Out-of-School Time Activities and Civic Development: An Interview with Dr. Amy Syvertsen

We sat down with Dr. Amy Syvertsen to talk about the 2016 Society for Research on Adolescence Biennial Meeting happening next week in Baltimore, MD and to learn more about what she is presenting at the meeting.

What is the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) Biennial Meeting?

It is an opportunity for researchers and applied researchers to come together and share the latest advancements around adolescent development. It covers a range of topics, so attendees might be clinical psychologist, developmental psychologists—mostly people with a developmental focus.

The topics are very wide-ranging—all the way from neurological adolescent development to environmental identity. So, it’s the whole gamut. There are also sessions on topics like biological development, romantic relationships, technology, and civic development. So, it’s researchers coming together to present the work that they’re doing.

Is it primarily researchers who attend?

There are some practitioners who attend. There are some people at organizations—like me at Search Institute—who are doing applied research. There is definitely an interest in getting more applied practitioners to the conference. I know people from cooperative extensions who come to talk about work around 4-H youth development. We often see people from GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) there as well.

What are the sessions like at SRA?

There are a variety of types of presentations. Some involve getting up and doing a formal presentation on your research topic. I’m participating in a roundtable, which is a group of experts in a particular field having a conversation and engaging the audience in active discussion about a topic.

The roundtable, “In search of authentic experience: Methodologies for studying and building youth’s relationships with adults,” is moderated by Jonathan Zaff from America’s Promise and I will be joined by three other scholars to talk about relationships and young people. I’ll be sharing our work on developmental relationships, others will be talking about some of their own work. So that will be a great conversation to have about why we think relationships are important and need to be discussed with intentionality in youth development programming.

There’s also a series of keynotes as well as pre-conference sessions on skill development and professional development for researchers. I’m taking part in a pre-conference called Black Lives Matter about the intersection of this huge social uprising, African American youth, and developmental science, which is pretty exciting. So often at these conferences we’re talking about things that are a bit stagnant and old, because research takes a long time. This is an opportunity to talk in real time about something that is happening, so I’m really excited about that.

What else will you be presenting at the meeting?

I will be presenting a paper from the Roots of Engaged Citizenship project. We’ve known for a long time that young people who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely to be civically engaged. There’s a lot of longitudinal research that shows that. What there isn’t a lot of research about is what happens in those programs that gives way to different kinds of civic values, behaviors, and attitudes.

Using the first wave of data from the Roots of Engaged Citizenship project, we looked across all the different kinds of activities kids said they were participating in and examined if they were experiencing these three different developmental experiences:

  • Are kids being intrinsically engaged? This is a lot about sparks. Is it something they are passionate about? Something they can give their full attention to?
  • Are kids experiencing close connections with other adults that are pushing them? Are they experiencing challenge and support?
  • Are kids engaged in sociopolitical discussions? Were they talking about inequities in the community? Were they talking about injustice? Were they talking about politics?

We looked at seven different kinds of civic engagement and what we found is that there are different kinds of activities that provide different kinds of developmental experiences, which in turn, yield different kinds of civic engagement.

In general, when those three things are happening in programs, we see high levels of civic engagement for young people. Particularly, intrinsic engagement seems to be one of the strongest predictors of outcomes. When kids were deeply focused on doing something they loved, that seemed to translate well into a range of civic engagement behaviors.

The sociopolitical discussions were happening much less frequently. They happened more often in religious activities, in community-based clubs, and the arts—places where those kinds of discussions more naturally occur. But, when kids were engaging in political discussions with adults and peers in their clubs, what we found is they were more likely to do the higher order forms of civic engagement. So those were the kids who would actually get involved in a protest or speak up at a community forum if they were concerned about an issue in their community.

The goal of the paper was to really unpack the developmental experiences that need to happen in out-of-school time activities to actually predict civic engagement, so we can do those things with greater intentionality.

For those unable to attend the conference, are there any resources for learning more about your work?

Yes! The Roots of Engaged Citizenship project has a website you can visit at civicroots.org. Also, this research brief would be one way for non-SRA attendees to learn more about the paper I'll be presenting on the role of out-of-school time activities in supporting young people's civic development.

Dr. Amy Syvertsen is Director, Applied Quantitative Research and Senior Research Scientist at Search Institute.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

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