“Achieving Positive Development for Youth Globally: How Far Have We Come and What Is Yet Needed?”
[Summary by Dr. Caroline Mavridis]
Dr. Koller focused her presentation on her team’s work in Brazil to highlight the importance of community outreach and engagement at all stages of a successful intervention. Many of her participants have been what are known colloquially as “street kids,” that is, children and youth that are homeless, not attending school, and/or facing trouble with the law and drug addiction. “Street” kids tend to be victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking.
Dr. Koller coined the term “street psychologist” to describe the ongoing immersion of the researcher in local life. When starting any project, buy-in must be sought not just from directors but from those adults closest to the potential participants. Another term she emphasizes is “authorship,” which refers to empowering youth (that is, the “street kids”) to give input and make decisions about intervention programs to be developed on their behalf. In this process youth give feedback on desired educational content and activities, research methods, findings, and later interpretations. This sense of authorship, Dr. Koller related, leads many such youth to take action and organize their own projects within their communities.
One youth intervention Dr. Koller and her team have headed is called “Youth in Scene.” It includes both content-related instruction and hands-on activities. Workshops focus on problems specific to these youth such as sexual abuse and bullying. One example of an activity was a gardening class from which a group of the participants then organized, on their own, to plant gardens around the community. In another example, writing was taught by having the youth write a rap song. Arts were promoted in the creation of an urban-style graffiti mural on behalf of the program. Retention in Youth in Scene was high, with youth having acquired many life skills, returning to school, finding employment, and referring peers into the program.
It is important, Dr. Koller noted, to tailor one’s methods and research instruments to the knowledge areas and learning needs of the community–for example, instead of handing out a “paper and pencil” questionnaire or recording a formal interview, one could use different objects they are familiar with (for example, coins), open-sentence questions, or games to elicit needed information. However creative, one’s work must be grounded in a sound theoretical framework. As she quoted Urie Bronfenbrenner, “There is no good practice without a good theory.”
Dr. Koller ended by discussing some pressing needs in research on positive youth development. Such research should always lead to sustainable interventions. Evaluations are needed to provide the data required by foundations and other funders, and the value of mixed-methods research (in contrast to the randomized controlled trial) must be conveyed, as both more meaningful, and more useful for sustainability.