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Study Finds Benefits for Youth in 4-H Programs, Especially Girls

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By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Developing a formula for effective out-of-school programs is no easy task. The 4-H organization, though, seems to be doing something right, based on a new study that found youths in 4-H experienced more positive development than their peers who did not. The benefits were especially strong for girls.

The study, conducted by the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, found that young people's experiences with 4-H led to gains in their "positive youth development" and that, compared with their peers who participated in other out-of-school activities, they contributed more to their communities. (The study's definition of positive youth development rates individuals on several characteristics, including their competence, confidence, character, and caring.)

The study looked at 4-H participants as they aged from 5th to 12th grade, with a focus on its effects over the course of 10 years.

4-H is a public-private partnership focused on developing student citizenship, healthy living, and on science, engineering, and technology programs. The organization reaches more than seven million youth in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country.  

Youths involved in 4-H programs participate in everything from hands-on STEM programs to events that encourage citizenship and community action, such as Citizen Washington Focus. That particular initiative shows students first-hand how the country is governed. Other programs also include opportunities for creative expression, including photography and filmmaking lessons, or opportunities to work in finance and consumer decisionmaking.

The research was intended "to identify the strengths of young people...and to align those strengths with resources that exist in their communities," said Richard Lerner, the study's principle investigator and director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts, in an interview with Education Week. 

The study found that 4-H participants are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities than students in other out-of-school activities. The authors concede, though, that "the major limitation to this finding ... is that the advantage for 4-H youth was by and large manifested among girls only. Findings comparing 4-H boys to non- 4-H boys suggest a much weaker and more sporadic benefit for 4-H youth than do the same analyses for girls."

Girls in 4-H displayed higher indices of positive development than their male counterparts. They were also less likely to engage in risky behaviors in most grades than males in 4-H. However, Kristina Callina, a postdoctoral fellow who worked on the study, cautioned that the findings on the difference between boys and girls on positive development and risky behavior were not robust. 

Additionally, 4-H appeared to have a significant impact on girls' interest in science, engineering, and computer technology programs. Girls in 4-H are two times more likely in grade 10 and three times more likely in grade 12 to participate in science programs, compared WITH girls engaged in other out-of-school activities.

Three important characteristics to develop for 4-H and any other out-of-school programs, the study says, are building positive and sustained relationships between youth and adults, providing activities that build important life skills, and providing opportunities for youth to use these skills in community activities.

4-H is led by a unique private-public partnership of universities, federal and local government agencies, foundations, and professional associations.

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