Melissa Cater | 2/14/2017 6:24:54 PM
Youth development research suggests that happiness and feeling a sense of belonging are strongly connected. Belonging is characterized by feeling liked, respected and valued by peers and adults. When youth feel that they belong, they are more likely to experience feelings of independence and intrinsic motivation. Youth who lack feelings of relatedness are more prone to feelings of loneliness and emotional distress and may be more susceptible to mental illness. Research also suggests that youth who develop stronger ties with peers and adults through positive out-of-school programs have fewer discipline problems in school.
Experiential learning is a cornerstone of the Louisiana 4-H Youth Development program. Hallmarks of experiential learning include hands-on, concrete experiences and real-world problem-solving, often delivered in a group setting. By providing access to a broad range of youth and adults with similar interests, the 4-H program offers many avenues for youth to develop a sense of belonging. The opportunities to build relationships with peers and adults cut across all levels of the 4-H program from school-based clubs, where youth are familiar with many of the group members, to parish-level programs that allow youth to form friendships with people who are close to them geographically but with whom they may not interact on a daily basis. Youth have access to regional and state camps, contests, leadership boards and workshops that provide opportunities to build friendships with peers and adults whose paths they may never otherwise have crossed.
While access is key, getting youth to join a group and stay involved are two of the most critical aspects of building belonging. A variety of strategies have been used to help youth feel more connected both to peers and adults in the program. One of the most common approaches is the use of games and team-building exercises that help youth get to know each other better. Another common strategy is the use of smaller groups so youth have a better chance to interact with each other. The use of small groups is often combined with hands-on activities that require every member of the group to participate. The mechanisms that support group communication and success also foster belonging by helping youth feel included and important to the group’s accomplishments.
Badges of membership are another common strategy used to build group cohesion and individual sense of belonging. T-shirts designed by camp groups and teen leadership groups are used to symbolize membership in the group and to foster a sense of contribution through working together to create the t-shirt design.
Caring adults are another important factor in inspiring a sense of belonging among youth. Many 4-H programs have increased their training and use of adult volunteers so youth have better access to adults. Adults provide a place where youth feel safe, both physically and emotionally, to build new friendships.
The purpose of this study was to determine the level of belonging experienced by youth in the 4-H program. Data were collected from 27 seventh- to 12th-graders across three years of membership. At the beginning of the study, youth ranged in age from 11 to 15 with a mean age of 13.41. A little over half of the youth were female (59 percent). A 21-item questionnaire was used to assess youths’ general sense of belonging, their perception of adult facilitation of their belonging and their perception of the assistance that peers provide them in feeling a sense of belonging. Paper surveys were distributed to youth in May of each year.
Overall, youths’ general sense of belonging increased slightly each year of the study (Table 1). Adults appeared to fulfill an important role in youths’ feeling of belonging to the group. Mean increases in sense of belonging were observed for all three years, with statistically significant differences between the median for years 1 and 2 and years 1 and 3. Likewise, peers seemed to hold a notable place in youth developing feelings of belonging to the group.
The Louisiana 4-H program provides a place for youth to connect with both peers and adults in a safe and engaging environment. While the generalizability of this study is limited by the small sample size, it does suggest there are psychological benefits for youth who are involved in the program for longer periods of time. The potential reciprocal effects of 4-H program participation on reducing problem behaviors in school provides additional value for families, schools and communities.
Melissa Cater is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and Evaluation.