I am a professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, and a youth development specialist working with the 4-H Youth Development Program at Oregon State University. Recently, I have been working on the development and testing of a model for 4-H youth development called the 4-H Thriving Model. This blog is dedicated to building a space where youth development educators can share how they are putting the model into practice in their work with youth.
During these uncertain times when programming has ceased as we know it, as well as most other aspects of our life being upended, it can be discouraging or even overwhelming. It seemed a perfect time to continue my read and study into the concept of “Grit” by renown researcher and author, Angela Duckworth. In her New York Times best-selling book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance”; she lays out her initial studies at the U.S Military Academy at West Point. Duckworth’s quest was to discover a better predictor of why the 20% of cadets dropout or what reliable indicators exist for the 80% who succeed.
Although all the recruits had a stellar record both physically and academically to be admitted, they faced the formidable challenge of doing things they could not yet do. Essentially they were asked to perform tasks that exceeded their current skill level. How did successful men and women continue in this daily exercise of being stretched beyond limits on every front? Duckworth writes, “the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking, Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. It was this combination of passion and perseverance – in a word, they had grit.”
I was encouraged by these two indicators. As Extension professionals, it takes hard work and resiliency to engage our community and to have positive program impacts. Although our direction maybe unclear during this time of “Stay at Home Orders”, our passion to make a difference has not waivered. We are being stretched in finding creative and alternative ways to serve our communities and each other.
One small way that I have recognized youth for their achievement during this time of cancelled graduation ceremonies is by highlighting a graduating senior on the 4-H Facebook page. Just a few statements about their accomplishments and engagement in 4-H as well as their future plans. Youth now, more than ever before, need to keep their eyes on the future. A future where their goals can still be achieved. Whatever setbacks or obstacles that COVID-19 may have put in their path, encourage youth with the words of Angela Duckworth, “Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
You can learn more about Grit from Angela Duckworth’s website which includes a quiz to assess your level of passion and perseverance, and her popular TED Talk on the topic at.
One of the cinematic highlights in the last few years, in my opinion, is the wonderful film Mary Poppins Returns. The color, the music, oh, and Lin Manuel Miranda, the dancing, singing, the hopeful story, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke, all coming together to remind us that no matter how dire things look right now, hope exists – even when things look the very most impossible.
But perhaps the mosted, most wonderful scene in the movie is when Mary Poppins and the children visit her cousin Topsy, played in undeniably best form by non other than Meryl Streep, on a day when she (Topsy) has turned turtle. You see, on a particular day of the week, on a particular week of the month, Topsy’s world turns Turtle – everything goes upside down, and there is no way to make sense of anything, until it rights itself again.
In his book Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric explains the nature of empathy, noting that its development in humans begins as soon as we are able to distinguish a difference between “me” and “not me” at a very, very young age. The seeds of “self” and “other” are formed early in our lives, and the capacity for empathy development is deeply connected to the empathy we receive from our caretakers as infants. The empathy that infants and young children receive is a foundational part of our ability to form loving attachments with others. And, (surprise!) the science of attachment and relationships, and their buffering effects on adversity, is one of the key elements of the emerging Sciences of Learning and Development (watch the video), which is currently driving educational reform and will guide our youth development practice in the future.
Empathy has two parts – cognitive and affective. The cognitive part means simply that we are able to take another’s perspective; the ability to see the world through some else’s eyes and develop understanding. The affective part means that we are able to feel the feelings of another person, more than acknowledge them, but actually feel them. In doing so, our emotional response mirrors the other’s, and we are emotionally “in their shoes.” When we have empathy we step out of our own view, into someone else’s view, and share the same emotional response with them.
Empathy is not sympathy or pity- for neither of those require actually taking the perspective and emotions of another. Nor is empathy compassion, despite the common interchangeable use of the two terms. Compassion, literally in the root of the word, means to share suffering (co-passion). But empathy is possible without suffering. Sharing the joy (emotion) of a friend’s success when you know how hard they have worked toward a goal (perspective taking) is an empathetic response. We just tend to use the idea of empathy more as it relates to the hard stuff, rather than the joyous.
So where does promoting empathy fit in our 4-H Thriving Model? I see it clearly in three places: the promotion of pro-social development, transcendant awareness, and emotional regulation. All of these thriving indicators have to do with seeing the self in relationship with the other. What is “me” and what is “not me” is linked by our human ability for empathy. The capacity for empathy can be developed, like any habit. In fact, Krznaric outlines six steps we can all take to develop empathy – both in ourselves and the youth with whom we work.
As of today, we are all still turned turtle. And who knows how long we will be like this, nor what the world will be like on the other side. In an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post entitled “In a War Without Enemies, Can we Keep Hatred at Bay” the author points out the importance of empathy as key to reminding ourselves that there is no “other” and the dangers we face if we lose our ability for empathy and instead begin a litany of blame, finger pointing, and scapegoating.
One thing I know for sure is that we are all in this together. If we are to help each other thrive in a world turned turtle, we have to do all we can to teach, promote, and practice empathy. With youth, yes of course. But with each other, now more than ever.
Over the years, I have worked with many teens helping them develop an “elevator speech” as part of their community action work. For those of you unfamiliar, an elevator speech is a short synopsis of something that is important to you, and something that you can share in the time it takes to ride an elevator- that is, it is … short. We train youth to be able to talk about what is important to them this way because it is often the case that we only have a few minutes to share with another; to make an impression that what we are saying is worth considering.
For all my years of teaching youth this preparedness technique, I had never, actually, well… given an elevator speech myself. Until two times recently.
The first was in Washington DC last summer where I was attending the Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference. There was another conference of medical doctors taking place in the same hotel, and I found myself getting on an elevator with a couple of doctors from Norway as we all headed up to our rooms. One of the doctors asked me what the juvenile justice conference was about and I immediately thought: “WOW! This is a real elevator speech about to happen!” But I was prepared, and as I spoke about alternatives to incarceration for young people, alternatives that research shows have the power to save young lives, ensure equity, save money, and enhance communities, the doctor was listening hard. When the elevator reached his floor, his fellow doctor stepped out, but the doctor I was visiting with waved him off, saying ” I want to hear more about this… I’ll be right back down” as the door closed and he rode up to my floor with me so I could finish my story.
The second elevator speech opportunity happened last fall, not in an elevator, but in a hallway at the Greenbrier in West Virginia during the NAE4-HA conference. I ran into Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4-H Council, outside a ballroom where she introduced me to her mother, a long-time educator, who was attending the conference as Jennifer’s guest. Her mother asked me directly: “so what is it that you do for 4-H?” And again, I immediately thought “elevator speech! Sans the elevator!”
I said simply that I work to figure out how 4-H works its magic with young people, and then I help others ensure that they are doing all they can to make that 4-H magic happen. With a warm smile and a twinkling eye, she nodded and said: “well good. You keep doing that and all will be fine.” I could not help but smile in return.
At the end of January I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas, just east of the big snow storm that landed on the western half of the state, to introduce the 4-H Thriving Model to the Kansas 4-H Team. It was a lovely morning general session, where I presented an overview of the model, followed by two more in-depth sessions in the afternoon. As I made my way though the morning presentation I became aware of something that I thought I could articulate better, and that is the understanding the difference between content outcomes and 4-H’s magic.
This awareness was raised again last week when I was visiting with a group of 4-H evaluators who are interested in helping support future research on the 4-H Thriving Model. As we shared our experiences with evaluation in 4-H, it became apparent that most of that experience is related to measuring content outcomes, and not on how 4-H works its magic.
At the heart of the 4-H program we work with youth and their interests to provide educational programs for them to learn content; Computer science, animal science, cooking, horticulture, civic engagement, leadership, you name it… we do it. The goal of the content area of 4-H programs is to build skill, mastery, and efficacy – all critically important to healthy youth development. Since we started evaluating 4-H programs in earnest in the early 2000s, our focus has been largely on measuring these learning outcomes.
While learning outcomes are important, measuring them alone does not help us understand how 4-H works its magic. For that we need to probe differently, into the process of what happens while youth are engaged learning the content of a particular program. This process is where youth development, as opposed to content learning, happens. It is the magic that happens when a young person joins 4-H to learn about bunnies as a 10 year old, and “graduates” from 4-H 8 years later having achieved key developmental outcomes, confident, responsible and ready to step into the next stage of life. If we do our job well, youth learn a lot of content in our programs, and in the process (note that word again) a whole lot of youth development is taking place too.
So the 4-H Thriving Model, at its heart, show us the process of youth development in 4-H – it describes how 4-H works its magic. The model also sets the stage for us to measure the magic in ways we have not been able to do so until now. Being able to measure the magic and the content outcomes that youth learn allows us to collectively tell the story of the impact of 4-H on young people. And this story should be one we all have ready in our elevator speeches! You never know when you might need it.
I received a text from a childhood friend shortly after Christmas, and without opening it, I had a feeling what it was going to say. My friend’s mom had passed away the day before, and she was writing to let me know. Mrs. “P” had lived a long life, so the news wasn’t completely unexpected. In recent years she had struggled with dramatically declining health (but not a declining spirit if the photo I saw of her at a Seattle Mariner’s game the year before was any indication.)
Before I texted my friend back, I sat for a few minutes in my study, suddenly flooded with memories of a person who, long before developmental science identified it, had embodied the first of many developmental relationships I had in my youth.
Warm and friendly, with a fierce sense of no-nonsense, wrapped up in a compassionate and supportive approach, Mrs. P gave generously of her time and support to many youth. She led our Camp Fire group, hauling us around the countryside in the back of her Ford Country Squire station wagon to sell mints door to door on a rainy February morning, and to monthly outings at the skating rink in the neighboring town. She taught me to sew, a skill that I have put to good use at various times in my life. And she sewed for me, including making (in one day) a trendy one-piece outfit for me to wear at horseshows. In third grade I was surprised with a birthday gift from my friend consisting of a whole Barbie wardrobe, including a long navy blue velvet gown with real sequins carefully hand sown, in Barbie size, by Mrs P.
Mrs. P. loved kids. She loved sports. She loved kids who played sports. It seemed like she knew every student athlete in our high school and cheered for their success as well as their teams. She gave generously, and she cared. She cared about me.
As high school turned into college and career and life, I lost contact with my friend and her mom. But when my dad passed away, one of the first sympathy cards I received was from Mrs. P. She expressed her sorrow, but also shared how proud she was of how much I had accomplished in my life. Given that I have always been high energy and outspoken, even as a little kid (surprise), I am sure there were many days when she questioned where I was headed. Her note of condolence sparked 20 more years of annual Christmas cards and letters. I looked forward to hearing every year from her, now a friend, not a mom, and called by her beautiful first name of Nina. I took the time to hand write her a letter every year, filling her in on all the happenings in my life. Until last year… my letter was returned after not being delivered to the address where she was now staying. And then this year… I didn’t write at all.
In his powerfully personal Ted Talk entitled Getting Relationships Right, Kent Pekel, President and CEO of Search Institute talks about the relationship gap. Dr. Pekel points out that most youth development professionals, or really anyone working to help youth thrive, knows the critical importance of creating developmental relationships. At the same time, the investment in professional development and time to learn how to build developmental relationships has not followed. In a word, our practice does not often follow our principles.
Fostering developmental relationships is hard work. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes an investment. But it is possible, and important to get started. Dr. Pekel shares a simple method in the Four S Interview Protocol: What is your spark? What are your strengths? What are your struggles? and Where are your sources of support? This simple tool (which you can download for free at the Search Institute Website) can help all who work with youth begin the process of establishing a developmental relationship.
A few years ago I met up with my childhood friend as our paths crossed of all places in the San Jose airport. We chatted comfortably, even with such a short time to do so, and with at least 35 years having past since we had last talked in person. And I had to chance to visit with her mom and dad a few Christmases ago when they were in the Seattle area for an extended stay. It was a special time with Mrs. P that December day, and I was so glad I got to see her one last time.
Nina P. was the first of many adults in my young life who invested in me, and throughout the course of my youth embodied all of the qualities of developmental relationships. There were others as well, and as time passed these adults grew into mentors and friends. The investment that Mrs. P. made in my life, and in the life of many other young people is an enduring legacy to the power of developmental relationships over time.
How will you start focusing on fostering developmental relationships in the youth with whom you work?
By Guest Blogger Mike Knutz, Oregon State University
As a youth development professional of nearly 20 years and former high school teacher, making a positive difference has always been the passion that drives my work with youth. The goal to impact young people is even more attainable with the 4-H Thriving Model. It is derived from years of research in developmental psychology and youth development.
In my quest to better understand the
components of the 4-H Thriving Model, I have explored resources available from
the Search Institute. Since 1958, the
Search Institute been studying how to strengthen youth success and
bring research-based solutions to the most pressing challenges in the lives of
young people. The 4-H Thriving Model aims to help youth develop a Thriving
orientation (a mindset or outlook for continual growth). The Search Institute
identified six indicators for a thriving trajectory that have been incorporated
into the 4-H Thriving Model.
Openness to Challenge and Discovery
There is a wealth of research and some amazing
researchers behind the studies that support each one of these indicators. I
started by delving into Openness to Challenge and Discovery, which comes from
research on Growth Mindset led by Carol Dweck, Professor of Phycology from
Stanford University. Growth Mindset is an approach to life that where skills
and abilities can always be improved
through effort and hard work. Challenges are embraced as an opportunity to grow
and learn. Feedback is something that is
useful in trying new strategies to master and improve a skill or ability.
Setbacks or failures are part of the learning process and should just spur you
on to work harder and preserver.
I am sure we can all recall a time where we faced a challenge in developing a skill or ability. I recall my first time public speaking as a freshman in high school. It was the FFA Creed Speaking Contest which required one to memorize five paragraphs verbatim. That task alone demanded persistence, practice, and effort. I had written each paragraph on a 3 x 5 card and kept them in a pocket while I did my farm chores. I would recited the first paragraph until I master it and then move on to the next. When I couldn’t recall a sentence, I would pull out my card to serve as cue. The day of the contest came, I did fine on the delivery, but froze and failed to answer the judge’s question. To me it was a failure to overcome the daunting task of memorizing five paragraphs. That setback served to propelled me on my journey to develop public speaking skills through further contests and opportunities to serve in leadership.
One of the greatest obstacles in this journey to growth
is being ruled by a Fixed Mindset; the belief that qualities
are fixed traits and therefore cannot change. People with a
fixed mindset focus energy towards validating their intelligence and talents
rather than working to develop and improve them. It’s holding the belief that
talent alone leads to success, and effort is inconsequential. This gives way to
avoiding challenges for the risk on failing. Failure communicates that you are
lacking talent. When this happens, a person with a Fixed Mindset may respond
defensively or blame or make excuses for the setback. Carol Dweck reminds us
all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets”. We need to be aware of our
thoughts and actions when facing a challenge. Anxious feelings, an inner voice saying
you’re not competent, or being crushed instead of interested in learning from a
failure are signs of a Fixed Mindset.
I picture an elephant restrained by a rope tied to a
stake in the ground. Like that elephant, youth need to know that their current
abilities have potential for growth. This message is freedom to rise to one’s
potential. Those who work with youth can help them understand the dynamics of a Fixed
and Growth Mindset and thereby free them to experience that effort and the
right practice, leads to improvement in skills and abilities.
Extension, we are accustomed to providing research-based solutions to problems.
Teaching youth the Growth Mindset can help them succeed. In one of Dweck’s
studies, 7th grade students were taught about neuroplasticity – how the brain
changes when you learn new things. They were shown the evidence that you really
can change your intelligence by challenging yourself and learning new
strategies. Those students did significantly better on their math test than
students in the control group who were not taught the lesson on Growth Mindset.
we encourage and praise youth can support either a Growth Mindset or a Fixed
Mindset. This illustration from Carol Dweck shows examples of both.
is just a brief look at one of the six Thriving indicators. There is so much
more to learn about how we can up our game at empowering youth to reach their
full potential through the 4-H Thriving Model.
Mike Knutz is an Associate Professor at Oregon State University and 4-H Educator in Yamhill, County Oregon. Mike currently co-leads the Professional Development subcommittee of the Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model -Program Leaders Working Group (PLWG) Task Force.