Home > Promoting participation by seldom heard young people.

Keane, Martin (2014) Promoting participation by seldom heard young people. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 51, Autumn 2014, pp. 20-21.

PDF (Drugnet 51)

Kelleher and colleagues undertook a review of national and international literature on the participation of ‘seldom heard young people’.1 The purpose of the review was to identify best practice around participation, overcoming barriers, and approaches to improve the inclusion and experience of seldom heard young people. 

There is general consensus in the literature that ‘seldom heard young people’ are groups of people who do not have a collective voice and are often under-represented in consultation or participation activities; they are as the reviewers suggest, ‘…young people whose voices are not heard in decisions that affect them...’ (p. 1). These groups rarely form a homogeneous collective and, according to the reviewers, ‘…the heterogeneity of the seldom heard population requires diverse responses to meet their needs within the participative process…’ (p. 28). The key for practitioners is to understand why the voices of certain groups are not heard in the decision-making that affects them and to make available and accessible ways of including their voice. 

Barriers and challenges to participation

The reviewers define participation as ‘…the process by which young people have active involvement and real influence in decision-making on matters affecting their lives, both directly and indirectly…’ (p. 29). They also acknowledge that formal participation structures, e.g. Dáil na nÓg (youth parliament) and school/student councils, may not be accessible to disadvantaged and/or socially excluded young people. The review signals that there appears to be a reinforcing loop of exclusion between the adults who operate these formal participative structures and the groups of seldom heard young people: the adults assume that the seldom heard young people such as homeless youth are so chaotic as to be incapable of articulating a rational and strategic view, the young people internalise this adult view, and their exclusion is reinforced. Another barrier identified in the literature is that the issues that concern seldom heard young people are particularly challenging formal participatory structures. Thus, issues such as poverty, social exclusion and stigma are primarily driven by systemic and structural forces and forums such as youth parliaments and school councils may be unable or unwilling to accommodate such issues on their agenda.

Improving the experience of participation

Meaningful participation must extend beyond ‘having a voice’ to ‘making a difference’. This is the message given by the reviewers. They summarise the views of marginalised young people who want the focus of participation to be relevant to their everyday lives and for participation to be an opportunity where they can make a difference by giving something back to their communities. According to the reviewers, ‘…for participation to be meaningful, it should reflect the most salient issues for young people at that time, and not the agendas of the organisations and services involved’ (p. 43). This observation leads to consideration of different levels of participation and the type of influence seldom heard young people can bring to the decision-making process. The reviewers highlight one model with three levels of participation, which distinguishes between consultative and active participation:

  1. Consultative participation: An adult-led activity where information is exchanged, and/or the views of youth are sought on specific issues but are not necessarily incorporated into decisions and subsequent actions.
  2. Collaborative participation: Youth share responsibility to varying degrees with adults at any or all stages of decision-making and can influence both process and outcome.
  3. Children/youth led participation: Youth are supported to pursue their own agendas and make decisions autonomously. Adults may provide information and support. 

The reviewers distinguish between the ‘youth development’ and ‘youth involvement’ approaches documented in the literature. The first approach helps young people to effect personal change, whereas the second empowers young people to be active in social change: ‘…the emphasis in a youth involvement approach extends beyond individual change in young people themselves and argues that through participation young people are able to change policy-making, organisations and society…’ (p. 44). The reviewers point out that youth involvement approaches offer the best opportunity to provide effective opportunities for seldom heard young people to participate meaningfully in formal decision-making structures that affect their lives. Reflecting the heterogeneity of seldom heard young people, the reviewers suggest that methods to engage these youth must be related to their needs and preferences and, in parallel, practitioners need to reflect on current methods of engagement which may exclude rather than include young people. 

Reflecting the view expressed in the literature, the authors contend that ‘…overall, it is important to highlight that young people are seldom heard, not as a consequence of an inherent characteristic that precludes them from participating, but rather due to the absence of appropriate participation structures and supports to facilitate their voices being heard…’ (pp. 53–54). They recommend that organisations wishing to include seldom heard young people in the decision-making process could begin by examining four key components of their work:

  1. Structure: Does the organisation have an adequate level of planning, development and resourcing for participation?
  2. Culture: Is the organisational ethos committed to participation?
  3. Practice: Does the organisation have the skills and knowledge to engage young people?
  4. Review: Does the organisation have a system to monitor and evaluate participation activity?

These four components, when combined, comprise what is termed in the literature a whole-systems approach. It is essential that they are implemented together to enable organisations to provide meaningful opportunities for participation. According to the reviewers, in organisations that do not implement these components ‘…the likelihood of creating opportunities for effective and meaningful participation [for seldom heard young people] are greatly reduced…’ (p. 65). 

1 Kelleher C, Seymour M and Halpenny AM (2014) Promoting the participation of seldom heard young people: a review of the literature on best practice principles. Dublin: Centre for Social & Educational Research, Dublin Institute of Technology. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/21452/

Repository Staff Only: item control page