Youth leadership programs

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Youth leadership programs provide leadership building opportunities for youth to gain skills and understand their strengths and weaknesses while working as active agents of change. Leadership skills include critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making; youth can also develop self-awareness, self-efficacy, and interpersonal skills1, 2. Youth leadership programs can take various forms such as advocacy groups, peer education, service-learning, youth-led participatory research, and local government youth advisory councils and boards. Participating youth engage in decision-making regarding program design, implementation, and evaluation, often with the support of adults. Such programs are based on a positive youth development framework and can be delivered in both school and community settings3, 4, 5.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased self-efficacy

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Improved social skills

  • Increased problem solving skills

  • Reduced delinquent behavior

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that youth leadership programs increase self-efficacy among middle and high school students6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects4.

Youth leadership programs may increase self-efficacy in youth aging out of foster care7 and prevent a decrease in self-efficacy among minority middle school students from families with low incomes8. Students who experience traumatic events report increased self-efficacy and reduced trauma symptoms after participating in a leadership program, compared to non-participants6. An after-school leadership program for middle school students shows increases in self-esteem and leadership activities, which in turn reduces reports of delinquent behavior a year after program participation10; Black students experience a greater decrease in delinquent behavior than white peers12.

Available evidence suggests that youth leadership programs may increase interpersonal and social skills10, 13, 14, improve problem solving and critical thinking3, 10, 11, and may increase both youth’s interest and ability to engage in community change (i.e., civic participation)10, 15 among middle and high school students. A study of a leadership program for youth from military families shows participants gain leadership skills, resiliency, and an awareness of the needs of their community16. Evaluations of youth participatory action research, which are youth-led research projects for positive change in their environment, suggest that such approaches may increase youth empowerment and social skills9, and have the potential for youth-led improvements to school and community issues17.

Experts recommend that leadership development programs clearly define youth roles and goals; establish trust-based, positive relationships between youth and adults; provide activities to build skills; and create an equitable program climate that values fairness and respect1, 3, 15. Organizations working with youth should engage youth in meetings, encourage the exchange of constructive feedback between youth and adults, and recognize and act on efforts to suppress youth voices18. Experts recommend that adults in youth-led programs act as allies, providing instrumental support and guidance while creating structure and space for youth to engage in the program and build their leadership capacity19.

Youth camp programs for children with chronic illnesses may also offer opportunities for leadership building and sustained youth-adult relationships20.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Experts suggest youth leadership programs have the potential to decrease disparities in youth leadership and healthy development across diverse youth populations33, 34, 35. Available evidence is limited and often based upon very small studies. A study of an experiential outdoor youth leadership program for Cherokee youth, Remember the Removal, may improve the physical, emotional, social, and cultural health of indigenous youth by increasing awareness of cultural traditions and language34. A youth leadership development and political education program for transgender youth, the Trans Youth Justice Project, may increase feelings of connection and belonging within the trans community, and increase participants’ capacity for social justice work by teaching skills for organizing33. Including culturally relevant practices in youth leadership programs can support Asian American youth in efforts to develop leadership skills36.

Experts suggest that offering youth programs outside of school hours can provide minority youth living in underprivileged areas time and space to practice leadership roles and develop life skills35.

What is the relevant historical background?

In the past, youth were considered too immature to participate in decision-making, which often left them powerless to influence the issues that directly impacted them. Leadership programs, failing to recognize youths as active participants, focused on character development and life preparation within the mainstream (i.e., social structures and organizations). Yet, as more young people demonstrated their ability to lead social movements, perspectives began to change, and youth are now recognized as active players and potential advocates outside of the conventional systems of power. Youth leadership programs have evolved, focusing less on individuals and instead moving to encourage all young people’s ability to lead, and ideally recognizing that both the youths and the adults involved have valuable insights. However, the same systemic issues that grant power to particular groups also often influence youths’ experiences in programs, leading to inequities in youth-adult partnerships and power sharing2, 37.

Youth from families with low incomes often lack opportunities to participate in school or community activities and to assume leadership roles38. Race, gender, and family income all influence who participates in youth leadership programs while community resources determine to what extent consistent support and opportunities are available39. Inequities in access to leadership programs often result in overrepresentation of high-achieving youth from middle class families in programs for young leaders, even in programs meant for youth experiencing disadvantages39. Successful youth organizations are often elite driven, attracting participants who are high achieving and well-educated39. To prevent this overrepresentation, youth leadership programs need to take a focused approach to recruiting youth participants1. Program staff may fail to recognize the structural inequities that youth of color experience in their daily lives, preventing programs from creating a safe, trustworthy environment and from being attractive and relevant to youth of color40.

Equity Considerations
  • How can schools and youth-oriented community organizations include youth in discussions and the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs meant for them?
  • What implicit and explicit biases do youth leadership program staff and other adults (e.g., parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, etc.) have that might hinder youth’s full engagement in leadership programs and prevent positive change?
  • Do youth of color and youth from families with low incomes have equitable opportunities to participate in leadership programs? Are programs available in their schools, neighborhoods, or other locations they can easily access? Are there systematic and/or structural barriers to program access and participation? How can programs eliminate these barriers?
Implementation Examples

Youth leadership programs are available throughout the U.S. and vary in their focus. Youth across the country participate in 4-H civic engagement programs and HOBY leadership seminars21, 22. Youth Health Service Corps and Youth Empowerment Solutions are examples of programs that work to empower middle and high school students to help create healthy communities23, 24. In California, the Ambassador Program for upper-grade elementary and middle school students provides leadership training to diverse students and involves them in community service, while Youth Leadership America, based in Anaheim, empowers students to become leaders and improve their communities through community impact projects25, 26. The Youth Leadership Academy at Ohio State University is a four year program for high school students to prepare for college and future careers27. Many cities have youth commissions or youth councils, such as the San Pablo Youth Commission and the New York City Youth Leadership Council, which is led by undocumented youth28, 29.

MGR Foundation’s Youth Empowerment program and C5 Association’s Youth Program are examples of efforts to build leadership and empowerment, specifically among under-resourced youth30, 31. Remember the Removal Bike Ride, a land-based outdoor youth leadership program for Cherokee youth, journeys along the 1,000 mile Trail of Tears, following the path of the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 from the southeastern U.S. to modern-day Oklahoma. The program supports indigenous youth leaders through trainings based in Cherokee culture, history, and teamwork32.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

UM-YES-Resources - University of Michigan (UM), School of Public Health. Youth Empowered Solutions (YES). Resources.

NYLC - National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC). Serve. Learn. Change the world.


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1 Bates 2019 - Bates S, Anderson-Butcher D, Niewoehner-Green J, Provenzano J. Exploration of a college and career readiness leadership program for urban youth. Journal of Youth Development. 2019;14(3):160-182.

2 Sherif 2018 - Sherif V. Voices that matter: Rural youth on leadership. Research in Educational Administration & Leadership. 2018;3(2):311-337.

3 YG-Leadership - (YG). Youth transitioning to adulthood: How holding early leadership positions can make a difference. Youth briefs.

4 Curran 2017 - Curran T, Wexler L. School-based positive youth development: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of School Health. 2017;87(1):71-80.

5 Campbell-Morton 2011 - Morton M, Montgomery P. Youth empowerment programs for improving self-efficacy and self-esteem of adolescents. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2011:5.

6 Osofsky 2018 - Osofsky H, Osofsky J, Hansel T, Lawrason B, Speier A. Building resilience after disasters through the Youth Leadership Program: The importance of community and academic partnerships on youth outcomes. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action. 2018;12(1):11-21.

7 Batista 2018 - Batista T, Johnson A, Friedmann LB. The effects of youth empowerment programs on the psychological empowerment of young people aging out of foster care. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research. 2018;9(4):531-549.

8 Murphy 2020 - Murphy NA, Yuan M, Elias MJ. Youth leadership programming in high-poverty minority students. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2020;79:101728.

9 Anyon 2018 - Anyon Y, Bender K, Kennedy H, Dechants J. A systematic review of youth participatory action research (YPAR) in the United States: Methodologies, youth outcomes, and future directions. Health Education and Behavior. 2018;45(6):865-878.

10 Zimmerman 2018 - Zimmerman MA, Eisman AB, Reischl, et al. Youth Empowerment Solutions: Evaluation of an after-school program to engage middle school students in community change. Health Education and Behavior. 2018;45(1):20-31.

11 Harris 2018a - Harris A, Beckert TE. Effect of HOBY leadership seminar on self-reported psychosocial outcomes in adolescents. Journal of Youth Development. 2018;13(4):118-133.

12 Thulin 2022 - Thulin EJ, Lee DB, Eisman AB, et al. Longitudinal effects of Youth Empowerment Solutions: Preventing youth aggression and increasing prosocial behavior. American Journal of Community Psychology. 2022;70(1-2):75-88.

13 Ozer 2013 - Ozer EJ, Douglas L. The impact of participatory research on urban teens: An experimental evaluation. American Journal of Community Psychology. 2013;51(1-2):66-75.

14 Puxley 2021 - Puxley ST, Chapin LA. Building youth leadership skills and community awareness: Engagement of rural youth with a community-based leadership program. Journal of Community Psychology. 2021;49(5):1063-1078.

15 Ballard 2021 - Ballard J, Borden L, Perkins DF. Program quality components related to youth civic engagement. Children and Youth Services Review. 2021;126:106022.

16 Weston 2021 - Weston KL, Garst BA, Bowers EP, Quinn WH. Cultivating knowledge of resiliency and reintegration among military youth through a national youth leadership program. Evaluation and Program Planning. 2021;86:101915.

17 Rocha 2022 - Rocha C, Mendoza I, Lovell JL, et al. Using youth-led participatory action research to advance the mental health needs of Latinx youth during COVID-19. School Psychology Review. 2022.

18 Wu 2022 - Wu JHC, Shereda A, Stacy ST, Weiss JK, Heintschel M. Maximizing youth leadership in out-of-school time programs: Six best practices from youth driven spaces. Journal of Youth Development. 2022;17(3):70-89.

19 Collura 2019 - Collura JJ, Raffle H, Collins AL, Kennedy H. Creating spaces for young people to collaborate to create community change: Ohio’s youth-led initiative. Health Education & Behavior. 2019;46(Suppl 1):44S-52S.

20 Sendak 2018 - Sendak MD, Schilstra C, Tye E, Brotkin S, Maslow G. Positive youth development at camps for youth with chronic illness: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of Youth Development. 2018;13(1-2):201-215.

21 4-H Civic engagement - National 4-H Council. 4-H Civic engagement programs.

22 HOBY - Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY). To inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.

23 YHSC - Health360. Student training: Youth Health Service Corps (YHSC).

24 UM-YES - University of Michigan (UM), School of Public Health. Youth Empowered Solutions (YES).

25 Ambassador Program - The Ambassador Program. Student leaders serving our community. Embassy Consulting Service, Los Alamitos, California.

26 YLA - Youth Leadership America (YLA). Empower the next generation of community leaders.

27 YLA OH - Ohio State University LiFEsports. Youth Leadership Academy (YLA).

28 SPYC - City of San Pablo. San Pablo Youth Commission (SPYC).

29 NYC-YLC - New York City (NYC). The New York State Youth Leadership Council (YLC).

30 MGR-Youth empowerment - Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation. MGR youth empowerment: Empowering youth, changing communities.

31 C5 Youth - C5 Association. Inspire high-potential youth. 2018.

32 Remember the Removal - Cherokee Nation. Remember the Removal.

33 Barcelos 2021 - Barcelos C, McNeill JN, Turner Y, Redwine EM. The trans youth justice project: A political education and leadership development program. Journal of LGBT Youth. 2021.

34 Lewis 2019a - Lewis ME, Myhra LL, Vieaux LE, et al. Evaluation of a native youth leadership program grounded in Cherokee culture: The Remember the Removal program. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research. 2019;26(1):1-32.

35 Ruhr 2022 - Ruhr LR, Fowler LJ. Empowerment-focused positive youth development programming for underprivileged youth in the Southern U.S.: A qualitative evaluation. Children and Youth Services Review. 2022;143:106684.

36 Song 2022 - Song A, Hur JW. Development of youth leadership through community-based participatory action research during the COVID-19 pandemic: A case study of Korean American adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research. 2022.

37 Libby 2006 - Libby M, Sedonaen M, Bliss S. The mystery of youth leadership development: The path to just communities. New Directions for Youth Development. 2006;109:13-25.

38 Zaff 2009 - Zaff JF, Youniss J, Gibson CM. An inequitable invitation to citizenship: Non-college-bound youth and civic engagement. Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE); 2009.

39 Kress 2006 - Kress CA. Youth leadership and youth development: Connections and questions. New Directions for Youth Development. 2006;109:45-56.

40 Child Trends-Redd 2020 - Redd Z, Moore K, Andrews K. Embedding a racial equity perspective in the positive youth development approach. Bethesda, MD: Child Trends; 2020.