Engage Authentically is a young person’s experience with an
adult who takes the time to get to know them by listening and understanding who they are — their cultural and lived experiences, their interests, and their passions.

Engaging authentically involves placing young people’s personal stories at the center of the program’s work and ensuring that they feel valued, heard, and cared for by adults. This is a Foundational Experience for young people, or one that lays the groundwork for all of the others in Hello Insight’s logic model.


Empirical research shows that the number of hours young people spend in a program, or the number of activities they engage in, does not make a difference (Flores, K. 2018; Pekel, K. 2016; Pekel, K., et al 2015). Rather, it’s positive, meaningful relationships with adults that really drive social and emotional learning.

In 2015 the Search Institute conducted a provocative study that found that positive youth-adult relationships were ten times more predictive than demographics in influencing mastery of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills (Pekel, K., et. al., 2015). In 2016, they conducted a second study that showed that, when young people had a greater number of positive relationships with adults, they reported higher academic motivation, stronger social and emotional skills, and a more responsible attitude. They were also less likely to engage in risky behaviors (Pekel, K., 2016).

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015) has also found that the single most common finding in their research was that children who end up doing well after childhood trauma “had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”


Young people are dynamic and full of promise, with many different pathways to success. Every year Hello Insight mines our growing dataset of more than 125,000 young people, participating in more than 1,500 programs nation-wide, so that we can continue to learn what works for each and every young person.

Hello Insight has found that Authentic Engagement is a Foundational Experience for all young people, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. In fact, young
people who participate in programs that purposefully build strong youth-adult relationships demonstrate growth in SEL that is more than double the growth seen in other programs (Sabo Flores, K. 2018).

Download the Reflection Guide


Hello Insight, in collaboration with Youth Inc., created the series Positive Youth Development in Practice, where we share different practical ways to promote Positive Youth Development experiences in young people through examples from other organizations. In this case, watch how our members practice Engaging Authentically with young people.


Eight Ideas for Expanding Interests

Search Institute
This short article provides eight tips that can be integrated quickly and easily into any program model.

Guiding Questions:

  • What opportunities can I provide to help young people explore their interests?
  • How can I introduce them to new people and experiences?
  • How can I help young people step out of their comfort zone and try new things?

Sparks and Thriving

Search Intsitute
The Search Institute has done extensive research on interest exploration or “sparks” exploration — the ability to identify passions, work toward them, and garner help along the way. We like this website because it includes decades of research about “spark” and how it promotes the healthy development of young people.

Guiding Questions:

  • What is your spark (i.e., what is something that you are so passionate about that you lose track of time)?
  • What is it about this activity that makes it so important to you?
  • How can I support young people to explore their sparks?

The Road Map: Figure Out Where You’re Going

Roadtrip Nation
This interactive website helps young people explore various interest areas and listen to youth-led interviews with professionals who have similar passions. This is a great resource to help young people see successful adults who are a lot like them. And, learn the various ways in which these interests play out over their lifespan.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I use this website to help young people identify and explore their passions and interests?
  • In what ways could young people in your program interview adults with similar passions and interests?

Peter Benson: Sparks - How Youth Thrive

This 20-minute TED talk is about the importance of teaching young people how to identify their “sparks” — the ability to identify passions and interests and make them a reality. We like this video because Dr. Peter Benson provides an impassioned argument about why all people need to develop the skills necessary to tap into their excitement and passion.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I support young people to explore their Sparks?
  • How can I help young people identify Spark Champions or people to support them on their journey?

How to Help Teens Find Purpose

Greater Good Magazine
It is hard to pin down which experiences create a sense of passion and purpose among young people. The author of this study discovered that while everyone has a unique story, there are four commonalities amongst people who discovered a sense of purpose: 1) Traveling abroad; 2) Spending extended time in the natural world; 3) Getting involved in a meaningful social change project; 4) Establishing a contemplative practice.

Guiding Questions:

  • In what ways can I create opportunities for young people to engage in social change projects?
  • Does our program provide opportunities for young people to spend time in the natural environment — even in urban settings?
  • Where can I create opportunities for young people to develop a contemplative practice?

Teens' Penchant For Risk-Taking May Help Them Learn Faster

Usually, the reward-seeking and risk-taking characteristics in teenagers are not looked at as strengths. A recent study shows these behaviors could actually make teens better than adults at certain kinds of learning. We like this article because it talks about the neuroscience behind how teens learn and how we can best meet their needs by providing them with a range of new experiences.

Guiding Questions:

  • How do teenagers learn differently than adults?
  • What makes risk-taking and interest exploration important for teenagers?
  • Are there ways to incorporate positive risk-taking into your program, especially for teens?


Youth Catalytics
Community mapping can be a completely youth-initiated activity which gives young people the opportunity to learn more about their community and expand their understanding of different roles. This activity is well-described in this worksheet.

Guiding Questions:

  • What resources do young people want to explore and map?
  • What sparked their interest and could be further pursued?
  • What new roles have they discovered through the mapping experience?


Stevens Initiative
Community mapping can be a completely youth-initiated activity which gives young people the opportunity to learn more about their community and expand their understanding of different roles. This activity is well-described in this worksheet.

Guiding Questions:

  • What's happening in the rest of the world and how can we learn more?
  • What are universal human traits and what traits are culturally determined?

In Between Times

Hello Insight
This blog by Hello Insight’s CEO, Kim Flores, illustrates the importance of engaging authentically with young people, and provides hard evidence to show that positive relationships between youth and adults and amongst peers accelerates SEL growth. She also argues that collecting and valuing data about how young people experience relationships in programs is important for continuous reflection on engaging authentically with young people.

Guiding Questions:

  • To what extent does our program value getting to know young people?
  • How can I make this practice more explicit in my work?

Boss Youth & Employer Empowerment Toolkit

MHA Labs
This toolkit includes 5 pre-packaged youth empowerment workshops and provides tips and strategies for constructive feedback. We like this toolkit because it supports staff members to ignite conversations about a young person’s strengths and challenges. It also provides techniques that can be taught and used in the classroom for peer-to-peer interactions.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I use these resources to strengthen my feedback strategies with young people?
  • How can I use these resources to support young people to reflect on their own strengths and areas of challenge?

10 Tips for Building Relationships With Youth

National Afterschool Association
Great things happen when we actually participate alongside young people instead of just telling them what to do. This short handout with 10 specific tips for building relationships includes a discussion guide for professional development with staff.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I assure that young people feel welcome in the program?
  • How can I provide each young person with individualized attention?
  • How can I check in with young people every day?

6 Ways to Build Better Relationships with Youth

The Family & Youth Institute
Sometimes we get comfortable in our roles and forget crucial practices that lead to better relationships with young people. This two-minute video reminds us to get to know young people by listening actively with body language, showing them we care by paraphrasing, providing perspective, and celebrating their successes. We love the graphics, and the information about mentoring young Muslims is very helpful to those working with this population.

Guiding Questions:

  • How does my body language affect young people?
  • How does the cultural background of young people influence my interactions with them?

Rita Pierson: Every Kids Needs a Champion

Rita Pierson reminds us of a basic concept — kids do not learn from teachers they don’t like. This eight-minute video discusses the value of human relationships in education. Her main message is that we might not love all of our students but they need to think we do.

Guiding Questions:

  • How do I demonstrate to young people that they matter?
  • What biases do I bring to my interactions with young people and how can I overcome them?

Transforming Positive Youth Development: A case for youth organizing

Funders Collaborative for Youth Organizing
This study highlights the ways in which youth organizing groups use and qualitatively transform positive youth development practices. In youth organizing groups, the adults are seen as allies rather than teachers, and the issues of power dynamics and adultism are addressed directly. Adult allies encourage people to share their unique stories, helping them understand the social, political and historical natures of their collective experiences. All activities, actions and campaigns are centered on these stories and young people work to effect change on the issues that have been identified.

Guiding Questions:

  • How can I use the PYD approaches used in youth organizing in my program?
  • How can I center the voices and experiences of the young people?