Building Autonomy, Healthy Habits, and Continuous Improvement in Youth

We all need an occasional dose of challenge to get us out of our comfort zones and stale routines and to grow as human beings. For young people, challenging growth is even more vital because growing and evolving is their full-time job. For the adults in their lives, it means finding a balance between stretching their abilities and expecting their best while tapping into their interests and giving them the support they need.

For educators and youth program staff members, relationship-building approaches to challenging growth help students to develop vital skills and thrive as adults. They are excellent approaches to integrate into program or classroom activities as well as in the hallway, after class, on the playground, or on the front steps while students wait for a ride home.

Why We Challenge Young People to Grow

Without challenges in their lives, youth get bored. Research tells us that when young people have challenging tasks that fit their abilities, they tend to rise to the challenge. They also find such activities more enjoyable, interesting, and rewarding than tasks that are not challenging. 

Challenging young people to grow can positively influence many parts of their lives, such as:

  • Overall development and resilience
  • Ability to stay focused on achieving long-term goals
  • Doing well in school
  • Civic participation
  • Athletic and sports achievement
  • Nutrition and health habits
  • Reduced alcohol or tobacco use

What Does It Mean to Challenge Growth?

Challenging growth involves these four actions:

  • Expect my best — Expect me to live up to my potential.
  • Stretch — Push me to go further.
  • Reflect on failures — Help me learn from mistakes and setbacks.
  • Hold me accountable — Insist I take responsibility for my actions.

There are countless ways to integrate these actions and expectations into almost every activity. Importantly, it requires intention and attention. 

Challenging growth creates a mutually reinforcing cycle. When we notice and challenge young people to grow around their interests and abilities, we are responding to their own initiative and motivation. That responsiveness builds their self-confidence and motivation to keep challenging themselves. This, in turn, encourages us as educators and staff to strengthen developmental relationships with them and to keep challenging them to grow in these and related areas.

Approaches to Challenging Growth

Young people need strength and resilience to become thriving adults. Here are some tips and approaches to help your students thrive.

  • Encourage appropriate autonomy
    Don’t just provide answers for young people; encourage them to figure it out on their own. Remind them that they are capable of doing challenging things.
  • Go beyond
    Encourage youth to move beyond their comfort zones to try things and go places that are unfamiliar and new.
  • Promote a growth mindset
    If a young person struggles to accomplish something or makes a mistake, talk through what went wrong together, and help the young person think of concrete ways to improve in the future. Explain that mistakes are not evidence of limited abilities—they are opportunities to learn and grow. Frustrations, conflict, struggles, even tragedies, are ripe for growth and learning. They are “teachable moments” about real life—that setbacks are part of being human. Share stories of mistakes and failures in your own life, and what you learned from them.
  • Emphasize continuous improvement
    You don’t need to wait for struggle or failure to challenge growth. Encourage young people to improve on their own past performance, rather than seeking to do better than other people. There is always room for improvement—or to seek out a new challenge.
  • Provide feedback
    If a young person is struggling to understand a concept or master a skill, help them break the task down into more specific steps, and provide feedback on how well they implement those steps. During particularly challenging tasks, specific feedback allows the young person to correct errors while maintaining progress toward the goal.
  • Have a growth mindset
    If we see failure as part of learning, young people often will be motivated to try again. It’s important to provide care and emotional support as they work through disappointments. In the process, they develop more self-confidence and better decision-making skills. Having a growth mindset teaches youth that failure is an opportunity to grow through dedication and hard work.
  • Develop critical thinking skills
    Expand young people’s thinking by asking hard questions, providing alternate explanations, and encouraging openness to different opinions. When they talk about rumors, misinformation, or conspiracy theories, push them to dig for accurate information, research, and credible sources to clarify the issues. Encourage young people to educate themselves on different perspectives about an issue.

There are several other approaches to challenging growth that may be helpful in the classroom, as well as an interactive activity, Letter From Your Future Self.

The Developmental Relationships Framework

Challenging growth is just one part of helping youth to thrive. Young people’s development is rooted in their community and in their relationships. When they have high-quality, positive relationships with parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, and peers, they are more likely to develop resilience in the face of obstacles, grow, learn, and develop social-emotional skills. 

The Developmental Relationships Framework identifies five key elements (one of which is challenging growth), with 20 specific actions. When young people experience these in their key developmental relationships, they are more likely to be resilient in the face of challenges and to grow up thriving.

New call-to-action

Previous Next View All