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What is youth-adult partnership?

Youth-adult partnerships are a powerful tool for collaborating across generations to improve youth mental wellbeing. These partnerships promote inclusive practices that value and elevate the voices of youth with lived experience. Before we begin, let’s ground ourselves in shared meanings of meaningful youth-adult partnership, elevating youth voice of lived experience and fostering mental wellbeing.

Youth-Adult Partnership can be a powerful tool for youth engagement and organizational improvement. By forming authentic partnerships with youth and sharing decision-making responsibilities and power, youth-adult partnership provides a framework for collaboration across generations. Both youth and adults benefit from skill building while working toward a shared goal and promoting intentionally inclusive practices.1

The distinct ideas, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge and actions of young people as a collective body that reflect diverse perspectives and experiences, inclusive of all backgrounds, identities and cultural differences.2

In this guide, lived experience refers to personal knowledge gained through first-hand experiences living with or caring for a loved one with a mental health and/or substance use challenge. Equally important and impactful are young people’s intersectional identities such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and physical and mental abilities. Lived experience also includes navigating systems of care like mental health and foster care. The knowledge gained through real and personal experience is as valid as theoretical and/or academic knowledge.3
A state of wellness in which an individual can realize their own abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and make contributions to their community. Mental wellbeing is more than the absence of mental illness; it is fundamental to our collective and individual abilities as humans to think, emote, learn, interact with others and enjoy life. Mental wellbeing is thriving regardless of a mental health or substance use challenge.4
  • Why is youth-adult partnership important?
  • What does youth-adult partnership look like?
  • How do you view youth in your work?

Youth-Adult Partnership Works

The 4-H Council’s Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development and Tufts University5 found that meaningful youth participation and engagement help young people be healthy and thrive. A longitudinal study of the 4-H youth leadership program revealed that young people who participated in 4-H engaged in substantially more community and civic services and made healthier life choices.

When our systems, services and decisions center around youth and youth engagement, everyone benefits:

Benefits of Youth-Adult Partnership6,7,8,9

  • Explore and discover through learning and self-expression.
  • Build practical skills and knowledge to be informed and assertive advocates for their own health and the health of others.
  • Deepen their sense of belonging and connection to others and their communities.
  • Learn how to turn knowledge and awareness into actions that improve the wellbeing of others.
  • Better understand youth and the value of young people’s authentic perspectives.
  • Improve their cultural respectfulness and facilitate more meaningful interactions with youth.
  • Enhance their ability to form authentic, trusting and supportive relationships.
  • Energize their passion for creating communities where all young people can thrive.
  • Deepen their understanding of how youth experience their services and/or programs.
  • Increase service engagement and retention.
  • Identify new programs and/or services to fulfill unmet needs.
  • Gain trust and recognition from their community.
  • Improve youth health and development outcomes.
  • Attract funders and partnerships.
  • Improve quality of life for youth by increasing access to effective community supports.
  • Create coordinated networks of care that support youth holistically.
  • Cultivate engaged community members that are committed to the wellbeing of the community.

Youth-adult partnership shifts power and control from resting solely in the hands of adults to being equally shared by youth and adults.10 It means shifting from treating youth like objects, to seeing youth as partners and resources.

Lofquist’s Spectrum of Adult Attitudes defines three categories for attitudes towards young people:11

  • Youth as objects
  • Youth as recipients; and
  • Youth as partners.

On CONNECTED, community-based organizations partnered with youth to achieve results in their communities. In these relationships, youth and adults shared control to increase organizational effectiveness while also facilitating the inter-personal growth and development of all partners.

Object "To"

The adult is in control with no intention of youth involvement.

The Objective
Personal growth of young people.

The Byproduct
Conformity of young people and acceptance of the program as it is.

Recipient "For"

The adult is in control and allows youth involvement.

The Objective
Personal growth of young people.

The Byproduct
Increased organizational effectiveness.

Recipient "With"

There is a youth/adult partnership (shared control).

The Objective
Increased organizational effectiveness.

The Byproduct
Personal growth of young people and adults.

What does youth engagement look like?

Roger Hart’s Youth Engagement Ladder12,13 is a model for youth-adult partnership that gets at the heart of youth engagement. Each rung of the ladder represents a different level of youth involvement as youth are increasingly empowered to make decisions.

Young Engagement Ladder

  • Designed and run by youth. Decisions made by youth.
  • Examples: strategy groups, steering committees, youth in staff roles and leaders in the youth and family movement.
  • Designed and run by youth and adults in full partnership.
  • Examples: advisory groups, networking and peer support, support groups, family advisory councils, youth advisory councils and liaison to provider and policy groups.
  • Minimum youth participation. Designed and run by adults who share decisions with youth.
  • Examples: co-lead workshops, present at conferences, serve as expert panelist, facilitate groups and develop, review and disseminate materials/products.
  • Designed and run by adults who consult with youth. Youth make recommendations that are considered by adults.
  • Examples: Focus groups, surveys, face-to-face interviews, public meetings and forums, suggestion boxes, interviews and client experience trackers.
  • Youth do not initiate but understand and have some sense of ownership.
  • Examples: websites, information kiosks, media releases, feature stories, fairs and events, open houses, fact sheets, brochures and leaflets.
  • Symbolic representation by a few youth. Youth may not have genuine voice and may be asked to speak for the group they represent.
  • Adults use youth to promote or support a cause without informing youth of the mission, results, etc.
  • Youth are not involved in design or decisions. Adults use youth involvement to communicate adults’ message.

To encourage open and honest dialogue between youth and adults, young leaders from the National Council’s CONNECTED initiative identified ways adults can foster meaningful partnerships with youth:

Be open minded and flexible.

Respect youth readiness and growth.

Create respectful and nurturing learning environments.

Don't over-promise and under-deliver.

Communicate about everything.

Clarify expectations and ask how they can support fulfilling those expectations.

Remain supportive through the journey of growth.

How do you view youth in your work?

Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation provides a visual framework to assess and improve the way youth and adults engage and partner together. Used as a resource for both assessment and aspiration, you can ask yourselves:

  • What rung of Hart’s Ladder best describes our current level of engagement and partnership?
  • If it is one of the bottom three – manipulation, decoration or tokenism – how might we immediately move up the ladder?
  • Since we can jump rungs, how might we rapidly work toward rung 7 (youth initiate and lead) and rung 8 (shared decision-making with youth)?

Continue reading our Guide to Youth-Adult Partnership to learn more about how you can create a youth-centered culture at your organization and/or channel your voice of lived experience to inspire others.

  1. The Ford Family Foundation Youth-Adult Partnership Resource Toolkit.
  2. Washington Youth Voice Handbook: The what, who, why, where, when, and how youth voice happens.
  3. Lived Experience is Expertise from San Mateo County Health
  4. Adapted from the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health
  5. Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development and Tufts University’s Comprehensive Findings from the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development
  6. Engaging Youth in Community Decision Making
  7. Effectiveness of Positive Youth Development Programs from
  8. Review of evidence on the outcomes of youth volunteering, social action and leadership from the Institute for Volunteering Research.
  9. Rationale for Youth Engagement from the School-based Health Alliance
  10. Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships Factsheet from Advocates for Youth
  11. What is authentic youth engagement? by The Maryland Governor’s Office for Children
  12. School-based Health Alliance’s diagram of Hart’s Ladder
  13. Adapted from UNICEF’s 1992 report: Children Participation from Tokenism to Citizenship