Youth Development and Leadership Jump Start

All effective youth programs have youth development at their core. Effective youth leadership programs build on solid youth development principles, with an emphasis on those areas of development and program components that support youth leadership.

The Value

Youth Development and Leadership are important components of workforce development programs — in public schools (including the career-technical and special education programs), One-Stops, community-based organizations, Vocational Rehabilitation, Developmental Disabilities, centers for independent living, or other youth-serving entities. They provide opportunities for young people to develop the attributes they need to be successful in the workplace such as responsibility, integrity, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills. Occupational preparation and work readiness skills are important, but personal qualities such as interpersonal relations, planning, and problem solving are also part of being an effective worker. Youth Development and Leadership programs provide many of the personal and social development pieces needed for youth to succeed in becoming the employees that employers want.

What is Youth Development and Leadership?

Research shows that youth development and leadership are important components of effective youth programming. These findings are reflected in the Workforce Investment Act’s emphasis on effective youth practices such as adult mentoring and activities related to leadership, development, decision-making, citizenship, and community service. Adult mentoring and leadership development opportunities such as community service and peer-centered activities during non-school hours are, in fact, two of the ten WIA-required program elements.

Youth development is a process that prepares young people to meet the challenges of adolescence and adulthood through a coordinated, progressive series of activities and experiences which help them to become socially, morally, emotionally, physically, and cognitively competent. Youth leadership can be defined as both an internal and external process leading to (1) “the ability to guide or direct others on a course of action, influence the opinion and behavior of other people, and show the way by going in advance (Wehmeyer, Agran & Hughes, 1998); and (2) "the ability to analyze one's own strengths and weaknesses, set personal and vocational goals, and have the self-esteem to carry them out. It includes the ability to identify community resources and use them, not only to live independently, but also to establish support networks to participate in community life and to effect positive social change." (Adolescent Employment Readiness Center, Children’s Hospital, n.d.).

Ferber, Pittman and Marshall (2002) have identified five basic developmental areas in which all young people need to learn and grow. They are: Thriving, Leading, Connecting, Learning, and Working. Youth leadership programs emphasize the areas of Leading and Connecting, which research shows are especially important for youth with disabilities. A table is provided that outlines the five areas of development and specific intended outcomes and suggested program activities identified by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth through its extensive review of the literature and existing practices.

Effective workforce preparation programs should reflect the philosophy of youth development and include youth development and leadership activities. Effective youth development and leadership programs have certain organizational and programmatic characteristics in common. A table is available that summarizes the organizational and programmatic components of effective youth programs.  Since research shows that these youth are too often overlooked in youth development and leadership programs and opportunities, this table includes components that are recommended for programs that include youth with disabilities, .

These findings are reflected in the Guideposts for Success that anchor the youth initiatives sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Youth Leadership and Development, one of the five Guideposts, is strongly emphasized in four youth programs that were originally funded by the Department of Labor: High School/High Tech (HS/HT), the Youth Leadership Forum (YLF), Disability Mentoring Day (DMD), and the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN).

High School/High Tech identifies several components of youth leadership development as being particularly important to youth with disabilities including providing supportive adults (role models and mentors), personal leadership (goal setting, self-advocacy, and conflict resolution), and leadership opportunities (service learning, peer mentoring, leadership training, and organizational leadership). The Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities is a unique career leadership training program for high school juniors and seniors with disabilities. YLF delegates attend a four-day event in their state capital to cultivate leadership, citizenship, and social skills. Disability Mentoring Day is an opportunity for youth with disabilities to visit worksites and develop relationships with volunteer mentors. Participating youth make connections between school and work, develop or refine personal goals, identify career skills, and explore possible career paths. The National Youth Leadership Network is dedicated to advancing the next generation of disability leaders by promoting leadership development, education, employment, independent living, and health and wellness among diverse young leaders in the United States. NYLN hosts a national conference, provides mentoring and support to local participants, conducts research, and provides youth consultants to policy boards and other organizations.

The principles and resources provided in this overview of youth development and leadership provide a solid foundation for youth programming in schools, community-based organizations, workforce development programs, and other youth-serving institutions. Additional information can be found in the Research Base and audience sections.


Disability Mentoring Day
DMD is a community-based program designed to bring students and job seekers with disabilities into the workplace where they can learn first hand about career opportunities. This site contains a fact sheet, promotional materials, a list of local coordinators, a toolkit, and more.

Employment and Training Youth Office, U.S. Department of Labor
This website has resources, program profiles, reports and publications, and a link to the Youth Rules! Web site.

High School/High Tech Program Guide
This manual provides a foundation for developing programs designed to increase the pipeline of young people preparing for jobs in technology-related occupations. Chapter 9 specifically addresses youth development and leadership.

National 4-H Headquarters
This website provides links to a variety of resources including curricula with juried reviews in the categories of citizenship and civic education, communications and expressive arts, healthy lifestyle education, and personal development and leadership.

National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN)
NYLN provides a national voice for young leaders with disabilities and a variety of resources for everyone else, including a resource list of young leaders who can speak on a variety of topics.

PEPNet Promising and Effective Practices Network
The website includes an online index to effective practices in youth employment and development, profiles of award-winning youth programs, and links to other effective practices Web sites.

Search Institute
The Search Institute website includes research, resources, training and support on youth development issues for educators and community members including a framework of 40 developmental assets.

Youth Leadership Forum (YLF)
YLF is a career leadership training program for high school juniors and seniors with disabilities available in several states.

Core Publications

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. (2002). Youth development and leadership. Retrieved January 13, 2004, from

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth. (2007). Chapter 9: Managing for Performance Excellence—Program Evaluation and Reporting. High School-High Tech Program Guide. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership. Retrieved August 10, 2009, from or from

Public/Private Ventures. (2002) Youth Development: Issues, Challenges and Directions. Philadelphia: Author. Excerpts retrieved January 13, 2004, from§ion_id=0

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