Youth leadership programs

Evidence Rating  
Expert Opinion
Evidence rating: Expert Opinion

Strategies with this rating are recommended by credible, impartial experts but have limited research documenting effects; further research, often with stronger designs, is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  

Youth leadership programs provide leadership building and empowerment opportunities for youth to gain skills and understand their strengths and weaknesses while working as active agents of change. 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 settings1, 2, 3.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased self-esteem

  • Increased self-efficacy

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Improved social skills

  • Increased problem solving skills

  • Reduced delinquent behavior

Evidence of Effectiveness

Youth leadership programs are a suggested strategy to increase self-esteem and self-efficacy among youth and prepare them to transition successfully to adulthood1. Available evidence suggests that leadership programs may also increase interpersonal skills and problem solving skills1, 4, 5 and reduce problem behavior among participants3, 5. A recent evaluation of youth participatory action research, which are youth-led research projects for positive change in their environment, suggests that such approaches may increase youth empowerment and social skills4. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects2, 3.

Experts recommend that leadership development programs clearly define youth roles and goals, and establish trust-based, positive relationships between youth and adults1.

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

4-H civic engagement programs engage youth in many communities across the country6. Youth Health Service Corps7 and Youth Empowered Solutions8 are examples of programs that work to empower middle and high school students to help create healthy communities. 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 youth9, 10. Many cities have youth commissions or youth councils, such as the San Pablo Youth Commission11 and New York City Youth Leadership Councils12.

Implementation Resources

YES!-Resources - Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!). Resources.

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


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

2 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.

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

4 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.

5 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.

6 4-H civic engagement - National 4-H Council. 4-H civic engagement programs.

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

8 YES! - Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!). Creating community change.

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

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

11 SPYC - City of San Pablo. San Pablo Youth Commission (SPYC). 2018.

12 NYC YLC - New York City (NYC). NYC Youth Leadership Councils (YLC). 2018.

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