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After almost 15 years of consulting nonprofits, K-12 schools, and government agencies across the United States and Canada, last year I took a position coordinating a dropout prevention program in the Pacific Northwest. Hungry to examine a different support system for youth I wasn't familiar with, I chose this program because it supports young people ages 14 to 24 who are re-engaging in school, training, and the workforce.

Since then, I've had the privilege of partnering with dozens of agencies serving thousands of youth. Meeting young people of all ages, working with seasoned and new youth workers and agency leaders, and learning new insights into youth disengagement and dropout have highlighted my experience so far.

For all my years of consulting, I've focused on youth engagement in communities and student voice in schools. I learned a lot through my research and practice, and from colleagues across the nation and around the world. However, I've had many new lessons in my current position, too.

So many people are working so diligently to engage youth in society, or re-engage them in culture-building activities, completing school, getting training, finding employment, recreation, or civic engagement activities. So why are youth still making the conscious choice to leave these programs? Here are six reasons youth disengage.

Six Reasons Youth Disengage

  • Youth Are Taught To See Themselves As Failures. Between parents who are too busy or too depressed to care, teachers who are too overwhelmed to focus on them, and lawmakers too beholden to give them the supports they need to succeed, many youth are actually taught to see themselves as failures. That comes from the culture surrounding them, including tv and music; schools they attended, including teachers and curriculum; and the social safety net that allows them fall to low, low heights.
  • Many Adults Have Given Up On Many Youth. Driven by standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies, many youth workers, teachers, government officials, and others have given up on many of the youth they're supposed to serve. Instead of believing "youth are the future", they believe youth are merely numbers to achieve program goals, or ineffective contributors to the economy, civic society, and world around them.
  • Traditional Youth Activities Serve Traditionally Engaged Youth, And Fail Everyone Else. Youth leadership, community service, and even traditional youth empowerment programs actually fail to serve a lot of young people today! Too reliant on youth complacency and obedience, these programs are failing to foster modern thinking, implement accurate strategies, and create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth. This is happening in epidemic proportions in many, many communities, especially affecting low-income youth and youth of color.
  • Most Adults Expect Youth To Change To Meet Today's Needs. Rather than acknowledging that the economy is changing, the job market is realigning, and needs and wants are different now than ever before, most adults expect young people to change to meet today's needs in the economy. This is carryover thinking from an old education model, which sought to mold students into the types of learners teachers were capable of teaching. This is a disingenuous perspective, because the future economy depends on nimble thinking, transformative action, and creative realities.
  • Youth Engagement Isn't Really The Goal. When most adults talk about youth engagement, they're actually talking about youth obedience. They want young people to comply with the expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults, and not their own. They couch their expectations by talking about activities being youth-led or youth-driven, but in reality, they only make programs for youth who comply with adult expectations or desires. In this way, they seek conformity, not engagement.
  • They Are Already Engaged. Whether or not adults want to see it, youth are already engaged right now. They are 100% human, choosing where, how, when, and why they want to engage. Albeit, they might be engaged in things adults don't approve of, including sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, or any of a plethora of other activities (smoking, video games, graffiti, basketball, driving, etc). This shows that youth engagement isn't limited to things adults approve of them doing; youth engagement isn't just compliance. Instead, its any sustained connection a young person has to the world around them. Adults need to learn that simply because youth aren't engaged how adults want to be doesn't automatically invalidate the things youth are engaged in. Instead, it challenges us to meet them where they're at, instead of insisting they come to where we want them to be.

These six reasons have sunk into my skin slowly, because I've done these things too, whether inadvertently or on purpose. However, I believe its our responsibility as ethical practitioners—youth workers, teachers, social workers, government officials, and community leaders—to respond to the need for authentic youth engagement.

What steps can you take to ensure youth stay in schools and our community programs?

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Comment by Adam Fletcher on June 7, 2014 at 18:53

I'm glad you were provoked in a good way, Hazel! I have always appreciated your thoughtfulness about my posts... 

You are absolutely right about that deficit language, which permeates a lot of our education and social service systems. The incapacitating nature of these words have permeated a lot of our realities, forcing even the best-meaning of us to acquiesce to the negative thinking behind them. Alas... Your analysis uncovers the dark reality that this language often hides the realities facing the people involved! (I think that's by design.)

I think we're in alignment considering the social contract. However, my constant question is the transparency and accessible of conscious decision-making in relationship to the "agreed upon order." As adults, we constantly make that choice for children and youth, compelling them to fulfill our expectations without their understanding or acceptance of the terms of the social contract. I don't have a lot of use for conversations about anarchism or anti-conformity; however, I think its essential that we address conscious, deliberate, and intentional choosing, whether through mindfulness or what Paulo Freire called conscientization. I think we can agree that what its called isn't as important as doing it.

As a world society, I'd argue that we're on the edge of massive social intransigence, a collective abandonment of the common good. We've become so privatized and monetized that we're becoming incapable of seeing beyond our personal benefit towards the social good affecting all of us all the time. Only through massive, rapid, and deep transparency can we motivate, incentivize, and activate the collective consciousness for the social good.

Perhaps its not that we're either all in or all out, social or personal, collective or individual. Instead, we may be living in the ambiguous middle ground between all of those. I also believe that as a society, we're wholly incapable of wholly disengaging from the social structures surrounding us, whether other people care or not. Even the most apathetic people have things they care about, likely deep within themselves. 

Also, I do agree with you: In a democracy, we're compelled to constantly create and recreate, propelling ourselves and our society forward into the future. However, I believe we're at the point of disjuncture where so many citizens are so disenfranchised that we're on the verge of losing the democracy that has brought us this far. The United States Chairman of the Federal Reserve recently said she's not sure if this country has become an oligarchy. That's a genuinely frightening place, and not one that's conducive to complacency! However, that's precisely what many people are choosing: Rather than activate, we procrastinate and recreate, looking to ease our minds of the cumbersome workloads we assume rather than rallying to create change. This disengagement actually necessitates an oligarchical situation, not only allowing, but rather, compelling the privileged to take care of society for the masses, vis-à-vis noblesse oblige. The social construct practically mandates it!

Rather than missing something, you've actually illuminated a light on the crux of the matter: We're genuinely disincentivizing young people from becoming engaged throughout society by continuously disenfranchising their democratic responsibilities and inherent capacities to be engaged citizens.

So, as for your questions...

  • We meet young people "where they're at" by engaging in what is supposedly "their" worlds, and engaging them in what is supposedly "ours" as adults. Work with what they're actually engaged in right now on their own volition, whether video games, rock-n-roll, gangs, or whatever, and acknowledge the learning, teaching, and leadership opportunities inherent in their lives right now. This must be achieved with all young people, no matter what their backgrounds, especially embracing the multiple cultural diversities throughout our nations today. Society isn't this or that, but rather, the whole collection of activities people engage in; because of that, we shouldn't force young people into a false choice between society or their activities, but instead, teach them that their activities are actually our activities, as a whole, and that they're not separate but together with all of us. Together.
  • By acknowledging young people where they're at right now, we can engage young people in "achieving" in things they're doing already. If a young person is engaged in their family's rural lifestyle, what learning opportunities are their in that setting right now? When do young people get academic credit for all the learning they're experiencing through video gaming or online social networking? This is to say nothing from the students who are making art in the garage, building science projects in the shed, or studying geology while climbing rocks on the weekend. Acknowledging youth where they're at means not making it an "either/or" situation, but a "both/and", meaning they don't have to choose whether they achieve our goals as adults, or their goals as autonomous humans.
  • Modern thinking looks like transparency, accessibility, interconnectivity, and commonality. More than ever, we're living interdependent, global lifestyles that are reflective our cultures and societies around the world, instead of insular, backwards lives of our own.
  • Creating successful culture happens with young people instead of at young people. Democratic thinking, practice, and procedures are no longer the exclusive domain of adults, made to reflect their "expectations, values, perspectives, and realities." Instead, our societies can elicit the value of tacit knowledge from everyone involved, effectively reflecting an equitable perspective of age, rather than a sympathetic perspective towards children and youth as empty vessels waiting to be filled with adult knowledge.

Let me know what you think Hazel! Like I said, you're an excellent thinking partner!

Look forward to hearing what you think :-)


What I'm running here is actually a dropout re-engagement program designed to bring youth who've left school early towards getting their graduate equivalency diplomas, some kind of workforce training, and/or in a post-high school graduation setting. Its a federally mandated program that has little depth of substance, but drives money towards these students. I'm working on re-imagining this region's efforts, many of which are rudimentary and of low return-on-investment for the dollars spent. Ah, the nonprofit industrial complex, hard at work! 

Comment by Hazel Owen on June 5, 2014 at 16:37

Wow - If found your post particularly thought provoking, Adam!

Would be great to hear more about the dropout prevention program in the Pacific Northwest, and what that constitutes :-)

One thing that struck me is that the language, such as drop out, often used to describe youth that aren't conforming to the expectations of society is woven through with deficit thinking. A decision not to continue in a programme might be a really positive one, but the term to 'drop out' is packed with negative connotations.

I am also struggling to balance some of the concepts you mention and suggestions you make. It's tough to put it into words, in part because some of what I am thinking falls in a grey area between how I feel learning opportunities might be, and the necessity of some sort of agreed 'order' in society(ies). Is there terminology in use that doesn't also suggest non-conformity, but does capture a sense that a particular approach isn't working for someone?

I would suggest that human beings are, on the whole, social beings. Therefore, at the very least there is likely to be a tacit understanding that living in a community has a number of benefits - as well as drawbacks. If it is accepted that for a community / society to 'work' there needs to be some underlying principles that the citizens agree on, then, what happens when enough of the citizens stop agreeing...or get to the point where they abdicate the responsibility of caring about these underpinning principles? 

I am not suggesting that these principles are set in stone - and indeed, for society(ies) to be healthy, I feel we all need to constantly question and re-shape these principles. The thing I am grappling with, if enough citizens decide to dis-engage, what happens to the structure of society(ies)? And if we are part of the current society and economy, is it not part of the 'agreement' that we should feel some sort of responsibility to contribute to it? (Or am I missing something really obvious! Or is this part of my own learning journey? :-p)

Please don't get me wrong...I really do feel we have to get away from "standardized testing, mandatory evaluations, prescripted youth programs, and byzantine policies". I'd like to pose the following questions though:

  • how do we meet apparently disengaged youth "where they're at"? Can this be achieved without the very same youth having to choose to become a part of the society from which they have disengaged? Or is it to do with choosing how to engage with society, rather than conforming?
  • How, given that what 'achievement' comprises is set by the society from which some youth disengage, can a sense of achievement be felt by these youth without compromising the principles by which they have chosen to live their lives?
  • What does modern thinking 'look like'?
  • And how do we "create successful cultures that engage disengaged youth" without them being imbued with the "expectations, values, perspectives, and realities of adults"?

Look forward to hearing what you think :-)

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