Youth Leadership Programs

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Team Building
Youth Club
Youth Leadership programs formed to serve the unique need of focusing youth energies on positive activities, leading to increased self-efficacy and the development of skills relevant to success in adulthood and the workplace such as decision-making and working well with others.

Written by Shana Bagley


Youth development is a process that prepares young people to navigate adolescence and realize their potential as an adult. An important aspect of youth development is leadership programming. Youth leadership programs focus on youth developing the following:

  • the ability to analyze his or her own strengths and weaknesses, set personal and vocational goals, and have the self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and abilities to carry them out (including the ability to establish support networks in order to fully participate in community life and effect positive social change) and

  • the ability to guide or direct others on a course of action, influence the opinions and behaviors of others and serve as a role model (Strahle 2013).

While youth development programs meet basic physical, developmental, and social needs, leadership programs seek to position youth as leaders in their community, to take positions of leadership in companies, organizations and professional associations. Through youth leadership programs, young people gain the skills and knowledge to lead civic engagement, education reform, and community organizing activities. Youth leadership is both an internal and an external process (NCWD 2005).


Historic Roots

In the mid-1800s, the view of children shifted from self-sufficient and left to follow their own tendencies toward aggression or stubbornness, to human beings who learn from experience, and as a result, are influenced by those around them. Due to publications by John Locke and Charles Darwin, society accepted that children could be taught to be successful adults. Childhood and adolescence quickly became viewed as the most critical point in human development (Youth Development).

The societal shift led to significant changes in the way young children were cared for and how their development was approached. A movement to place orphaned children with families to care for them replaced orphanages and group homes. Society reevaluated child delinquency, and rather than just punishing youth focused on ways to rehabilitate and care for them through the creating of juvenile courts. The first juvenile court law was enacted in 1899 and within twenty years, all but three states adopted similar legislation (Youth Development).

Scholars continued their research into the causes of child delinquency. In 1960, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin published research that determined that young people became delinquent when deprived of opportunity. The Opportunity Theory suggests that delinquently is reduced or prevented when youth are present opportunities, particularly those that increase economic success.  As more and more research was completed, the demand for programs for youth development and leadership grew (Youth Development).

As youth development programs grew, the focus shifted from keeping kids from engaging in delinquent behaviors to developing youth’s skills and helping them grow into successful adults. The conceptual shift reinforces the idea that "youth problems are the principal barrier to youth development to thinking that youth development serves as the most effective strategy for the prevention of youth problems” (Youth Development).

Today, organizations like Girls Inc., Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, Association of C5 Youth Programs, and many others focus on developing the leadership skills of youth across the United States. Youth leadership programs focus not only on the youth as an individual but as part of a community, as well as giving young people soft skills, such as communication, team work, and goal setting, that they will use to be successful adults.



Youth leadership programs are important because not only do they channel youth energy in a positive way, but also it prepares the next generation of leadership in the workforce and in communities. Youth leadership programs provide youth with the skills necessary to guide others, influence opinions and policy, and become as role models for their peers and younger generations (Strahle 2013).

Youth Leadership programs equip youth with tools like time management, teamwork, goal setting, conversation skills, and public speaking (Strahle 2013). Youth development programming yields positive outcomes in youth, including decreases in negative behaviors (such as alcohol and tobacco use and violence) and increases in positive attitudes and behaviors (such as motivation, academic performance, self-esteem, problem-solving, positive health decisions, and interpersonal skills). Outcomes for youth participating in leadership development programming are increased self-efficacy and the development of skills relevant to success in adulthood and the workplace such as decision-making and working well with others. Building self-advocacy and self-determination skills, an important aspect of leadership development for youth with disabilities, correlates with making a successful transition to adulthood (NCWD 2005).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The movement for Youth Leadership programs has been met primarily by the nonprofit sector. A substantial number of nonprofit organizations have been born across the United States to operate programs focused on youth leadership development. Only recently, middle and high schools that are required to teach core curriculum and have had little focus on leadership or social-emotional skills, have begun to focus more on leadership training for students. This is mostly done through extracurricular activities like student government organizations or school associations with organizations such as Future Business Leaders of America.  

Some nonprofit organizations are partnering with schools to bring leadership programming to students in school; there are also nonprofits whose leadership programming occurs on weekends or over the summer. Nonprofit leadership programs often focus on civic engagement, volunteerism, and character development.

Many youth leadership programs are targeted to students from low socio-economic status or students that attend Title 1 schools. These students are identified as in need of opportunity and training, with hopes that they will rise above the income bracket to which they were born and make positive impacts on their communities. Youth leadership programs seek to have an impact on generational poverty, and are focused on mainly adolescent and teenage youth.

As the National Alliance for Secondary Education and Tradition notes:

“Well-designed and well-run youth development programs promote youth leadership by involving youth in needs assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation. A growing number of organizations include youth on their boards of directors. Effective programs engage all participating youth in constructive action through activities such as service learning, arts, and athletics; and emphasize common values such as friendship, citizenship, and learning” (National Alliance).


Key Related Ideas

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was an act passed in 2015, which requires the inclusion of a fifth, non-academic measure in state accountability systems. Policy makers are drawing upon research around positive youth development, which states that positive experiences, relationships, and environments contribute to many desired youth outcomes.

Foster Care Independence Act (FCIA) was passed in 1999 and focuses on assisting foster youth with life skills training, education and employment supports, and youth development, among other activities.

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was an act passed in 2014 with a key component on assist youth service practitioners, administrators, and policy makers in defining, differentiating, and providing youth development and youth leadership programs and activities.

Younger Americans Act is new legislation that assures young people will be provided access to resources in the community and services that will prepare them for young adulthood.  


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Association of C5 Youth Programs is relentlessly focused on empowering youth from economically disadvantaged and risk-filled environments to successfully complete high school and - as the first of their family- enter college and equipped to do well once they get there. (
  • Boy Scouts of America has helped mold the future leaders of this country by combining educational activities and lifelong values with fun. The Boy Scouts of America believes and, through nearly a century of experience, understands that helping youth puts us on a path toward a more conscientious, responsible, and productive society. (
  • Girl Scouts of America is the preeminent leadership development organization for girls. With programs for girls from coast to coast and across the globe, Girl Scouts offers every girl a chance to do something amazing. (
  • Girls Inc. inspires all girls to be strong, smart, and bold, providing more than 140,000 girls across the U.S. and Canada with life-changing experiences and solutions to the unique challenges girls face. The Girls Inc. Experience consists of people, an environment, and programming that, together, empower girls to succeed. (
  • National 4-H is America’s largest youth development organization—empowering nearly six million young people across the U.S. with the skills to lead for a lifetime. (

Reflection Question - What concepts do leadership development programs focus on that students aren’t traditionally being taught at school?



  • National Alliance for Secondary Education and Transition. Youth Development and Youth Leadership.
  • National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability. Youth Development and Leadership in Programs.
  • Strahle, Emily. “The importance of early youth leadership development.”  Evansville Courier and Press
  • Youth Development Programs - Historical Development of Youth Development Programs, Youth Development Programs in the Early Twenty-First


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.