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Youth participation and engagement explained

Youth participation actively involves young people in decision-making processes on issues that affect them. Young people make invaluable contributions to communities and are empowered themselves when they participate. This article is aimed at those people whose job it is to work with young people.
Youth participation definitions

Essentially, youth participation is related to ideas of citizenship, personal development and active involvement in society.

The principles underpinning youth participation are:

  • Empowerment
    young people having greater control over their lives through participation.
  • Purposeful engagement
    young people taking on valued roles, addressing issues that are relevant to them, and influencing real outcomes.
  • Inclusiveness
    ensuring that all young people are able to participate.

Some examples of youth participation in practice are

  • young people being consulted about their ideas and opinions.
  • young people researching issues that affect their lives.
  • young people planning or leading community activities or events.
  • young people taking part in youth committees or action groups.
  • young people taking part in adult-defined decision-making bodies.

It’s important to remember that youth participation is an approach – not a ‘thing’ that you can be ticked off or done as a one-off project (Holdsworth 2001). A youth participation approach supports young people to act, to make their own decisions, and advocate for themselves –  rather than seeing them as passive ‘clients’.

Youth participation models

There are several different theoretical models of youth participation. The most well-known is probably Roger Hart’s 1992 Ladder of Youth Participation, which placed the idea of youth participation firmly in place in youth practice and policy.

For an overview of youth participation models, read pages 4-5 of Mary Kellet’s paper Engaging with Children and Young People.

Why youth participation?

2012 paper by Rhys Farthing identified four main justifications for youth participation:

  • Human rights:  Articles 12, 13 and 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child state that children and young people have the right to express their own views freely; the right to freedom of expression (including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds); and the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  • Radical empowerment: for those who see young people as an oppressed or marginalised group in society, youth participation is an opportunity to give them greater control and more power in their lives.
  • Service efficiency: youth participation is seen as a way to make services provided for young people more relevant and more cost-effective.  
  • Positive youth development: where young people’s participation in adult structures prepares them to become model citizens and assists their personal and social development. (It’s worth reflecting upon the term ‘positive’ youth development as being open to different types of interpretation!).
Critiques of youth participation

Even though youth participation is now almost universally acknowledged as being a ‘good thing’, it’s wrong to assume that it can’t have any bad sides.

In fact, there are a number of critiques of youth participation, with concerns that

  • it’s actually a way for adults to control young people, by setting the boundaries for how they participate in society.
  • the term has lost its meaning because it’s become so over-used.
  • contemporary youth participation focuses too much upon young people’s participation in the economy, which is a very limiting definition of citizenship.

So before you start incorporating youth participation your work, it’s worth thinking about exactly what you want to achieve and why you’re doing it. As Farthing points out, “the merit of participation depends upon the type of society we want for young people in the first place” (Farthing 2012).

Youth engagement

‘Youth engagement’ is a term related to youth participation that has emerged from North America. It’s now becoming more widely used in the Australian context.

US academics Nenga and Taft made an attempt to conceptualize youth engagement as “activities in which children and youth enact a public-spirited commitment in pursuit of the common good” – a kind of balance between volunteerism and activism (Nenga and Taft 2013).

But they also pointed out that “youth engagement is a multifaceted concept with contested social and political goals” (Nenga and Taft 2013). In other words, there are often different political or social agendas behind the term.

In youth policy and practice, there are generally three types of ‘youth engagement’

  • engagement in (usually in education or training)
  • engagement at (taking part in an activity)
  • engagement with (being connected in some form of partnership or group work with others).

As with youth participation, it’s important to reflect on the term ‘youth engagement’ – if it’s to be part of our work, it’s necessary to understand and express exactly what it is we mean by it.

Youth participation and engagement toolkits

In practice, youth participation and engagement aren’t ‘one-size-fits-all’. Different situations and different groups will benefit from slightly different approaches and tools. Fortunately, AYAC have created a fantastic Youth Participation Guide Index that can support you with resources tailored to your own needs. 


ACT for Youth Center of Excellence (USA), Youth Engagement.

Cooper, T. (2013), Walking the Boundaries, Presentation to the AYAC National Youth Affairs Conference, 2013.

Farthing, R. (2012), ‘Why Youth Participation? Some Justifications and Critiques of Youth Participation Using New Labour’s Youth Policies as a Case Study’, Youth & Policy, no. 9, September 2012, pp. 71-97,

Fieldgrass, L. (2013), Youth Engagement: what is it and where can we take it? Presentation to the ACT Youth Affairs Conference, Canberra, 27 November 2013.

Hart, R. (1992), Children’s participation: From tokenism to citizenship, Florence: UNICEF.

Holdsworth, R. (2001) ‘Youth Participation’, Conference Paper presented at the Charting the course ACT and SE NSW Regional Youth Services Conference Batemans Bay, October 2001.

Kellett, M. (2011). Engaging with Children and Young People. Centre for Children and Young People Background Briefing Series no.3., Lismore: Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University.

Nenga, S. K. and Taft, J. K. (2013), ‘Introduction: Conceptualizing Youth Engagement’, in S. K. Nenga and J. K. Taft (eds.) Youth Engagement: The Civic-Political Lives of Children and Youth (Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, Volume 16), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.xvii-xxiii.

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