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Notes from the March 22nd Networking meeting, Youth as Staff: Building Core Competencies

Sep 25, 2013  Anne Lawrence

The Robert Bowne Foundation hosted the third session focused on youth staff, Youth as Staff: Building “Core Competencies”, on March 22, 2013. Previous Networking meetings in November 2012 and January 2013 also dealt with the over-arching topic of youth as staff.  This topic was selected by participants who are regularly surveyed about topics of interest. Participants were welcomed by Anne Lawrence, Program Officer of the Robert Bowne Foundation.  She noted that this is the 8th year of Networking meetings offering OST programs an opportunity to come together to discuss, share experiences and expertise and challenges on a variety of topics relevant to the community.

Two particular highlights from the past sessions that lead to this third session are:

  • Youth staff are “works in progress.”  While they are "workers" and we have expectations of what they can and should do, they are also young people who are still growing and developing into their roles.
  • Youth staff need both on-going opportunities for professional development that meets them where they are, builds on their experience and regular opportunities for concrete feedback. 

Annie Martinez, from Youth Development Institute (YDI,  presented building "Core Competencies" in youth staff.  YDI was founded around Beacons movement, but has grown to work in multiple settings, primarily serving programs that work with middle and high school aged youth, and with youth transitioning to adulthood.  YDI provides professional development for staff in these programs, working from their belief that the expertise is in the room. 

Youth Development Institute and working with youth as staff    

Annie opened with an ice breaker that she encouraged all to try with their youth and youth staff as well.  She asked participants at each table to identify five things that they all had in common with each other, with the condition that it could NOT be that they work with youth.  A lively discussion ensued at each table with many creative connections.  Participants reflected that the activity was fun and challenging, and they could easily see how this could work with young people. (See attached 2  handouts on YDI and it’s services.)

What are core competencies for youth professionals?  

Annie then posed the question: Who are youth work professionals? (See Core Competencies Handout 1.) And she offered a definition for participants to consider: 

"Youth work professionals are individuals who work with or on behalf of youth to facilitate their personal, social and educational development to enable them to gain voice, influence and place in society as they make the transition from dependence to independence."

The phrase “to gain voice, influence and place in society" resonated for many participants and some added that they would include “positive voice, positive influence and positive place.”  Others noted that they would include the ideas of professionalism and mentoring in the definition.  For many this would incorporate the notion of building on the skills that youth bring and developing and honing new skills and abilities as well. 

This discussion raised issues about what youth staff are capable of doing or handling on their own and what they need support and guidance to do.  Annie proposed that there is no right answer but that all programs need to consider the continuum of what you are expecting that youth will do and do you think that adults will do or be responsible for? 

Participants were invited to think about the “core competencies” in terms of skills, knowledge and attributes.  Each group worked to create a visual image of what their ideal youth worker would look like.  Various physical features were exaggerated to indicate greater capacity and various accessories were added to represent other characteristics.  (see attached photos)

Participants noted that their “ideal” youth workers shared some common characteristics. 


  • Listening
  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Being prepared - set of skills, organization
  • Lesson development
  • Empathy
  • Reflection - on their own experiences, and on their own race, ethnicity, gender...
  • Positive praise, strengths-based approach
  • Knowing how to give feedback - being specific about what child did
  • Goal setting


  • Field-based knowledge - for example if the youth worker was working in art they would have some
  •             experience in art
  • Knowing the stages of child development
  • Knowing the community you are working with
  • Mission and vision of program
  • Educational pedagogy
  • Knowledge of self
  • Career path - that working with young people can be a career path


  • Open-minded
  • Sense of humor
  • Nurturing
  • Empathetic
  • Patient
  • Adaptable

Annie then referred participants to  handout 2 attached entitled “Core Competencies for Youth Work Professionals” which lists seven areas: program development, communication, implementation, advocacy/networking, assessment, community and family engagement, and intervention.  In studying these common skills, knowledge and attributes participants noted that as supervisors of youth staff we sometimes over look what training or experiences and support our youth workers might need in order to develop the skills and knowledge they need and that we want them to have.  For example, just because a youth staff is experiencing the developmental stages of adolescence that does not mean that they KNOW them.  In addition, it is really necessary for youth staff to know child development so they can have reasonable ideas about what to expect from children and what is good for them.  Supervisors also really need to know those stages of child and adolescent development to support both the youth in the program and the youth staff.  

Participants also pointed out that knowledge of youth rights is important for the youth staff, but also for the whole community.  One participant remarked that youth workers need to be “self-engaged,” to just be a part of the program that they work for and use the program to develop themselves for themselves.  In the process this would also model engagement for those that the youth staff are mentors to. 

Finally, it was noted that attributes cannot be listed so easily as core competencies but they must be kept in mind when hiring youth staff.  In some cases they are characteristics that can be developed or taught. 

Annie then asked participants to use the core competencies the group had articulated in concert with the YDI list to identify which were most relevant and important for each program’s youth staff (see attached handout  3- “Core Competencies - Reflection”).  Participants remarked that this process was difficult because each youth worker is a unique individual, with particular assets and needs, so it was hard for participants to come up with list that applied to all their youth staff.  Several people also commented that it was also hard because it was challenging to assess our work as supervisors or leaders with them.  However, as they reviewed the core competencies many participants reflected on the need to develop:

  • youths' ability to assess their own work and the work of their team,
  • their knowledge of youth development,
  • basic job preparedness (punctuality, effective and limited use of cell phones), and
  • their ability to use language effectively to speak to children and families (for example, one participant noted that youth workers sometimes blurt out what a child did wrong to their family without stating the positive).

Critical Professional Development Opportunities

Participants were then invited to use their personal inventories of relevant and important core competencies to develop professional development opportunities for youth staff.  Annie asked everyone to include thinking about HOW they would provide those opportunities.  Participants articulated the following:


  • Boundaries - This topic is important as youth staff can get too friendly with children and their supervisory role is diminished.  Training and consistent review of expectations are ways to help youth staff create and maintain boundaries.

Remember five fingers from the previous Networking meeting…

 “One important way of preparing youth to become staff is articulating expectations - both yours, as an organization and the youths’ as staff.  One way that Fiver does this is using a visual of the outline of a hand; this is a powerful and easily accessible tool for memory as you always have your hand with you.  When they gather youth for orientation to their work they ask youth staff to think about expectations related to each finger, and label them as the young people articulate them.  For example:

  • Thumb - as in “thumbs up,” give encouragement, be positive, and support each other.
  • Pointer - be accountable, don't blame (as in don’t point a finger), be a model, give direction, guidance, be responsible and ask for responsibility.
  • Middle finger - be respectful, teach respect, appropriate professional behavior, no cursing, be part of a team (as the middle finger in isolation is not so useful).
  • Ring finger - commitment, stick with it even when hard, follow through; be engaged in your work.
  • Pinky - smallest contribution can make a difference, don’t forget the “little guy” - the kids who need help to fit in and be included.
  • Fist or wrist - work as a team, power for the mission of working with kids, non-violence even when it is hard or you are mad, flexibility, support.

This visual and the eliciting of expectations from the youth themselves is a powerful reminder of what is expected of them and what they should expect of themselves in the context of their work.” 

  • Youth development stages - These are essential knowledge for all working with young people. 
  • Planning - This is a professional development activity in itself.  Using it as a topic offers a way to model how to plan while also involving youth staff so that they own the curriculum or activities.
  • Goal setting - This allows us to engage youth staff in both setting their own goals and in setting goals with the children they work with. 


  • Modeling/role playing - Annie suggested in particular the “I do, we do, you do” method of modeling in which first the supervisor does the strategy or action they way they would like it done, showing the youth staff (I do).  Next the supervisor and youth staff try the strategy or action together (We do).  And finally, you give the youth staff a chance to try it on their own (You do).
  • Staff meetings - Using regular staff meeting time for professional development and reflection is a real shift to move away from logistics to creating a learning community.
  • Using similar model for youth staff as is used for teaching artists annual retreat. (Coalition for Hispanic Family Services)
  • Shadowing more experienced workers - This structure allows youth staff to see how someone else  works, and to get a sense of the bigger picture of the organization.  This should include time for feedback/debriefing to talk through what the youth staff observes.
  • Mini- retreats
  • Orientations - This offers a way to give the big picture of the program and to prepare ahead of time for what youth staff may encounter.  It allows them to know the norms in community and even participate in developing them. 
  • Intern luncheons - These can be used for getting to know each other and community building.
  • TIME - Giving time for youth staff to transition from their school day or previous activities to programming, to plan lessons and adjust lessons with other staff, is important to their development.
  • Team lesson study - This was suggested as a model that might support engage in planning and delivery.
  • Celebrating youth work - This is a way of making youth workers visible and tracking the impact of your youth staff on programming.  This can also be a way to collect data and share it with youth staff.

And finally, participants remarked that it is essential to help youth staff feel like they are part of something bigger while also being clear about what their particular job responsibilities are.

1:1 Supervision and Feedback

Annie encouraged all participants to choose the professional development opportunities that will make the most difference for you and your program and move on those ideas.  At the same time, she said that one thing that we all can do at some level is 1:1 supervision and feedback.  She provided a chart entitled “Elements of 1:1 Supervision” (Handout 4 attached) to frame such 1:1 conversations. 

The discussion about these elements focused on several points.  Some participants talked about the challenges of making 1:1 sessions regular.  Twice a month did not seem do-able to some especially when there were other regularly scheduled meetings of staff all together.  However, many noted the value of balancing those group meeting with 1:1 supervision as you can accomplish more personal development and it is valuable with long term staff as well.  Others noted that more important than frequency is the structure of 1:1 sessions.  Actually doing them with regularity shows that you value them.  Someone also noted that the more we get busy the more sacred that time is for 1:1 meetings is and must be preserved.

Other suggestions about conducting 1:1 supervision were:

  • Using Google calendar helps to manage and share with everyone! Then all can see that you are in supervision and cannot be bothered.
  • Doing 1:1 supervision prior to programming so not distracted by kids.
  • Using 1:1 supervision as a time to review observations of youth staff so that you build on concrete action.
  • Allowing staff to develop their own agenda would allow youth staff to have ownership and input.  This would require some scaffolding before asking them to do on their own; you could model and share how you develop items and flow.  This will help youth staff think in advance and ask for what they need.
  • Using Multi-part reflections in your 1:1.  You start with a strength of the youth worker, explain why it is valuable, describe the impact it has on children and on the team.  You can use the same structure for challenges.
  • Using Outcome based planning to identify an outcome you are working toward.  Then articulate the strategy, methodology, indicators and outcome.  This leads to individualized professional development plans for youth staff.

Handout 5 is a self-reflection sheet that  staff can use to work on core competencies and handout 6 is useful in helping them develop a plan to work on core competencies.

Final Reflections and Next Steps

In closing, all participants were asked to share one thing that they were taking away or one thing that they were still thinking about:

  • Youth advocacy - Encouraging youth to advocate for themselves so that when they move on they can speak up and have the tools to advocate for themselves and what they believe in.
  • Modeling - Thinking about how to teach modeling through modeling.
  • Adopting language - Thinking about how to get people on board with the language of empowerment before beginning this work with youth staff.
  • Framework of knowledge, skills, attributes - Using this to create a calendar of trainings.
  • Developing more competency training on organizational policies and procedures.
  • Supervision - Thinking about how we do it with senior staff but not with youth staff and needs to happen, maybe one time a month.
  • 1:1 coaching - Thinking in particular about staff creating their own agenda.
  • Importance of competency reflection - Finding time and making it valued.
  • Knowledge, skills and attributes - Thinking about the need to reinforce these with staff who are working with youth as well as youth staff.
  • Structures to work with - Thinking about 1:1 supervision as a way to help youth identify with someone they can turn to.
  • In 1:1 supervision keeping hold of goals for oneself and for youth staff member so that you grow mutual accountability.
  • Behavior management training - Thinking about how this relates to youth rights and advocacy.
  • Visibility - Thinking about how to make youth workers visible, how is that data being captured and how can we use it to bolster youth staff and have them see themselves and their impact more broadly.
  • How to use what was offered with very structured program – The READ program trains teens to teach literacy, phonics; how to really develop teen tutors beyond initial training. This would allow READ to demonstrate the impact of the work on the teens themselves.
  • Ideas for uniting college and teen interns - Thinking about using college kids to guide teens and create a structure for them to work together.
  • Share resources on use of technology! eg. Google drive, calendar.    

Next Meetings

The next Robert Bowne Foundation Networking meeting will be May 16, 2013.  Look for an email from Anne Lawrence announcing it.


Annie Martinez, Youth Development Institute: Amartinez@ydinstitute.org
YDI is available for trainings and consultations at your program.

Two books that were recommended:

Teens Who Hurt - Kenneth Hardy and Tracey Laszlofty

Growth Mindset - Carol Dweck