Reflective practice refers to stopping our action from time to time to think more deeply and self-critically than usual about what we are doing. Are the assumptions right? Are we having the results that we had hoped? According to whom? When a whole field of effort engages in reflective practice it has the opportunity to make not only the incremental adjustments that fine-tune good practice but also the occasional quantum leaps of learning that transform practice.

The field of youth development is full of reflective practitioners, but it is only now fully developing the infrastructure it needs to ensure that it continues to learn and share wisdom at a rate that matches the energy and passions of its two constituencies—young people and youth workers.

This process of developing a learning infrastructure is referred to as professionalization of a field. It involves adopting rigorous and clear conceptual frameworks for practice as well as experimental methods and practices in line with the frameworks and effective on the ground. Reflective practitioners continuously apply the conceptual frameworks and test the concepts against their experiences, sharing their insights and questions with each other. This is the essence of a learning community.

Young people need to be involved in the full range of decisions that affect the development of communities in which they live—decisions that affect policy, resource allocations, setting of priorities for development efforts in communities.

Although there is increasing attention, in line with a new emphasis on the need for greater civic engagement, toward making development opportunities available to all young people, a large proportion of youth work still focuses on reaching those young people who are most alienated from community building activities and who, in fact, may be taking actions that directly counter the gains from these activities. Youth workers accompany young people on extraordinary journeys over these bridges, walking with youth from violent behavior to consensus building activities, from negative street behaviors to school or a job, from irresponsible sexual behaviors to responsible parenting, from chemical abuse to healthy life styles, and, in some cases, from active participation in dying to a full embrace of life and all of its potential. The role requires extraordinary energy, creativity, patience, and love.

Youth work professionals are consistently called into highly dangerous, volatile, confusing and complex situations. The parameters of how they operate, the rules of engagement, the boundaries that define when they should intervene and for how long often must be created in the moment. The profoundly challenging task of facilitating change in the development processes of young people falls to the youth worker; the quality of their interventions often makes the difference between a young life being cut short or unfolding in ways that enrich the global community.

It would make sense, then, for this work to be highly valued by all of us, resourced properly and seen as central to the future of all of our work—but as with much of what we do with young people in schools, daycare centers, and so on, salaries and the degree of centrality we give this work indicate otherwise.

Over the last decade individuals engaged in youth work and the organizations that hire these people have come together to provide the language, definitions, form and practice that define the central component of a youth worker’s charge: the facilitation of youth development.

These efforts have been motivated by several factors, emerging from three groups of stakeholders.

First, youth workers yearned for but lacked access to training programs that spoke to the challenges they faced in the field. They wanted programs that would enable them to reflect on their practice—its strategies, tactics and desired outcomes—and help them acquire approaches and tools that would strengthen and diversify their approach to the work.

Second, organizations that employ youth workers believed that by clarifying the specific goals, principles and practices of youth work they would be more effective in their efforts to recruit, train and retain skilled youth workers.

Finally, policy-makers who had seen the essential success of the youth development approach wanted to elevate the status of youth workers and provide them with access to the resources they needed to sustain their work. The Center for Youth Development and Policy Research, one of the first national organizations to pioneer efforts to build the field of youth work, observed:

“Unfortunately, youth workers and the organizations for whom they work do not have the societal respect and support they deserve. In large part, this is because the field of youth worker is poorly defined. The lack of common language to describe the goals and strategies of youth workers has negative consequences for the field. For example, it hinders the ability of youth organizations to gain the public support that is needed to elevate the status of the field. Without consensus on purposes and language, youth serving organizations and youth workers lack the ability to articulate the arguments needed to improve their status.”

Field-building activities have thus been occurring at three levels: at the level of the individual youth worker, at the level of the organizations that house and nurture their work, and at a policy level. This last helps to create an environment in which youth development can flourish and influences the flow of resources that can support the field’s development. This multi-tiered approach to capacity building has proven essential in creating an enabling environment for the field of youth work.

Individual youth workers and young people began to come together in an organized fashion in the mid and late 80s, organizing youth worker alliances—loose professional associations that provided a venue for individuals to obtain support from their peers, learn and share their practices, and coordinate efforts across neighborhoods and organizations.

Organizations came together around the issue of how best to train, support and retain youth workers. National organizations such as the National Network for Youth, 4-H, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America—all organizations with large numbers of local affiliates—wanted to find a way of protecting that most essential contributor to a young person’s development, the relationship they form with a trusted adult. Their efforts led to the creation of professional development resources aimed at creating a career path for youth development professionals.

The Readers-Wallace Digest Fund made a sustained investment to help support the work of researchers and policy-makers who were mapping the work and practice of youth work and defining its goals, strategies and desired outcomes. In addition, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program (OJJDP) in the Department of Justice provided funding support to develop and pilot the field’s first nationally recognized training curriculum: Advancing Youth Development.1

Sectoral infrastructure to support these efforts is now well established and funded. Examples include the founding of the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work based in Washington, D.C., which runs intensive training programs for alliances of youth workers in 15 cities.

Increasingly one can find examples of degree granting programs dedicated to training individuals in youth work and providing credentials in recognition of this training. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Labor recognized the occupation of youth work and developed a nationally recognized registered apprenticeship program for youth workers. The Department of Labor defines two major goals for achieving occupation recognition and apprenticeship for youth development practitioners. First, the Department seeks to strengthen the field of youth work by providing training, mentoring and a career path for “incumbent and prospective youth workers.” Second, it aims to improve the quality of youth services by providing training standards, upgrading skills, and increasing the stability of programs by helping to retain caring adult staff.

Some people call this process of building the field of youth work “professionalizing” the field. However, this description somehow connotes that what youth development workers had been doing for years is lacking in professionalism. This idea could not be further from the truth. The direct, accumulated experience of youth workers provided the raw material for the creation and subsequent refinement of core competencies. Many of the training and professional development programs designed to provide pathways to the achievement of these core competencies give equal weight to life experience and formal education, including internships and field placements, on the job experience, on-site supervision and training and off-site training.

To the extent that becoming a professional means acquiring over time certain skills and experience that reflect growing mastery of a particular endeavor, then efforts to build the field of youth work can be seen as professionalizing the field. But we should always resist the unintended consequences that some fields have experienced as a result of professionalization. These can include a certain field-wide self-protectionism, lack of accountability to stakeholders, and isolation from related professions and natural partners.

The heart and soul must lead in this work. For those who do youth development work day to day the mission remains clear. Meet young people wherever they are, in school, out of school, on the street, in recreation centers, in prison, in church, on a work site. Build the kind of trusting relationships with them that will help them overcome barriers to their development. And finally, partner with young people in creating clear, motivating pathways to social and economic self-sufficiency and interdependence.

The creative, living core of the youth worker’s mission has not been diminished by efforts that have yielded a framework that provides needed form and definition to the field of youth work. Taken together, the efforts of young people, individual youth workers, youth serving organizations and policy-makers have been successful in giving form to the youth development approach to working with young people, articulating its purpose and method and distilling the core competencies that youth workers should acquire to be most effective in their work. These pioneering efforts have affirmed and strengthened the practice of those already in the field and  made it possible for many others to access, understand and pursue this same mission.

1. Academy for Educational Development/ Center for Youth Development and Policy Research in collaboration with the National Network for Youth, Inc. 1996. Advancing Youth Development:
A Curriculum for Training Youth Workers (NCJ 165923) (

Tim Cross is vice president of field services at YouthBuild USA, the national intermediary that provides a range of training, technical assistance and funding support to the field of 165 YouthBuild operating sites around the country. He has been involved in youth development work since 1987, working as a line youth worker and manager in community based, city wide and international development programs.