The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Simple and Radical Ways to Create Safe, Supportive, and Engaging OST Settings

simple and radical

For nearly two decades, Weiss and Akiva have been connected to the Neutral Zone, a creative arts and leadership center for teens in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here, they talk about the importance of creating safe, supportive, and engaging OST settings by intentionally centering youths’ intrinsic motivation, supporting their developmental needs, and building youth–adult partnerships.


David, 15, came to the Neutral Zone almost daily, either doing homework in the drop-in space or drawing in the art room. He dressed very punk, complete with leather jacket, mohawk, and chain hanging from his wallet. David kept mostly to himself, head down, barely speaking with others and rarely making eye contact. Besides being an introvert, David is on the autism spectrum.

On Fridays, David started attending the weekly meeting of Riot Youth, the Neutral Zone’s LGBTQIA peer support and social justice program. Although he was quiet, David actively participated in everything from theater games to discussions and dialogues. When he spoke, he did so with a deep sense of understanding, compassion, and wisdom. What is interesting is that David doesn’t identify as LGBTQIA. He came just because he felt safe and supported in the group. He was so accepted and well-liked that the group nominated him to be a teen program facilitator, cementing his place as a highly engaged and invested contributor.

This is a story about acceptance, interactions, and, most of all, relationships. Li and Julian posit that developmental relationships are likely the “active ingredient” for youth program success. We root our chapter in three practical goals for developmental relationships: enabling youth to feel safe, supported, and engaged.

So how do out-of-school time (OST) programs set up relational settings that are safe, supportive, and engaging and that involve youth as partners? Creating such settings starts with practitioners’ existing strengths. It then requires their deliberate intention to support all youth, especially those who have been marginalized or minoritized. We present a short set of strategies to support and engage youth: centering youths’ intrinsic motivation, supporting youths’ developmental needs, and building youth–adult partnerships. 

Many of the ideas and examples in our chapter may come across as obvious or intuitive. Indeed, research supports the value of many of the strategies that seem natural to seasoned youth workers. The paradigm shift we’re calling for is to conduct these strategies with intentionality. Many practitioners already do this work, including the authors of the essays in this book. However, through intentionality, programs can instill more equitable practice. For example, in any given youth program, some young people will find ways to pursue activities they find intrinsically motivating. But this doesn’t mean the program supports intrinsic motivation for all youth. Only by intentionally designing experiences to support intrinsic motivation—by offering meaningful choices, opportunities for leadership, and so on—can programs provide this spark for all youth participants, including those who may be marginalized or simply less vocal. 

Intentionality is what marks youth work as a professional practice, built on and building from science. We call this a paradigm shift not because it is radically complex or difficult—human relationships are the stuff life is made of—but because it is uncommon. Building true youth–adult partnerships, in which young people have voice, choice, and power, is indeed a radical endeavor.

The paradigm shift we propose is simple, but revolutionary. And though it is revolutionary, it has broad global recognition. Consider Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, drafted by the United Nations in 1989 and signed by every country on the planet except the United States. This legally binding international agreement establishes the right of every young person to freely express their views “in all matters affecting” their lives, with the subsequent right for those views to be “given due weight in accordance with [their] age and maturity.” 

In essence, this means that young people have an internationally recognized right to have a voice in the spaces and systems that affect them. Article 12 can be a guiding star to spread our Youth-Driven Spaces movement in programs and agencies across the country. Through intentionally co-creating and shaping settings that are safe, supportive, and engaging, OST programs can be authentic partners with youth in working together toward more powerful and humane settings and systems that recognize young people as agents of their own destiny.



John Weiss served as the executive director of the Neutral Zone from 2005 to 2014; in 2015, he began leading its training and coaching work with other organizations as the director of strategic initiatives. Tom Akiva worked with Weiss in the development of the Youth-Driven Spaces approach and has conducted research projects with teens at the Neutral Zone. The above excerpt appears in the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation.
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How Relational Cultural Theory Helps Us Understand the Transformative Power of OST


Below is an excerpt by Betsy Nordell, Ed.D., a NIOST master observer, from the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation. The book was co-edited by NIOST Director Georgia Hall, Ph.D., Jan Gallagher, Ph.D., of Clear, Effective Communications, and NIOST Research Associate Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed. Here, Nordell talks about Relational Cultural Theory and how it can help us understand the transformative power of OST professionals.

Ideas we as youth development professionals now take for granted, such as the human need for connection, the value of empathy and compassion, and the power of positive relationships to foster growth, can be traced back to Jean Baker Miller and her seminal book, Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976). The book’s content, once viewed as dangerous, radically challenged prevailing ideas about human growth and development. 

Miller offered an alternative to the entrenched psychological models that articulated healthy human development as a process of increasing separation, autonomy, and independence. These models did not align with what Miller heard from her mostly female patients in her clinical practice. She sought to add the voice of women’s experience to psychological theory, identifying connection, empathy, and mutuality not as weaknesses or lower stages of development, but as strengths. Over time, through close collaboration with others, Miller’s beginning ideas evolved into the Relational Cultural Theory (RCT).

RCT views the expansion and deepening of healthy relationships as the markers and causes of human growth and development. We are social beings, built to function optimally in supportive groups. Gains in neuroscience have demonstrated this hardwired human need for relationships

How people are met by the world, every day and over time, also matters. As RCT scholar Maureen Walker states in her most recent book, "Our sense of place and purpose in the world is shaped not only by formative relationships but by the omnipresent cultural messaging that establishes standards of beauty, goodness, worth, values, and reality." RCT reminds us to carefully consider the ways the cultural context, with its established power dynamics, shapes and constrains relationships affecting everyone's growth and development.

RCT is a natural fit for the OST field in many ways. For one, the OST program environment tends to allow more time for relationship building than traditional classroom settings do. Researchers have found this opportunity to cultivate positive relationships is a significant draw for OST professionals; it helps fuel their strong passion for and commitment to their work. 

Youth workers’ genuine interest in forging strong bonds and creating a connected community pays dividends. The positive quality of adult-youth and youth-youth relationships affects the degree to which youth can set aside distractions, feel safe enough to fully engage, admit they do not understand something, and ask for help. RCT uses the term power-with to describe environments that intentionally support connection, empowerment, and growth. This dynamic arises when adults and young people alike strive to respect and acknowledge each person’s value, knowledge, and authentic capacity to contribute, while honoring different people’s needs and roles. 

In power-with OST environments, adults tap into youth experience, expertise, and interests and provide age-appropriate leadership responsibilities. RCT specifically identifies five good things that happen within, and are outcomes of, such growth-fostering relationships: 

1. Each person feels a greater sense of zest (vitality, energy).

2. Each person feels more able to act and does act.

3. Each person has a more accurate picture of themselves and the other person(s).

4. Each person feels a greater sense of worth.

5. Each person feels more connected to other person(s) and feels a greater motivation to connect with other people beyond those in one’s primary relationships.

Youth development professionals powerfully affect young people’s beliefs about who they are, what they can do, and who they can become. The research supports what is evident in the personal stories of youth workers in this volume: that their passion for positive relationships is the mechanism by which OST programs effect transformation.


Betsy Nordell, Ed.D., is a NIOST master observer. The above excerpt appears in the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation.
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Creating and Supporting Pathways to Sustained Careers in Youth Work

Man leading afterschool program

Below is an excerpt by Nancy Peter, Ed.D., director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, from the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation. The book was co-edited by NIOST Director Georgia Hall, Ph.D., Jan Gallagher, Ph.D., of Clear, Effective Communications, and NIOST Research Associate Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed. Here, Peter talks about the many pathways people take into youth work, and the need to support them with clear entry points, opportunities for advancement, fair compensation, and continuous professional development—no matter how they arrived in the field.


Youth workers are often described as “passionate.” They feel called to do the work, have a strong desire to serve or give back to their communities, and are committed to building positive relationships with youth. Most likely a conversation with a youth worker will quickly reveal their passion. This is corroborated by the research: surveys consistently show that this passion for the work is a strength of the field. The practitioner essays that make up this book give voice to this hard-to-describe quality—a passion, a calling, an artistry, the heart work. It is part of what makes this workforce unique. Moreover, it is part of what makes this workforce impactful. It is a true strength that can and should be articulated, celebrated, and leveraged. The aim of this book is to shine a spotlight on this strength.

This passion, though, is only one part of the picture of a strong workforce, and elevating it is only one part of our work as field-builders and leaders. It also needs to be supported. Critical foundational workforce supports—clear entry points, opportunities for advancement, fair compensation, and continuous professional development—are needed to sustain the energy and commitment the workforce brings.

Whichever pathway they take into the field, youth workers are similar to workers in any other field: they need to be supported with opportunities for professional growth and continual professional development

As the field struggles with recruitment, a longstanding issue exacerbated by the pandemic, we need to better understand the mechanisms by which people currently enter youth work. Like many of the youth practitioners in this chapter’s essays, I did not set out to become a youth work professional. In college, I majored in animal behavior because I loved animals. That love led me to volunteer at the local environmental education center—where I discovered a passion for education that has guided me ever since. I worked in environmental education, then in museum education, and then in a large city park. That’s when I realized I was also interested in work that affected people. I moved into children’s policy, out-of-school time programming, and positive youth development. Today, as director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund, I no longer work directly with youth. Instead, I focus on professional development, curriculum development, and organizational capacity-building.

Whichever pathway they take into the field, youth workers are similar to workers in any other field: they need to be supported with opportunities for professional growth and continual professional development. A strong system is needed to provide this support, including the option of academic pathways, both access to credentials and higher education; career pathways tying experience, professional development, and formal education to advancement; and increases in compensation and benefits commensurate with experience and training.

Professional development is one specific workforce support that enables youth workers to develop their skills and knowledge and advance in the field. The practitioner authors in this book talk about their ongoing, meaningful professional development to scaffold growing competence and confidence, whether that means attending workshops and conferences, being mentored, or coached by a supervisor or colleague, participating in a peer learning community, or—for most—some combination of these.

In these essays, mid-career youth workers present their own compelling stories of their entries into the profession, their journeys up the career ladder, their successes, and the obstacles they have overcome. Several essayists emphasize how their own participation in youth programs influenced their eventual choice to work in such programs. Three of the five describe circuitous routes into the field. Only one entered college with the intention of getting a degree to support a career in youth work, though others mention college work along the way. For all five, their professional pathways took unanticipated twists and turns. Every one of them experienced on-the-job learning and professional development that ranged from formal opportunities to informal mentorships and coaching.

As a field, we must explore the ways in which career pathways are more available to some potential youth workers than to others. Then we can integrate ongoing research with our individual and collective stories to find ways to redress these fundamental inequities.


Nancy Peter, Ed.D., is the director of the McKinney Center for STEM Education at the Philadelphia Education Fund. The above excerpt appears in the book The Heartbeat of the Youth Development Field: Professional Journeys of Growth, Connection, and Transformation.

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Quality Summer Learning In Action: Encouraging Dancers to Create and Learn

Kids DancingAbout 20 tweens pile into the unassuming studio space of their ballet school in mid-July. There are no frills here. The waiting area is small and a bit disheveled; the cinder block building has seen its share of life. But look closer: there’s magic inside.

The dancers are not exactly sure what to expect from this week of “choreography camp,” but are glad to be there and ready for anything. Starting from nothing, in five days they will create a 20-minute ballet for family and friends. The director says she has it easy this week because the kids do all the work. The dance choreography might be the most straightforward part; they are also charged with music selection, costume and set design, hair and makeup. They first choose which story they will perform, selecting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps knowing on some level that the fun and magic of the story will parallel their own experience that week.

As a parent, I watched the final performance (criss-cross applesauce on the floor) with a huge smile on my face, amazed to see what these kids could accomplish in a week--without many resources beyond, of course, the staff’s and their own creativity, skill, and knowledge. I tapped my toe to the jazzy music they selected, laughed at the Oompa-Loompa’s pigtails and freckles, and the squirrels’ (who separate out the “bad nuts”) tails constructed out of cardboard tubes and old nylons, and was impressed by the level of dance, particularly of the older girls.

As a research associate of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I watched with a more serious eye, knowing that there were many best practices here in the room that could be shared with the larger field. What made the program seem so magical? How could the director, along with several other staff members, keep the youth so happy, relaxed, and engaged all week and guide them to create something wonderful?

The answer is simple: They do it by using many of the research-based quality practices that we know work, and are measured by field-tested tools (the APT Observation Tool, for example).

Activities were of a high quality and included:

  • Youth choice and decision making – Each decision was made by the students, so the ultimate product was theirs.
  • Project-based learning – The activities were all part of an ongoing project (the production of a ballet), designed to promote specific skills and concepts over time.
  • Opportunities for collaboration – Youth were organized into groups based on ability and age, and worked together toward a common goal.
  • Challenging activities – The week’s activities all provided challenges and stimulated thinking as youth learned and applied new skills and solved problems.

Staff were of a high quality. The director has a master’s degree in education and decades of experience teaching youth, and the assistant director is mid-way through her master’s degree in counseling. Leadership development, which helps youth and at the same time sustains quality staff, has always been built in; the small dancers hold the even smaller dancers’ hands at performances, older dancers assist the younger ones in classes, and the director offers a more formal leadership program, thus creating well-trained staff. In fact, the staff assisting at this week’s camp were former students.

But it’s what they do that counts. They:

  • Built positive relationships and supported individual youth by engaging in friendly conversation with youth, encouraging individual youth as they worked on their own goals, and listening actively and patiently.
  • Promoted youth engagement by being enthusiastic, actively engaging in the activities with youth, and helping youth think through problems themselves rather than just offering answers. They also engaged youth in reflection and feedback. The director even sneakily – and skillfully – used the time at the performance while waiting for each expected guest to arrive to engage the dancers in a discussion about what surprised them, what had been hard, and what they had learned.

At the end of the final performance, the dancers took a big bow and soaked in the well-earned applause. Was it really magic I witnessed, or simply high-quality out-of-school time programming in action? I think both – aren’t they the same thing, after all? Like any good trick, it only looks like magic.

Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women since 2007. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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A Week to Appreciate Afterschool Professionals – April 24-28

It’s Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week! Perhaps we should back up - what is an Afterschool Professional? Maybe you call them staff, teachers, or care providers. There are many names for the same thing – someone trained to work with youth during out-of-school time.

This week is a chance to recognize the “professional” in Afterschool Professionals. We know that afterschool matters for kids, and that afterschool professionals impact the quality of that programming. Some fun facts:

  • Participation in afterschool programs consistently increased from 2004 to 2014, rising by nearly 2 million children from 2009 to 2014 alone. In 2014, 10.2 million children (18%) participated in an afterschool program.
  • Regular participation in afterschool programs has been shown to help narrow the achievement gap between high- and low-income students in math, improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and reduce school absences.
  • The Afterschool field has defined what it takes to provide quality afterschool programming. The National AfterSchool Association (NAA) has adopted a set of Core Knowledge and Competencies, and at least 24 states have their own versions.
  • Afterschool Professionals are well-educated. A recent NAA survey of its members found that 34% of staff surveyed reported having a Masters or Doctorate degree.

And some less fun facts:

  • Less than half of afterschool professionals surveyed have access to health insurance and 39% do not have any benefits (such as insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement savings).
  • The field suffers from high turnover (with some estimates up to 40% annually), with pay cited as the number one reason people leave their job.

So how can you show your appreciation? The actions of this week should be twofold. First, express your individual appreciation for those in your community who work with youth – maybe your own children - afterschool. Give them a card with words of heartfelt thanks, bake them some muffins, say thanks. But don’t stop there. Second, take some time to appreciate the incredible contribution of afterschool professionals in improving youth academic, behavioral, and social emotional outcomes. Given the proposed budget cuts of the current administration, it seems an opportune time to also suggest you contact your representatives and let them know how much you support afterschool professionals (the Afterschool Alliance also has information to guide you).

This week is a chance to both thank Afterschool Professionals for keeping our kids safe and happy, and to think bigger about what it takes to be an afterschool professional and the huge positive impact they have on the lives of youth. So, to all the Afterschool Professionals, thank you!

Betsy Starr, M.Ed. is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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