Youth-Adult Partnerships: Young People and Adults Working Together To Promote Thriving Communities


January 29, 2015


Welcome to the Oregon Leadership Network's monthly blog series. Topics relate to building the capacity of education leaders to sustain research-based equitable practices across Oregon’s P-20 education system. Learn more about the Oregon Leadership Network.

The Oregon Leadership Network (OLN) embraces difficult conversations rather than shy away from them. Network members—district and school leaders, higher education faculty, and business/community representatives—tackle issues such as disproportionate discipline, English learner achievement gaps, and high school dropout rates. The OLN develops policies, shares research and lessons learned at meetings and conferences, and invests in professional development for our teachers—all to improve the school experiences and academic achievement of students.

Yet, students seldom, if ever, take part in the conversations that are about their school experiences and success.

What if … ?

What if we stopped working “for” students and started working “with” them? What if we developed policies with students? What if we asked students to help us understand the discipline practices at their buildings and help us develop more fair policies? What if we asked English learners what they need from their teachers and school principals? Through their eyes, what works? What doesn’t?

For over a decade, I’ve studied youth-adult partnerships around the country that are transforming “what if’s” from speculation to reality. We use the term “youth-adult partnership” to describe a group of young people and adults who come together to address issues that matter to a larger community. That community may be a classroom, an afterschool program, a school, a neighborhood, or a city. A key feature of a youth-adult partnership is mutual learning and respect, since both groups are expected to make valuable contributions toward a common goal.

Promoting a positive school climate

Research suggests that engaging youth as partners in schools may enhance student-teacher relationships, instructional quality, and student engagement. For the moment, though, let’s look at how youth-adult partnerships create an opportunity to impact school climate and cultivate inclusive school communities.

Youth can partner with adult allies to facilitate activities that establish norms, build safe space, and strengthen relationships among students—as well as improve relationships between students and staff. Practices such as restorative justice provide an avenue for youth voice in responding to conflict and maintaining a positive school climate. Students and adults can also collaborate to ensure that decisions about school environments, such as the use of space and resources, are responsive to student needs.

Youth participatory action research is one method for involving students in the assessment and improvement of school climate. In this method, young people take part in developing research questions. Students collect, analyze, and interpret data that provide insights into how they feel about their school and teachers. Young people also may conduct interviews, surveys, and observations to make meaning of the data and develop action plans for change. In addition to producing new data, students can participate alongside adult staff on teams that discuss the implications of existing school climate and discipline data. This work could help unpack how schools can be more supportive of young people.

What next?

In my research, I have found that when it comes to youth-adult partnerships, people learn by doing as organizations grow a culture of youth-adult partnership. These partnerships are most effective in organizations that offer multiple opportunities for youth to collaborate with adults and provide support for partners to reflect together so that they may continue to improve. Establishing a successful youth-adult partnership at your district or building will take time, but that shouldn’t keep you from getting started. A key recommendation from experienced practitioners is to start small: What is one place in your school or district that is most ready for youth-adult partnership?

For resources about youth-adult partnership, feel free to contact me.

Is your district or school engaged in a youth-adult partnership? Tell us about it. Let’s share our successes and challenges to help one another move this work forward.