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Engaging Select Populations E-Learning Module


Go to Section: Introduction > Recognizing Diversity > The Power of Diversity > Defining Vulnerable Youth > Vulnerabilities


This course on Engaging Select Populations provides programs working with expectant and parenting adolescents and young adults (referred to as expectant and parenting youth in this course) with an overview of principles and strategies to more successfully reach diverse, vulnerable, and at-risk youth and, specifically, how to work in partnership with them. In this module, we use the term “select populations” to refer to groups of diverse youth with many different characteristics, including, in some cases, vulnerability. The diversity of a population includes the ways in which people differ on characteristics such as age, race, language, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, and physical and mental abilities. Vulnerable youth populations, sometimes referred to as “at-risk populations,” are identified by characteristics that put them at increased risk for negative outcomes.

Successfully engaging select populations of expectant and parenting youth doesn’t just mean translating materials into other languages or assuming that expectant and parenting youth would universally respond to a “one size fits all” approach. Principles for engaging select populations can and should be incorporated into the design, delivery, and implementation of program services. To reach and engage select populations, programs must be flexible, adaptable, and open to customizing materials for a variety of audiences.

This E-learning module on Engaging Select Populations teaches practitioners working with expectant and parenting youth how to:

  • Define select populations
  • Identify the select populations they serve within their target population
  • Identify supports and ways to engage the select populations they serve
  • Develop specific strategies for engaging select populations of youth

Recognizing Diversity

Youth represent diverse groups, with respect to their characteristics and their needs and are often vulnerable youth.

What is Diversity?

Recognizing and responding to diversity within a target population is critical for successful design, delivery, and implementation of program services. Diversity encompasses a number of characteristics, attributes, and contexts, including:

  • Race, ethnicity, language, and culture
  • Gender identity (including transgendered or gender non-conforming)
  • Developmental or acquired disabilities
  • Faith-based beliefs (religious or spiritual)
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or youth questioning their sexual orientation
  • Socio-economic status
  • Variability in language skills and/or reading level

These aspects of diversity can influence the ways in which youth participate in program activities and the approach facilitators use to present information. Engaging diverse participants requires cultural competence, flexibility, and the creation of a safe environment to express opinions. Programs should hire staff and/or train staff to be culturally competent in their engagement of and interactions with youth. In addition, the organization or agency as a whole should embrace, practice, and support cultural competency. “Cultural competence” means having an attitude of acceptance, respect, understanding, and appreciation for another’s cultural uniqueness and a willingness to learn about another’s culture. Cultural competence in program delivery allows for facilitators to establish a rapport with participants, as well as deliver content effectively and respectfully.

Acknowledging Diversity

Successfully acknowledging diversity is more than just accepting differences; it requires:

  • Respecting, appreciating, and understanding the varying characteristics of individuals.
  • Understanding the dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression; that is, historically power differentials have existed between majority and minority groups, and those power differences often result in social privileges or advantages for those in majority groups while simultaneously resulting in oppression and prejudice toward those in minority groups.

Be aware of what may hinder program staff from being culturally competent:

  • Stereotypical thinking: making assumptions about a person or a group of people based on a particular generalization, without regard for individual differences.
  • Ethnocentrism: the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one’s own culture and to believe that this culture is superior to that of all others (or inferior).
  • Denial of one’s own biases: ignoring personal beliefs or assumptions about groups of people, rather than acknowledging and addressing them.

Program providers should reflect upon their own diverse characteristics and backgrounds, their personal values and beliefs that stem from them, and the ways in which their values and beliefs affect their interactions with others. Diversity can manifest itself in any number of ways, including:

  • Gender roles
  • Family structure
  • Perceptions of time and space
  • Use of humor
  • Speech norms
  • Orientation to authority
  • Attitude toward future and life planning
  • Degree of openness toward members of other cultures
  • Degree of openness about personal issues
  • Individualistic vs. collectivistic values
  • Direct vs. indirect communication (i.e. eye contact, assertiveness)
  • Level of formality of communication
  • Importance of spirituality

When accounting for diversity in designing and implementing programs for expectant and parenting youth, it can be helpful to assess your program’s sensitivity to diversity by asking the following questions:

  • Do any barriers exist that would restrict select populations from participating?
  • Does program scheduling, location, or content restrict participants from attending based on their religious beliefs or days of observance?
  • Are there barriers to participation for youth with no or little income or those with physical disabilities?
  • Do program materials and staff members take into account varying levels of English language competency and reading level without causing embarrassment to participants?
  • Is there a cultural mismatch between the program and the participants? For example, are there conflicts or challenges in the protocol or program messages that differ from the cultural values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations of the select populations served by the program?

Implementing Diversity Programming

One key consideration in engaging diverse expectant and parenting youth is that some aspects of diversity may be in transition. That is to say, during adolescence and young adulthood, young people may “try on” various roles as they develop their identity and gain more independence and autonomy. It is important to keep in mind static versus non-static aspects of diversity and identity and be aware of the transitions that youth may be experiencing. Gender identity, sexual orientation, and religious or spiritual faith, among others, are aspects of identity that may be evolving as young people navigate their transition to adulthood.

Other tips for implementing programming with cultural competence when engaging diverse populations:

  • Do not assume that everyone’s needs and wants are the same – this rings true for program staff and program participants. View the participant as an expert on his/her cultural experiences.
  • Remember that there are subcultures within cultures, and that individuals may identify with many different (and sometime conflicting) cultural identities.
  • Remember that words and phrases are culturally-conditioned (meaning that they may be rooted in one particular culture or may be culture-specific) and that meanings may differ between people and subcultures.
  • Do not rely on past experiences to deal with every new situation – stereotypes and assumptions, whether derived from personal experience or not – can contribute to negative interactions.
  • Consider the cultural knowledge that you possess as possibilities not absolutes; that is, consider that personal values and beliefs are just that – personal – and other values and beliefs are equally as salient to those who espouse them. Be flexible in seeing things from a different worldview.
  • Be aware of and examine your own biases constantly.
  • In the process of acknowledging personal biases, make a good faith effort to think about the positive attributes that different groups bring to the table – not just the negative attributes that are sometimes associated with that group. Treat cultural differences as a resource – look at differences between groups and individuals as an opportunity to learn and be able to tolerate ambiguity or discomfort in learning something different or in contrast to your culture, beliefs, and attitudes.

The Power of Diversity

Select populations or expectant and parenting youth, both diverse and vulnerable, face numerous challenges on their path to self-sufficient, positive adulthood. Programs can benefit from a strengths-based approach to working with select populations, which means focusing on the capacities or gifts that select populations have to offer, not on perceived shortcomings or what is absent.

Bohach (1997) writes: "Every individual, no matter how deprived or disadvantaged he may feel he is or be perceived to be, still has an endless supply of unique, positive, and valuable abilities that are gifts…. Using their gifts, we can focus on areas of strength (the positive) rather than only focusing on areas of need (the negative)."

Group diversity holds many strengths and benefits for programs working with expectant and parenting youth from select populations, including:

  • Diverse experience - Diverse backgrounds bring unique experiences and perceptions to groups and teams. Pooling the varied knowledge and skills of diverse youth can be fruitful. All youth possess unique strengths and weaknesses derived from their cultures, their individuality, and their life experiences. With thoughtful facilitation, diversity can be leveraged, and the strengths of each person can come together to form a group that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Opportunities for learning and growth - Another advantage of group diversity is the opportunity for youths' personal growth. Being exposed to new ideas, cultures and perspectives can help individuals to reach out intellectually and gain a clearer view of their surroundings and their place in the world. By slowly breaking down conscious or subconscious barriers of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, youth can become more well-rounded members of society.
  • Improved group effectiveness and better decision making - Homogenous groups tend to be comfortable around each other, which is great for camaraderie, but not so great for exploring complex solutions to problems. Diverse groups can break up “group think.” Diversity among team members can bring new and varied ideas to the table; in fact, the mere presence of different groups may be enough to get people out of their comfort zones and thinking differently about the situation.

Defining Vulnerable Youth

There is no universal definition of the term “vulnerable youth.” Generally, youth are perceived as vulnerable if they experience situations, such as pregnancy or homelessness, that put them at risk of developing problem behaviors and outcomes that may potentially damage their communities, themselves, or both. Being “vulnerable” does not necessarily mean that a young person has already engaged in risky behavior or experienced negative outcomes, but it does mean that he or she is in a position or situation where they are more likely to engage in those risky behaviors and thus experience negative outcomes.

Who are vulnerable youth?

Researchers have identified multiple groups of youth who are more vulnerable to experiencing poor outcomes as they enter adulthood. Some of these groups include:

  • Homeless and runaway youth
  • Young mothers and fathers
  • Youth involved in social service systems (e.g., juvenile justice, foster care)
  • Youth who have experienced abuse, neglect, and/or other trauma
  • Disconnected youth (youth detached from the labor market or school settings)
  • Undocumented or non-citizen youth
  • Youth engaged in substance abuse

Youth of color and those living in poverty are overrepresented in vulnerable populations due in part to their exposure to poverty, crime, racism, and lack of access to systems of care, such as health care and vocational assistance.

Vulnerable youth face many obstacles that may make it difficult to avoid negative outcomes and, moreover, difficult to thrive. In some cases, vulnerable youth may not even have their basic needs met – they may experience a lack of food, shelter, and health care. Vulnerable youth might also have to contend with unstable family support systems or homes, a lack of educational opportunity or attainment, or difficulty securing employment that provides adequate wages and health insurance.

Due in large part to these challenges, vulnerable youth are more likely to suffer from physical and mental illness, to engage in criminal activity, and to experience negative reproductive health outcomes, such as:

  • Earlier and higher levels of sexual activity during adolescence
  • A greater number of sexual partners
  • Lower levels of contraceptive use
  • An elevated risk of sexually transmitted infection
  • Higher levels of teen pregnancy and childbearing

Young Parents

Being a parent at any age poses challenges, and expectant and parenting youth are often faced with added financial, societal, emotional, and physical difficulties that put them and their children at higher risk for a number of negative outcomes. Expectant and parenting youth with additional vulnerabilities (that might be present before, during, or after they become parents) may be forced to contend with even greater challenges and barriers. In fact, simply by becoming parents, their risk of further vulnerability increases.

Frequently, young people experience multiple, intersecting vulnerabilities. For example, young women who are homeless, have run away, or are in foster care are more likely to experience teen pregnancy. Of course, when taking these complex and compound vulnerabilities into account, it is important to remember that a factor such as being in the foster care system or being homeless is not necessarily the singular impetus for engaging in the risky behaviors that can lead to teen pregnancy. Rather, for many youth, vulnerabilities are interrelated and emerge from shared root causes. For instance, their risky sexual behaviors may be linked to the experiences of abuse, neglect, or abandonment, which caused these youth to be placed in foster care or to become homeless to begin with.


A young person is placed in foster care due to family instability; she is now considered vulnerable. This increases her likelihood of becoming a teen parent. She gives birth as an adolescent and subsequently drops out of school. This young person now falls into three vulnerable populations: being involved in a social service system (foster care), being a teen parent, and being disconnected from school.

For select populations of youth who are pregnant or become parents, programs should be designed and implemented with their vulnerabilities and risk factors in mind, so that the needs of program participants are supported both as teen parents and as vulnerable youth.


Engaging select populations involves both an understanding of the many unique and diverse characteristics of individuals and groups and of the obstacles faced by them. The challenges faced and programmatic support needed by expectant and young parents stem from these myriad factors and the ways they interact.

Diversity and vulnerability are intertwined: diversity can result in vulnerability, and it can also intensify vulnerability. When considering diversity among youth who are vulnerable, remember that diverse characteristics or contexts may predispose or expose a young person to vulnerability (which might be the case for, say, racial minority or low economic status youth) or they may exacerbate their vulnerability through marginalization in society (which might be the case for youth with marginalized sexual orientations or without documented citizenship status).

A working understanding of societal dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression can help ensure that programs take into account multiple perspectives and life experiences, as well as the barriers faced by certain groups or individuals. For example, a young person who identifies with an ethnic or religious minority group may not necessarily be vulnerable based on this identification alone, especially if they have access to support networks and resources such as a stable home, school, and neighborhood.

However for vulnerable youth who also identify as an ethnic or religious minority, this identification may compound their vulnerability due to further marginalization and greater barriers to resources and care. This is particular important for program providers to understand, as vulnerable youth—such as those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning; have undocumented citizen status; have developmental or acquired disabilities; or have limited English proficiency or low reading ability—are at higher risk of engaging in problem behaviors and experiencing negative outcomes.

Select populations of expectant and parenting youth often represent vulnerable populations, and they face complex barriers to success that may include pregnancy discrimination. Pregnancy and childbearing discrimination is illegal and refers to treating an individual unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth. Although most reported cases of such discrimination involve females, there have also been cases where males have faced the same type of discrimination. In the case of young parents, pregnancy and childbearing discrimination might include not inviting a pregnant youth to the prom, not allowing a pregnant teen to walk at graduation, or denying a pregnant teen an internship opportunity. These unique barriers may result in teen parents being further disconnected from society or their peers. Even when overt discrimination does not occur, being a young parent, female or male, may be isolating. These young mothers and fathers may face negative reactions or outright rejection from their families, peers, schools, or employers. Especially with rates of teen births at an all-time low, teen and young parents are that much more stigmatized and marginalized.

Programs that serve select populations will be most successful if they are cognizant of the challenges faced by and sensitive to the needs of minority and vulnerable populations. Program leaders and staff should consider asking themselves the following questions:

  • Does the programming offered make any assumptions about what is “the norm” or make any assumptions about participants?
  • Does it provide space for all voices to be heard safely and equally?

Asking questions like these may be helpful for recognizing the many potential layers of diversity and in identifying unintended exclusion or cultural bias.

The 4 S's of Engagement

Go to Section: Introduction > Setting > Support > Structure > Strategy > Exercises


Part 1 of this e-learning module highlights the benefits of engaging select populations and explores the four S's for engaging youth: Setting, Support, Structure, and Strategy. These elements help programs achieve success in reaching and retaining select populations of youth, and they lay the foundation to develop partnerships with youth.

Benefits of Youth Involvement

Direct youth involvement offers potential benefits both to select populations of youth and to the organizations that serve them. To name just a few: youth gain experience and confidence; organizations gain a fresh perspective on youth culture; and develop more effective outreach strategies. However, organizations must clearly identify and articulate these benefits if youth and adults are to embrace the concept of youth involvement.

Involving young people may provide an organization with the following benefits:

  • Fresh ideas, unshackled by the way things have always been done
  • New perspectives on decision-making that integrate relevant information about young people's needs and interests
  • Candid responses about existing services
  • Additional data for analysis and planning that may be available only through speaking with youth directly
  • More effective outreach that provides important information peer-to-peer
  • Additional human resources as youth and adults share responsibility
  • Greater acceptance of messages, services, and decisions because youth were involved in shaping them
  • Increased synergy from partnering youths’ energy and enthusiasm with adults' professional skills and experience
  • Enhanced credibility of the organization to both youth and advocates

Involving young people may benefit young people in these ways:

  • Increased status and stature in the community
  • Improved competencies and agency
  • Increased self-esteem and sense of self
  • Stronger skills and experience as leaders
  • Greater knowledge and understanding of other cultures
  • Increased self-discipline and schedule management
  • Greater appreciation of the multiple roles of adults
  • Broader career choices


Highly trained staff and a welcoming program space are essential to engaging select populations of expectant and parenting youth. Combined, these two components can create an appropriate environment for serving select populations of youth. In fact, regardless of who is providing services, which select populations are being served, and where they are being served - the principle remains: a warm and welcoming program environment will facilitate program engagement.

The following strategies can help create an appropriate environment for serving select populations:

  • Cultivating a culture of acceptance and maintaining a no-tolerance policy for discrimination
  • Developing and espousing cultural competence among staff and program participants alike
  • Incorporating developmentally- and culturally-appropriate practices into program services and delivery
  • Utilizing youth voices in the development and delivery of program services
  • Recruiting, training, retaining, and compensating highly-skilled and culturally-competent staff
  • Setting up a process to deal with and overcome challenges when they occur

Concrete suggestions for developing highly skilled staff and a welcoming program environment include:

  • Hiring Criteria -- by identifying and applying appropriate staff selection criteria and by a implementing a thorough interview process, programs are more likely to hire people who are a good fit for the program. It is important to remember during this process that there is not necessarily a single set of ideal staff qualities to look for when hiring – a diverse staff brings the same elements to the table that a group of diverse young people brings, experiences, culture, and understanding.
  • Training staff -- staff should be trained and mentored to build their capacity to understand and address the complex influences and risk factors that lead to teen pregnancy; to adopt culturally sensitive practices and celebrate diversity; to help youth recognize the positive and supportive resources that can be maximized; and, to acknowledge where supplemental support is needed. A high functioning staff is one that is well-trained in topics relevant to their work, which, in the case of expectant and parenting youth, can include adolescent development, reproductive health, positive youth development, and trauma-informed approaches.
  • Holding staff accountable – after staff are hired and trained, program leadership should develop guidelines to maintain quality of service delivery and staff-participant interactions. Program leaders should monitor and track services provided, evaluate staff performance, and hold staff accountable in the process.
  • Maintaining staff morale -- direct service staff have articulated the following as desirable qualities for long-term employment: relevant skills training, technical assistance, appropriate infrastructure supports, and comparable benefits and salary. Notably, most of these qualities relate to support – staff also benefit from a warm and appropriate environment!


If the secret to success in real estate is “location, location, location,” in the field of youth development, the mantra is: “relationship, relationship, relationship.” The relationships between young people and adults and among youth and their peers are the single most influential contributor to the success of any youth serving organization. Youth may be attracted to the program for various reasons, but they will remain engaged because of their relationships with program adults and other youth they encounter.

Program staff should strive to become “adult allies;” adult allies are those who take a strengths-based approach to working with youth (meaning, when they work with youth, they recognize and utilize the strengths that youth have to offer), those who endeavor to share power and decision-making with youth, and those who will advocate on behalf of youth when others portend negative stereotypes and assumptions.

Becoming an Ally

Strong and effective adult allies will:1

  • Work alongside youth as allies and build authentic relationships. These mentors build the bridge between young people and the adult world. The key to successful youth-adult relationships is an understanding of the concept of partnership. In many youth-adult relationships experienced by expectant and parenting youth, adults either dictate the “agenda” of the relationship, or they neglect the young person and abdicate responsibility for what happens to them. In a strong youth-adult partnership, the adult ally and young people work “shoulder to shoulder,” sharing ideas and expertise, translating information about one another’s worlds, creating a mutual agenda, and taking joint responsibility for outcomes. Effective partnerships establish clear goals and an understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities. They also include balance control; if youth have no power to make decisions their participation is not one of partnership. Authentic relationships are particularly important for vulnerable populations who may be disconnected from stable adults (or any adults, for that matter), or who have lost trust in adult relationships due to their negative past experiences with adults.
  • Model positive behavior. Relationships in the teen and young adult years pave the way for future relationships. Given the tendency of young people to mirror the behaviors of those around them, program staff should model healthy relationships by treating young people and each other with respect and courtesy. Ideally this should be effortless – respect and courtesy should be the default. In challenging situations, it can be easy to lose one’s cool, but these situations offer an additional opportunity to model positive and productive ways to compromise, negotiation, and, of course, respect other people’s views and beliefs. Modeling healthy relationships skills is especially important when working with select and vulnerable populations who may have had limited access to positive adult role models throughout their lives. Consistently modeling positive and healthy behavior will help these young people to navigate difficult situations, change negative behaviors, and continue to display positive behavior into adulthood.
  • Use motivational interviewing techniques to help expectant and parenting youth envision a better future. Motivational interviewing is a person-centered, non-directive form of communication that promotes individual change. It is a collaborative communication technique, which can include pointing out ambivalent or contradictory statements and reframing thoughts into opportunities for change. The technique of motivational interviewing seeks to help people think differently about their behavior and ultimately to consider what might be gained through change. The strategy is to help expectant and parenting youth envision a better future for themselves and their families and to become increasingly motivated to realize that vision. Adult allies should help open doors for youth and increase their access to the resources needed to achieve their goals.
  • Empower program participants to be program ambassadors and share their stories with other youth and encourage participation. Program staff should recognize that young people are assets and are oftentimes willing and able to advocate on behalf of youth and the program. Of course, program staff should consider the fact that young people vary widely in their development and in their ability, readiness, and willingness to assume responsibility. Like adult program staff, program ambassadors should be committed, reliable, and effective. Adults should prepare youth to meaningfully engage in the decision-making and leadership roles available while they participate in programming and once they become alumni.

Strategies for Effective Programs

To work effectively with select populations of youth – especially vulnerable youth who may not have access to supportive networks and resources – program staff can employ the following strategies:

  • Be open to and nonjudgmental about young people's insights and suggestions. Letting expectant and parenting youth know that their perspective, opinions, and involvement in a program matter can help promote program engagement and can ensure that youth will participate in meaningful ways.
  • Set realistic and overt expectations. Be honest about program expectations, including what youth are expected to contribute and how they should participate. Expectations should be realistic, and hold youth accountable.
  • Remain flexible and offer support. Expectant and parenting youth have numerous needs – their own and their families.’ Programs should account for their diverse needs and the kinds of support (financial, logistical, training, emotional, and so forth) it will take to keep youth engaged and for who will be responsible for responding to these needs and providing this support.
  • Take time to build a relationship. Remember that it takes time to develop trust and rapport with youth; many youth are unsure about adults' intentions, especially those who have been neglected, abandoned, or abused by adults in the past. Take the time and make the effort to develop a good relationship with youth at the onset of the program.
  • Make the work interactive, fun, and valuable. Like adults, youth are more likely to get involved and remain active and engaged in projects that are interesting and fulfilling. Having fun is important. Whenever possible, find a way to balance learning, work, and fun in program services.

Other Suggestions

Concrete suggestions for strengthening participant-provider relationships include:

  • Ensure staff retention -- maintaining a consistent staff and minimizing turnover ensures program quality and continuity and makes it possible for participants and providers to develop strong relationships.
  • Train on best practices -- providers can benefit from technical assistance and training that provides examples, case studies, and success stories of successful strategies and best practices for communicating and building relationships with youth.
  • Be transparent and consistent -- participant-provider relationships will thrive when trust is present. With openness, consistency, and honesty, young people and adults can develop trust within their relationship, which will in turn facilitate strong working relationships and youth-adult partnerships.
  • Use what you learn -- deliberate inclusion of teen feedback in program planning can improve program delivery and, ultimately, increase youth engagement. Programs should have a specific plan on how to include and foster the input expectant and teen parents provide. A stronger relationship is forged when youth feel their voice is heard and respected.


To return to the page content, select the respective footnote number.

1 Promising strategies and existing gaps in supporting pregnant and parenting teens: Summary of expert panel workgroup meetings January and July 2013. Washington: D.C. 


As noted earlier, expectant and parenting youth – especially vulnerable youth – face many barriers to service access and utilization. To improve program recruitment and engagement, program providers should identify the range of barriers that select youth populations face, and think strategically about how to overcome these barriers. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come – program structure must preempt or account for factors that would impede upon successful engagement. Adults who endorse the concept of engaging youth and forming youth-adult partnerships must be willing to identify and alter the program structure and organizational environment that act as barriers for select populations.

Consider the following structural factors that might inhibit engagement of select population of expectant and parenting youth:

  • Meeting and Work Hours – An agency’s hours of operation usually coincide with times when young people are at school or work. To engage youth, program planners must find nontraditional times at which to hold important meetings or provide services. Often, scheduling conflicts can be difficult to overcome. However, compromise is vital if an organization is to create youth-adult partnership. For adults, this may mean altering schedules to hold meetings in the late afternoon, early evening, or on the weekend.
  • Transportation – Many young people do not have access to transportation. Program planners should schedule meetings or programs in easily accessible locations. They should also provide youth with travel vouchers and/or immediate reimbursement for the cost of travel.
  • Food – Few young people have the income to purchase meals in business districts or dinners in restaurants. When a meeting occurs at mealtime, the organization should provide young people with food or with the means to obtain food. For example, a gift card for a nearby restaurant.
  • Equipment and support – Agencies should provide youth with the same equipment as other employees, such as computer workstation, mailbox, voice mail, E-mail, and business cards. Failure to do so carries a powerful message that these youth – whether they are volunteers, interns, or peer educators, full-time or part-time – are not important or, at least, are not as important as adult employees.
  • Procedures and policies – With input from both youth and adults, organizations should develop policies on youth/adult interactions. Organizations may consider establishing policies requiring the consent of a parent or guardian for youth’s participation in activities or for youth being transported by organization staff, for example. The setting and purpose of each youth-adult partnership will help determine other institutional factors that may need to be addressed in the organization’s policies and procedures.


Concrete suggestions for improving program structure include:

  • When possible, outreach should come from peers, program alumni, or trusted adults.
  • Allow for adaptability and flexibility (locations, hours, modes of service delivery, etc.) Adaptability means that staff should continuously review material and strategies to ensure they are culturally sensitive and appropriate and make adaptations such as modifying role plays in existing curricula to fit the population. Flexibility means that programs can engage select populations more effectively if they are flexible in the times they offer services, provide food during meeting times, and are bi-lingual and/or bi-cultural. Programs should strive to be gender diverse to engage male and female youth – such that both are able to participate in activities.
  • Consider offering incentives when working with vulnerable expectant and parenting youth (including food, diapers, condoms, gas cards, and so forth). Take transportation barriers into account and provide support for youth to get to program services within reasonable amounts of time.
  • Work with partner and referral agencies to offer critical services such as child care, so that expectant and parenting youth can stay in school, or housing options for homeless and runaway youth. Young people are more likely to remain in programs if their needs are being met. Programs need to develop capacity/partnerships in the community to respond to the concrete needs of expectant and parenting youth (e.g., food, health care, and paying internships).
  • When possible and appropriate, involve the teen’s whole family in the program. Programs should integrate a focus on establishing healthy relationships -- youth may need to learn ways to maintain and, in some cases, re-establish healthy family relationships. Programs should also take into account changing perspectives -- programs may need to broaden the client definition, from the individual teen to recognizing and embracing the whole family as a unit in need of service. For example, programs can include grandparent support groups, offer intergenerational parenting education, and target younger siblings who are at increased risk for pregnancy.

To make youth engagement feasible, authentic, and impactful, these elements of a workable and intentional structure should be taken into consideration to support a system of opportunities. This combination of setting, support, and structure ensures that youth are seen as valuable participants, are prepared to take on meaningful roles in addressing relevant issues, and work in partnership with adults who respect, listen to, and support them. These elements set the stage for youth to engage in the design, delivery, and implementation of programming.


Programs fare better when they offer accessible and meaningful activities. This is especially true for serving select populations who may face additional barriers to participation or who feel marginalized by programming that is not relevant to them. Youth are more likely to participate if the program is:

  • Serving their needs
  • Supporting their ability to participate
  • Addressing issues which are important to them, and
  • Fostering strong adult-participant relationships

Like adults, many youth want active, hands-on activities that can be accomplished in short-term timeframes and easily-accessible settings. Others are interested in longer commitments that provide increasing opportunity to share ideas, influence decisions, or support their growth.

Working in partnership

To make a program approachable for diverse youth, agencies can create a continuum of opportunities for engagement that increase the extent to which youth share authority and accountability in program activities, planning and decision-making. It is also important to avoid "tokenism" in which one or two youth are consulted or invited with little expectation that anyone will heed their suggestions.

Consider these four strategic pathways to engagement:1

  1. Involvement–youth involvement includes allowing youth to actively participate in volunteer opportunities and meetings initiated by adults, to have input on the program activity planning and day-to-day operations, or to take on projects within initiatives.
  2. Consultation–youth consultation is the intentional creation of mechanism for youth input and advice on important issues facing their neighborhoods, schools and communities while the adults retain the authority to make final decisions.
  3. Representation–youth representation means providing youth with the opportunity to participate in ongoing program planning on behalf of their peers, with the ability to help set the agenda and vote in decision making.
  4. Shared leadership–shared leadership is when youth share positions of authority with adults as colleagues and share accountability for the goals and outcomes of the activity.

The pyramid shape does not imply that any one pathway has a greater value than another, but rather to demonstrate that activities increase in their depth and intensity as they move from the base to the apex. The pyramid shape is also indicative of the fact that the potential number of opportunities and the corresponding number of youth involved tends to decrease as the type of involvement increases in complexity.

Avoiding tokenism

Too often, the attitudes of well-intentioned adults undermine effective youth involvement. Programs may involve young people merely as token representatives. Programs may involve youth without sufficient preparation of either staff or youth. Tokenism and insufficient preparation are both recipes for failure. Both youth and adults may have high expectations about successful cooperation. However when planners put little time and effort into building the skills of both adults and youth to work in partnership or attempt to use young people in meaningless ways, efforts to involve youth will seldom succeed.

Tokenism can appear in many forms such as:

  • Having young people around with no clear role to play;
  • Assigning youth only those tasks which adults do not want to fulfill;
  • Having youth make media appearances without any voice in developing the messages, programs, or policies that the youth are expected to talk about; or
  • Having one youth on a board of directors or council to point to as “youth involvement.”

Tokenism will leave young people feeling used rather than empowered. The key to avoiding tokenism is to share with youth the power to make real decisions. Youth-adult partnerships are not ways to hide or obscure the fact that programs are designed, implemented, and run only by adults, but should be meaningful and beneficial for all involved: youth, adults, and the program/organization/agency as a whole.


To return to the page content, select the respective footnote number.

1 National League of Cities, Institute of Youth, Education & Families. (2010). Authentic youth civic engagement: A guide for municipal leaders. Washington: DC. Retrieved from: http://www.nlc.org/Documents/Find%20City%20Solutions/IYEF/Youth%20Civic%20Engagement/authentic-youth-engagement-gid-jul10.pdf

Exercise 1

What are some potential benefits to serving a diverse population? Select all that apply:

Exercise 2

Which of the following are examples of a workable and intentional program structure? Select all that apply:

Exercise 3

True or False: Good youth mentors are adults who tell them what to do and correct mistakes as they see them, helping guide young people toward appropriate behavior and goals.

Exercise 4

Which of the following describes a technique for avoiding tokenism in youth engagement?


Go to Section: Introduction > Communication > Partnerships > Exercises


In general, youth can be a difficult group for program providers to reach – and with the time and financial demands of parenting, expectant and parenting youth can be even more difficult to reach! When you add the various vulnerabilities of diverse populations (and the barriers to service access and utilization that they often face), reaching select populations of youth can be a daunting task. This section describes promising strategies for engaging youth.

  • Develop partnerships with pediatrician offices -- pediatric waiting rooms offer an opportunity for reaching out to teen parents either to provide resources or to introduce subsequent pregnancy prevention materials. The information could be presented on the screen in the waiting room or in the form of flyers and brochures. Additionally, the information should be culturally and developmentally appropriate as well as friendly and enriching.
  • Visit hospital emergency rooms -- for those teen mothers without health insurance, babies are often seen in emergency rooms; therefore hospital emergency departments could provide opportunities for reaching out to expectant and parenting youth. A similar strategy is to offer services at Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program locations; expectant and parenting youth use this Federal program for food and health assistance, education about nutrition, and obtain help with finding health care and other community services. Offering programs or services at WIC sites may be an avenue for reaching select populations of expectant and parenting youth.
  • Work with the social service systems – as noted earlier, expectant and parenting youths’ lives often intersect with social service systems, such as the criminal justice system. Working with these systems provides an opportunity to reach the most vulnerable populations (and, thus, the populations who are most in need of program services). Reaching these populations also offers an opportunity to affect positive intergenerational change; for instance, children of incarcerated parents are at higher risk of teen pregnancy. Targeting this group could be a good avenue for reaching youth and offering services to expectant and parenting youth and their families.
  • Go where youth congregate -- youth gathering places, which can vary widely across groups and regions, offer a direct way to reach youth where they congregate. Examples could include shopping malls, nail salons or Native American youth powwows. For this strategy to be most successful, program staff should consider working with youth or community liaisons and partners in identifying and gaining access to these locales.
  • Use social media -- utilizing social media sites that youth frequent to advertise programs could be helpful. Given today’s technology-driven youth, social media could be used to reach out to youth virtually. (Popular sites will vary regionally but may include sites such as Foursquare, Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter, Meetup, LinkedIn, etc.). When using social media to recruit program participants, it is imperative that program staff take into consideration the safety of the youth they are digitally reaching. For example, identifying these youth as expectant or parenting youth might put them at risk of negative reactions from parents, peers, and other members of the community.
  • Develop partnerships with the faith-based community -- religious communities and programs for expectant and parenting youth can work together productively. Both have a shared interest in strong families and in the healthy development of young people, and this shared interest can be leveraged to gain access to youth settings, to reach youth groups, and, in some cases, to develop partnerships for ongoing program service delivery. This partnership provides an excellent foundation for mutually-beneficial activities.


When working with select populations of youth, effective communication can facilitate active engagement. Effective communication is dependent on appropriate communication styles, meaningful consultation and roles, and openness and responsiveness to feedback from youth.

Communication styles in content delivery

Working with diverse and vulnerable youth can often highlight language and communication differences. Different styles of communication can create communication barriers – which can lead to misunderstanding or misinterpretation and, ultimately, disengagement. But differing communication styles are not necessarily indicative of disrespect, disinterest, or different goals and expectations. Youth and adults say that the best way to resolve conflicts that arise out of different communication styles is to ask questions when one does not understand what is being said or why.

Good communication can produce strong youth-adult relationships, which can improve program engagement. Take the time and make the effort to create shared meaning through communication and to develop a good relationship with youth before expecting things or making demands of them. A common metaphor used among youth workers is “young people as a bank account” – you cannot expect to withdraw something without having made any deposits.

The activities, services, expectations and roles of programs may be new to youth; take the time to explain. When information is presented in a hurried manner, youth can interpret this as a sign of disinterest in youths’ participation; so, go slowly and explain what's going on. Understanding, being able to identify, and being responsive to the communication styles of diverse and vulnerable populations will aid in the ability of staff to communicate with these groups effectively and remain open to hearing youth, thereby reducing conflict or miscommunication and encouraging program engagement.

Good communication leads to meaningful engagement

Consider these strategies when seeking to meaningfully engage youth:

  • Consult and involve youth in the design and development of programs. A core premise of youth development is that young people gain more from experiences with which they have active involvement. Research also suggests that programs for youth that are developed through youth-adult partnerships are highly effective in building young people's skills and have a greater impact on the young people served than do programs who do not involve youth. Program providers should also elicit ongoing feedback from youth participants.
  • Make youth an integral part of the implementation of the program. If youth cannot be involved in the design and development, attempt to involve them in program or service delivery. This allows youth to move beyond passively receiving the program to actively gaining a sense of self and agency.


What are important elements of effective youth-adult partnerships? It can be challenging to build effective, sustainable, genuinely collaborative youth-adult partnerships.

Successful partnerships have some important elements in common:

  • Establish clear goals for the partnership. Youth and the adults must understand what their roles and responsibilities will be in achieving the goals. Ensure that each adult and young person enters the partnership with a clear understanding of everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Not all adults will want to work with youth and not all youth will want to work with adults in a partnership capacity.
  • Share the power to make decisions. If youth have no power to make decisions, their participation is not one of partnership. Get the highest levels of the organization to commit fully to youths’ participation in the organization’s work. Treat youth as partners. Ensure that all members of the group, regardless of age, share the decision making power, having an equal voice and equal vote.
  • Select carefully. Young people vary widely in their development and in their readiness and willingness to assume responsibility. Being clear about the goals of the partnership and the roles that youth will play will help in identifying young people who are committed, reliable, and effective. At the same time, effective partnerships are selective about adult participants. Adults must believe that young people are assets and be willing and able to advocate on behalf of youth when stereotyping or negative assumptions about youth arise.
  • Provide capacity building and training. Effective partnerships don’t set young people up for failure by throwing them into situations for which they are not prepared. Youth may need training in skills, such as communication, leadership, assertiveness, or interviewing, as well as in topic areas, such as HIV prevention education, teen pregnancy prevention, or substance abuse, to name a few. Similarly, effective partnerships don’t set adults up for failure by throwing them into situations for which they are not prepared. Adults may need training in communication, collaborative work, interviewing, or working with youth as well as in specific areas of expertise, such as HIV prevention education or teen pregnancy prevention.
  • Value youths’ participation and what they bring. Effective partnerships hold high expectations for participating youth and are not afraid of holding youth accountable for their responsibilities. Welcome, encourage, and affirm contributions and insights from both youth and adults. Include room for growth – next steps. Where can youth and adults go next? For example, peer education programs are often great vehicles for empowering young people and helping them develop important skills. However, these programs seldom include opportunities for advancement or for peer educators to assume more responsibility over time. Effective programs ensure that youth and the adults who work with youth have opportunities for advancement. Both youth and adults will have valuable experience and insights to bring to more senior positions in the organization.

Exercise 1

What are some of the potential barriers to achieving successful youth engagement? Select all that apply.

Exercise 2

Which of the following are ways of effectively engaging youth through communication?

Exercise 3

True or False: Youth engagement is more beneficial to youth than to organizations or agencies in practical application.

Summary and Resources

Go to Section: Conclusion > Resources


This course provided you with an overview of the challenges and opportunities of engaging select populations in programs and services. You learned:

How to identify select populations of expectant and parenting youth

  • Select populations of expectant and parenting young people have diverse experiences and characteristics that sometimes make them vulnerable or put them at risk of developing negative outcomes.
  • Common examples of select populations that are considered to be vulnerable include homeless and runaway youth; youth in foster care; youth who experience abuse, neglect, or other trauma; undocumented or non-US citizen youth; and expectant or parenting youth.

How to recognize diversity and vulnerability

  • Program staff should be trained in cultural competence, meaning an attitude of acceptance, respect, and appreciation for another’s cultural uniqueness and a willingness to learn about another’s culture.
  • Diversity can refer to many individual characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, language, culture, gender identity, faith-based beliefs, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status.
  • More than simply being tolerant of differences, valuing diversity requires respecting, appreciating, understanding, and accepting the varying characteristics of individuals and understanding the dynamics of privilege, power, and oppression.
  • Some aspects of diversity are static and rarely change across the life course whereas as others may evolve as an adolescent transitions to adulthood.

How to utilize the four S’s for engaging youth

  • Program providers can improve engagement through setting; they can harness the power of diversity, set the stage with highly trained staff, and develop community partnerships to reach select populations.
  • Program providers can improve engagement through support; they can foster healthy relationships between young people and adults and among youth and their peers.
  • Program providers can improve engagement through structure; programs should be workable and intentional and should allow for adaptability and flexibility.
  • Program providers can improve engagement through strategy; they can utilize the four strategic pathways to engaging select populations: involving youth, consulting youth, ensuring youth are represented in planning, and establishing shared leadership among youth and adults.

How to develop strategies for engaging select populations

  • Recognize and utilize the benefits of youth involvement (to young people and adults).
  • Successful engagement is often a function of careful communication.
  • Be attentive to logistical and organizational barriers that can hinder engagement. Develop a plan for overcoming these barriers.
  • Successful youth-adult partnerships are formed with purpose and intention, have clear goals and roles, shared responsibility, capacity building and training, and contributions from youth and adults.

Expectant and parenting youth are considered vulnerable by definition, but when they also represent other diverse or vulnerable populations, engaging them successfully in programs and services requires additional effort and commitment on the part of the entire organization.


Adolescent Males

Black Youth

Foster Care

Hispanic Youth


Intimate Partner Violence


Native American/Alaska Native Youth


Tips and Tools

Other Resources

The views expressed in written training materials, publications, or presentations do not reflect the official policies of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. Any statements expressed are those of the parties responsible for developing this training content, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Adolescent Health, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Final Exam

Go to Section: Final Exam Intro > Final Exam

Final Exam

You have nearly completed the Engaging Select Populations E-Learning Module!

To finish the module, you must correctly answer the 14 of the following 16 questions.

Question 1

Which of the following is an aspect of diversity?

Question 2

True or False: Being culturally competent meanings ignoring your own biases about people who are different from you.

Question 3

“Ethnocentrism” can be defined as when someone:

Question 4

True or False: Individuals may have many different (and sometime conflicting) cultural identities.

Question 5

Which of the following is a true statement about diverse identities?

Question 6

True or False: Oppression occurs when there is an imbalance in power and privilege between minority and majority groups.

Question 7

Which of the following groups does NOT represent a “vulnerable” population?

Question 8

True or False: Youth of color are overrepresented in vulnerable populations due in part to their exposure to poverty, crime, racism, and lack of access to systems of care.

Question 9

Which of the following is a true statement?

Question 10

True or False: Diversity among youth groups should be avoided – differences between group members will lead to conflict and lack of group agreement and subsequent lack of group engagement.

Question 11

Effective and authentic youth-adult partnerships do NOT involve:

Question 12

True or False: Even when adults involve youth in program or group decisions, adults should always determine the “agenda” of the youth-provider relationship, so that the program or services that are being delivered do not get off-track.

Question 13

Which of the following BEST represents “shared leadership” among youth and adults?

Question 14

True or False: Youth involvement can enhance the credibility of an organization to both youth and advocates.

Question 15

Which of the following is NOT an example of “tokenism”?

Question 16

True or False: Differing communication styles are indicative of different goals and expectations.

Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on June 30, 2017