Levels of youth participation

It is important to note the different definitions referring to youth engagement or participation. Rather than simply being an approach of involving young people as consumers or recipients of a service, youth participation in terms of promoting positive youth development is regarded as a strategy to meaningfully engage young people, viewing them as resources, contributors and/or leaders of a program.

Maximum Youth Participation

The extent to which young people are involved in programs and the quality of intergenerational partnerships that is established depends largely on the attitudes that adults hold towards youth, as well as the relationships that adults develop when engaging with youth.1

The ‘Ladder of Youth Involvement’ as pictured below, is a model conceptualised by Hart (1992) that demonstrates the degrees to which young people can be involved in organisations, with the bottom three rungs (Manipulation, Decoration and Tokenism) referring to non- or low involvement and steps four to nine representing increasing degrees of youth participation, where youth initiate ideas and share decisions with adults. The model makes it clear that youth can be involved in many different ways within programs and organisations.

However, to improve and secure program efficiency youth program coordinators are recommended to aim at encouraging youth participation on the higher levels (6-9), so that youth can be involved as partners in program planning and decision making processes and are enabled to set their own goals.

While maximising youth involvement in program activity is essential, power imbalances between youth and adults need to be reduced and roles and responsibilities of all persons involved need to be clearly defined. Generally, successful intergenerational partnerships can be fostered if adults clearly show their respect, encouraging youth’s opinions and ideas, responding to them in non-judgmental manners, and involving them adequately in decision making processes.

According to the experience of youth agencies, setting up and managing the expectations between staff and young people, and being transparent about all organisational activities while working with young people are important aspects of how to make youth participation a success.

Ladder of youth involvement – Degrees of youth participation*

9. Youth Initiated and Directed

  • Designed and run by youth and decisions made by youth

8. Youth Initiated, Shared Decisions with Adults

  • Designed and run by youth who share decisions with adults

7. Youth and Adult Initiated and Directed

  • Designed and run by youth and adults in full partnership

6. Adult Initiated, Shared Decisions with Youth

  • Minimum Youth Participation
  • Designed and run by adults who share decisions with youth

5. Consulted and Informed

  • Designed and run by adults who consult with youth. Youth make recommendations that are considered by adults

4. Assigned and Informed

  • Youth do not initiate, but understand and have some sense of ownership.

3. Tokenism

  • Symbolic representation by few. May not have genuine voice. May be asked to speak for the group they represent

2. Decoration

  • Adults use youth to promote or support a cause without informing youth.

1. Manipulation

  • Youth are not involved in design or decisions; Youth involvement used by adults to communicate adults’ messages

(*Adapted from “Hart’s Ladder” from “Youth Participation in Community Planning,” a report of the American Planning Association Innovation Center for Community and Youth Development www.theinovationcenter.org).


  1. Advocates for Youth. “Youth Involvement in Prevention Programming.” http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/iag/involvement.pdf
  2. Zeldin, S Larson, R, Camino, L, O’Connor, C 2005, Intergenerational Relationships And Partnerships In Community Programs: Purpose, Practice, And Directions For Research. Journal Of Community Psyhology, 33(1): 1-10.