmental outcomes; adultism (discrimination against young people); youth participation; services, supports and opportunities; organizational barriers; and the core competencies needed by youth workers.

New York State purchased the curriculum in 1996, and now funds the AYD Partnership to disseminate the training to every county in the state. The partnership is made up of Cornell University Cooperative Extension, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, the Association of New York State Youth Bureaus and the ACT for Youth: Upstate Center of Excellence.

The partnership uses the curriculum to “institutionalize” the basic principles of positive youth development, “increase the knowledge and skills of youth workers, and establish the field of youth work as a valued profession,” according to a recent evaluation of AYD training conducted in New York from 1999 to 2005.

Benefits and Barriers

Since 1999, independent evaluator and study author Kathryn Bowen, of Sayre, Pa., has been observing New York State’s AYD training, administering post-training questionnaires, and conducting focus groups, concept mappings and online surveys about the training’s impact. More than 2,200 community youth workers have completed one of three AYD training options.

Bowen’s evaluation looked at whether the curriculum had any impact on the “knowledge, attitudes and … skill among trained youth workers immediately following training,” and whether that impact had any effect on local programming, policy or structure at several points after training.

She found that immediately after completing training, the vast majority of AYD trainees consistently felt they had met the curriculum’s learning objectives:

• 98 percent said they had become familiar with a youth development (YD) approach.

• 95 percent said they understood the concept of adultism, and 69 percent said they had learned to identify barriers to YD-oriented programming implementation.

• 77 percent said they had learned to communicate with various constituencies about the YD approach.

• 93 percent said they had established peer networks, and 71 percent said they had experienced a sense of unity with other youth workers.

But when it came to implementing AYD learning objectives, youth workers often encountered some of the barriers they had been trained to identify.

While more than eight in 10 workers said that they tried to “assure youth participation and youth voice” – two critical components of AYD’s youth development approach – upon returning to their jobs after the training, only 66 percent said they were able to integrate such youth development components on a daily basis.

Less than half of those surveyed said they had implemented strategies to offset adultism or institutionalize a youth development approach in their program, or had used the peer networks that had been established during AYD training.

In focus groups, youth workers identified key barriers to implementing what they learned in training, including administrators who either didn’t “buy into” or had no knowledge of youth development concepts; programs that only paid “lip-service” to youth, installing them as token members of boards and planning teams; and a lack of practical advice during AYD training.

Youth workers also talked frequently in focus groups about financial and time constraints, high turnover rates, the lack of respect for the role of youth workers, and a sense of antagonism – and even direct conflict – when they tried to simultaneously carry out the agendas of supervisors and board members while “trying to keep youth at the center of what they do,” the report says.

“I don’t think we’re as concrete as front-line youth workers would like. This [AYD training] is more of a framework” for YD work, said Kay Telfer, co-director of AYD in New York State and a senior extension educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County.

“What does come across is that front-line youth workers come out [of the training] feeling validated as someone whose job is difficult and critically important. And they feel connected as part of a profession,” Tefler said.

Based in part on the reported internalization of such concepts by youth workers, Bowen concluded that, at the very least, the environments in which AYD-trained youth workers operated had an increased awareness about the importance of positive youth development; celebrated youth more often and looked upon them as resources rather than problems; and were more welcoming, inclusive and open to the potentials of youth.

Delivery Underscores Connectedness

Although AYD is still taught by AED’s Building Exemplary Systems for Training Youth Workers initiative (called BEST) and its network of sites in 22 states, New York’s system of curriculum dissemination is unique.

“It is a ‘train the trainer’ system,” Tefler said. “It’s the only one. We have hundreds of people from all types of agencies across the state who train as facilitators. They go back and deliver the curriculum to mixed groups from a variety of youth-serving agencies in their local communities.”

That cross-agency experience is important, she said, because it helps to create the sense that serving youth, in whatever capacity, is “all about the same thing.”

“By being together and sharing all of the discussions around the concepts, they realize we all want the same things for young people; that we’re just forced by our funding systems to focus on some things – juvenile justice or child welfare – more than others.”

The system also helps overcome two significant barriers: financial/time constraints and high turnover rates.

According to Jutta Dotterweich, project director for the New York State AYD Partnership, many youth workers in the state have undergone the same training, “so those concepts are sinking in and being integrated statewide.”

“We’ve … gotten the message out wider because of this. It’s a more cost-effective way to go. A designated team [of trainers] would have limited the dissemination.”

Based on the feedback Bowen has collected over the years and on more than two years of research and piloting, the AYD Partnership recently launched an updated version of the AYD curriculum.

The new version is more compact – 18 hours of training instead of 28 – and includes references to up-to-date adolescent research. It also now defines outcome measures based on the “Five C’s” of youth development: competence, confidence, connections, character and caring.

Dotterweich said other states have become interested in New York’s AYD delivery model, because it’s less labor-intensive and costly.

“Somebody from Kansas came to training in March,” Dotterweich said. “We’re not funded to go to other states, and our curriculum is not available for purchase right now, but that’s something we’re discussing.”

Contact: Jutta Dotterweich, project director, New York State AYD Partnership, 607-255-4108. The evaluation is available at