The Participation Eco-system for Youth & Community Work

Over the last couple of years I have been working in a deprived estate in Brighton, UK, where I  am required to work in partnership to help co-ordinate youth work provision across the neighbourhood.  When I started I spent some time scoping the existing provision and quickly recognised a few things:

  • All that was on offer was centre-based youth work
  • Attendance at existing projects was dwindling
  • The same young people had been engaged in the same projects for years
  • The young people had little interest in/influence over their projects’ direction

These were symptoms of a ‘participation eco-system’ that was out of whack.

The participation eco-system is a model that illustrates the functions of a symbiotic and harmonious youth work system in a community setting, in the context of youth participation.

participation ecosystem 2

The participation eco-system proposes that it is not enough to have just one or two levels alone.

The model categorises different types of youth work in three different levels depending on the levels of ‘participation’ required by the young people involved: ‘High participation’, ‘Mid-range participation’ and ‘low-level participation’. For example, youth forums usually need a lot of input, focus and dedication by the youth members, therefore would be categorised as ‘High participation’, in contrast to simply rocking up to an open community event – ‘Low-level participation’.

It’s this model’s assertion that all three different levels of participation work need to be in place in a community in order for the work to thrive.  In the case of the neighbourhood in Brighton, the existing services were only offering mid-range participation projects, i.e. centre-based clubs.  Far from damning the great work that can happen in buildings, I’m saying that without the other complimenting parts you miss the opportunity to inspire great things from happening through the mélange.

FNSHLow-level Participation

Back in Brighton, two years on we have redistributed resources and have mobile, detached and outreach work happening, meeting good numbers on street and feeding young people into other projects.

Mid-range Participation

The choice of youth club or nothing is no more; through the week we now have sports clubs, arts groups, a young journalistic group, dance and a bike-maintenance social enterprise.

High Participation

wild park youth festival 2014At the high end we have formed a youth group that raises it’s own money for holiday activities for the rest of the community.  Last year they raised £5k through their own bank account for a summer programme and ‘youth festival’.


The point is that the vibrancy, vitality and variety of the projects now on offer is being fuelled by a healthy interdependence between projects.  They feed into each other, cross-fertilising and each reaping the rewards of others’ success.  By offering projects pitched at differing participation levels we are working with greater numbers of young people who join in at whatever level they are comfortable with at that time.  Of course, it helps too when all the moving parts are communicating with each other well, but that’d be the subject of another blog post!

Projects like Participation Works do a fantastic job in building youth workers’ skills to advocate for participative rights of young people and tell us how important that high-end work is.  But who is out there campaigning for the importance of low-level participation work? Are we, as workers, sometimes missing a trick by keeping our offer too narrow?

If you’d like more information about my organisation and it’s community development approaches in its work with young people you can find our website here.


The 4 types of challenging behaviour (and how to deal with them)

Dealing with challenging behaviour is something that features regularly in Youth Work (certainly my work!).  It’s been an issue that comes up often with workers and volunteers on their staff development wish lists, and each time it does I go straight to my main man, Rudolf Dreikurs.


cheery looking chap

Dreikurs wrote mostly about classroom behaviour management but I’ve found it translates easily enough.  However, each time I’ve gone to find a straight forward example for Youth Work settings I can only find poor quality scans of photocopies or tables with five or six columns or versions that are obviously about kids in class so I’ve adapted it (below). 4 types of challenging behaviour copy This (below again) is also something that people seem to have found useful as a practical guide of different approaches to verbal challenges, especially in response to offensive language. Responses to offensive language and behaviourAnother model that I’ve found useful in the past has been John Heron’s Six Category Intervention Analysis (1975) which helps to look at different intervention styles.  Without suggesting that one is better than another it can just be helpful to try something different if what you’re currently doing isn’t working.

Six Category Intervention Analysis


I’d be interested to hear if other people use different frameworks and what they think work well.  And any feedback on the above adaptation is very welcome too!    

The 4 Cornerstones of (Corrupt) Youth Work

Four Cornerstones of corrupt youth work header

So you may be aware of the other ‘Four Cornerstones of Youth Work’, namely:

  • Participation and empowerment
  • Voluntary engagement
  • Personal and social education
  • Equality of opportunity

…although I’m not totally sure who decided they were the cornerstones in the first place [citation welcome!]. What I’m talking about here are the cornerstones that are present in the murkier parts of youth work, propping up the palace of poor practice.

I’m going to be quite candid and describe when I’ve seen these in my practice but also ask the question more broadly about whether these things are an inevitable part of our profession or things that we should be trying to work against. And how bad are they really?


So, this is like the antithesis of ‘participation and empowerment’ – you have your plans for your project and you aim to subliminally bury them deep inside young people’s brains so that they regurgitate all the answers you were after in the first place.

In a time where project funding is more easy to come by than core funding it’s no massive surprise that we ‘guide’ young people to aligning their ideas with that of a funder. I myself have been guilty of this, helping teen groups to the low hanging fruit and making it all seem like their idea.  Possibly not the most evil of all activities but this one needs to be kept in check; continue down a path like this and your group, who started out putting on holiday activities for other young people, are all of a sudden involved in a film-making project about peer-led refugee counselling.

Now we all know about this, surely! I’ve extolled the virtues of pizza-peddling before, but how ethical is it?  If those young people aren’t turning up because you’ve made the content engaging in the first place then are you simply indulging tokenism?

This is me playing the devil’s advocate – on one occasion I actually told a pair of young people who were being interviewed for ‘Youth Opportunity Funding’ that every time they mentioned the words ‘sustainable’, ‘inclusive’ or ‘value for money’ I would give them a Maoam.  So extremely crude! I thought it was inspired at the time. They learnt the meanings of the terms and it made the whole thing quite good fun for those on the inside track.  But still – definite bribery. FYI, they didn’t get the money anyway.

Maoam - A little unsavoury at the best of times...

Maoam – A little unsavoury at the best of times…



In a profession that is supposed to be young person-centred, how much of it actually is? I’ve heard people say they have gotten into youth work “to save themselves” or met workers who really struggle if they aren’t well liked by everyone they work with – that’s ego.  I’ve even met a youth worker who disallows anyone to eat meat at the youth club because he, himself is a vegetarian; ego. As well as compromising opportunities to really put young people in the middle of decisions being made, it can generally reflect badly on our profession.

Scaled up, ego gets in the way of some excellent work happening.  A few people have been credited with saying it, including Ronald Reagan: “Imagine what we could achieve if we stopped worrying about who gets the credit”.  It’s so very true.

big deal 2

Rose-tinted spectacles

Linked to ego this cornerstone is about what we go around telling everyone.  It’s how fantastic everything is going, as long as it’s a funder, politician or even internal senior management are asking. Fudgery and falsehood stand in the way of progressive work – if something isn’t going well you really need to discuss it, collaborate on solutions or just pack it in and channel your energies more positively elsewhere.  So many times I have seen projects flogged like the proverbial dead horse; workers get bored and young people get bored.  Take it as an opportunity to shake things up!  Or just carry on wearing those rose-tinted spectacles.


So, which of the more nefarious aspects of Youth Work have been omitted here?  I’d like to hear your opinions on the other worst bits of practice in our profession.  Examples of your own wicked practice are left here at your own risk though!