As the Extinction Rebellion movement and school climate strikes have shown, young people are leading the way in raising climate change up the political agenda and public conscience. These successful youth-led campaigns counter a common perception of young people as apathetic, and a persistent attitude that implies adults always know better than children.
At Traverse we often work with clients who are encouraging young people to engage in social action, as well as supporting the social and emotional development of young people. This work is important because raising the next generation to be engaged and active in their communities, whether local, national, or global, may be our best hope for a sustainable and more equitable future.
Social action can be defined in several ways, but we often use the #iwill definition which includes campaigning, fundraising, and volunteering. Through our recent evaluations, we’ve identified several enabling factors to both improve social and emotional development and support youth engagement in social action.
1. Hand over the reins to young people – Co-production and youth-led activity was a key success factor in The Reading Agency’s Reading Hack programme, which encourages reading among young people through reading-inspired activity, volunteering and peer-to-peer reading advocacy. Young people led the design of the overall programme and resources, and library staff were encouraged to hand over leadership of activities to young people, letting them come up with their own ideas, and encouraging them to solve problems associated with putting their ideas into practice. Our evaluation of the vInspired schools programme that aimed to engage young people in volunteering also found that a success factor was giving young people control and choice over the activities to ensure they were attractive, accessible and relevant to students.
2. Harness the power of peer support – Young people can provide powerful support to their peers when they are given the opportunity to do so. Our evaluations of the GLA’s Stepping Stones pilot (where Year 10 pupils mentored incoming Year 7 pupils to help ease the transition from primary to secondary school) and Body and Soul’s Beyond Boundaries programme (peer mentoring for teens living with or affected by HIV) both illustrated the effectiveness of peer support. This approach requires adults to step back - providing initial training and ongoing background support as needed, but otherwise allowing peer mentors to take responsibility in their roles. Our evaluations found that peer mentoring has benefits for both mentees and mentors in terms of their social and emotional development as well as inspiring them to engage in further social action in the future.
3. Embed social action into young people’s lives – In order to make social action a normal part of life for young people, integration into key settings is vital. Our evaluations of Defra’s environmental youth social action programme, and The Reading Agency’s Reading Hack programme highlighted the importance of integrating social action into lesson plans at schools, and regular activities in libraries. Similarly, the Stepping Stones pilot showed that social action in the form of voluntary peer support roles can have a wider positive impact on school culture when integrated into daily life at school.
4. Committed and inspirational leadership from adults – When youth social action takes place in formal settings such as schools and libraries, committed and inspirational adult leadership is a key enabler. Embedding a culture of youth-led social action can be a challenging prospect for some staff who may be more comfortable with a directive approach to working with young people, but those who embrace a collaborative way of working are often surprised by the maturity young people show when they are given responsibility for something important.
5. Early help to boost social and emotional development – Research shows that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to develop good social and emotional skills than others, and this ‘skills gap’ opens up in childhood and remains throughout adult life. This means early help for children is vital, as our evaluation of Essex County Council’s Family Innovation Fund showed. Social and emotional skills include self-awareness, motivation, self-control, social skills (including empathy and cooperativeness), and resilience. We know from our evaluations of Reading Hack and vInspired’s 24/24 social action programme that social action can have a positive impact on young people’s social and emotional development. It is feasible that the opposite is also true and there is scope for significantly more research in this area.
Youth social action has many benefits – here are just a few we know of:
- Enhanced wellbeing, skills and social and emotional development among the young people involved
- Inspiring their peers to take part in social action
- Benefits to the communities and environments directly affected by the social action
- Changing public attitudes towards young people and the issues in question
- Enhancing political engagement among young people
- Supporting adults to think more creatively about how they can work with young people
We are watching the development of the youth climate change campaigns with admiration - young people are really showing us how it’s done. We hope these tips help others to encourage more young people to be active citizens, shaping their communities for a more positive future. And we look forward to continuing to play our part - supporting effective youth social action through the work with our inspiring clients.