Youth and Family Engagement

By Veronica Willeto DeCrane, School Training and Technical Assistance Specialist, National Native Children’s Trauma Center

Working for afterschool programs on the Crow reservation in Montana, I learned a thing or two about youth and family engagement. Youth are required to attend school, but participation in afterschool programs is often optional. Youth engagement was a must if we wanted our program to make any kind of impact on the youth we served. I also realized quickly that our program needed families as much as we needed youth. Without families, there was only so much progress we could make towards our program goals. While youth and family engagement are essential, it isn’t easy to achieve either one.

It can be helpful to understand engagement on a spectrum. A spectrum can assist us in acknowledging the effort and progress we are making and the reality that there’s going to be both valleys and mountaintops in our effort to engage youth and families. This is where the program management concept of continuous improvement comes into play. Youth and parent engagement aren’t final destinations. They are ongoing relationships that require us to continuously put in hard work in order to see these relationships grow.

Key principals of trauma-informed systems include strength-based thinking, transparency, and empowerment. If we’re in the valley when it comes to our youth and family engagement work, we are trauma-informed when we are able to reframe our thinking and view our position as an opportunity for growth. This kind of strength-based thinking allows us to focus on the future and what we can do in the present rather than getting stuck in the past and the mistakes we can’t change.

Admitting that we aren’t on the mountain top all the time is also being trauma-informed. Transparency about how we’ve taken steps back in our progress puts us in a better position to make actual improvements and is the first step in getting our program back on track again. Being transparent with our youth and their families also goes a long way to building trust with them, which is what we need to achieve authentic engagement.

Anytime we can make room for youth and family voice, it’s empowering. A person suffering from the impact of trauma can feel like they don’t have any control or agency in their life. They may also feel no one cares about them. Showing your program cares, by valuing their voice can make a difference. Giving them that opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process helps youth and families exercise the power they have to impact change.

In Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships, family engagement is described as being a “Continuum of Engagement.” On one end of the spectrum is a “Fortress School,” where there is a belief that “parents belong at home, not at school.” Organizations often feel they are doing everything they can and it’s the families who don’t do enough to support their children. This is the least trauma-informed type of parent engagement. At the other end of the spectrum is a “Partnership School,” which assumes “all families and communities have something great to offer.” The youth serving organization has a “whatever it takes” culture and works closely together with parents in order to ensure every single young person succeeds. This is the most trauma-informed type of parent engagement. While you might not be serving youth in a school setting, I think this picture of parent engagement being a “Continuum of Engagement” can still apply to your youth serving program.

The spectrum of youth engagement that is often cited is the “Ladder of Youth Participation.” Sociologist Roger Hart in his book, Children’s Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care, describes how youth participation can range from “Rung 1: Young People are Manipulated” to “Rung 8: Young People and Adults Share Decision-making.” At Rung 1, “adults use young people to support causes and pretend that the causes are inspired by young people.” This is the least trauma-informed type of youth engagement. At Rung 8, “projects or programs are initiated by young people and decision-making is shared between young people and adults.” This is the most trauma-informed type of youth engagement.

If you feel like your program is in the valley, whether it’s youth or family engagement, don’t give up just yet. Apply that strength-based thinking and consider using these two tools to reflect upon where you think you are on the spectrum. Could it be that your program may need to take a more trauma-informed approach? However, if you find that you are making progress and doing very well engaging youth and families in your program, celebrate it! Share your success stories. There are others who may be inspired and encouraged by your progress. It could be that hearing about your program’s journey with youth or parent engagement is just what they need to help them get out of their own valley.


Henderson, A. T., Mapp, K. L., Johnson, V. R., & Davies, D. (2007). Beyond the bake sale: The essential guide to family-school partnerships. The New Press.

Hart, R. A. (2013). Children’s participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care. Routledge.

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