Hive Chicago Learning Network Organizations Share Relationship-Building Best Practices

As a part of the Hive Mentoring project, 16 Hive Chicago organizations participated in a best practices survey. The purpose of the survey was to collect some best practices organizations use to effectively engage youth in their programs and share them across Hive Chicago. We’ve compiled a list of these best practices on how to engage youth in a variety of ways below.

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Have relationship building best practices to share?

How do you get to know youth in your program and create a sense of belonging?

  • Team Building activities
  • Games (i.e., theatre)
  • Icebreakers and team building activities
  • Action research activities
  • Have groups check-ins
  • Group decision-making, teamwork; connecting youth with similar interests
  • Shared group experiences (e.g. field trips)
  • T-shirts and branding
  • Games and other opportunities for peer engagement
  • Getting to know you activities
  • Break up cliques and have teens work with new partners/teams; Activities in teams of unacquainted students that challenge them to combine their distinct skill sets
  • Small group activities to get more one-on-one/interaction

What are five ways in which you can build community and a sense of belonging?

1. Promote sense of belonging or ownership

  • Give students roles and responsibilities
  • Allow participants to create something in one session.
  • Bringing people together around ideas and activities (e.g. mini-workshops at a one-time engagement)
  • Production of a collaborative work product
  • Give everyone an opportunity to speak to larger group at least once
  • Working together cooperatively and respectfully/valuing each other’s input and presence
  • Find commonalities among the group
  • Showing satisfaction or pride in the accomplishments made together

2. Establish ground rules and group goals

  • Focus on common goal or purpose
  • Developing foundation of agreements
  • Bonding the group with activities that acknowledge their “common ground”

3. Valuing student input and feedback

  • Valuing and encouraging all voices and opinions
  • Incorporating youth feedback in curriculum and other operational decisions.
  • Program based on student interests
  • Appointing and encouraging leadership roles
  • Inviting in youth as the experts on education and community development; seeing their stories and responses as the expert opinion
  • Student panel participation at a town hall meeting for the community
  • Provide opportunities for teens to make plans for day and activity; teens evaluate the day’s activity and mentor/staff

4. Give students leadership roles

  • Give students roles and responsibilities
  • Students engaging a community audience in asking questions about an impact issue
  • Students giving their own personal view of an impact issue and answering audience questions

5. Incorporate Student Interests

  • Apply a youths passions in creative pursuits
  • Putting students work prominently on display and letting them tell others about it

6. Involve larger community

  • Host the event in the community
  • Encourage parents to participate
  • Research about the community concerns/culture etc. before the event, making sure that the event is relevant for that particular community.
  • Connect with members of the community to see how a mutual beneficial relationship can be established.
  • Take interest in that community’s goals and accomplishments.
  • Ask about ways to be more involved with that community’s projects or ways to find out about
  • upcoming projects and events.

7. Facilitate engagement beyond the one-time event

  • Social Media; setup online communities teens can filter into after the engagement or event: Facebook, Twitter etc.
  • Outlet to continue conversation/interactions after the engagement or event: Future programming/opportunities
  • Collect contact information
  • Have “media coverage” of the event to promote future events
  • Have contact information readily available for distribution.

How do you build relationships with youth?

Built-in informal hang out time and conversations

  • Small group interactions/discussions
  • One-on-one in person interactions
  • Sharing sessions, check-ins (creating space to have youth share how things are going in their life)
  • Joining their tables and talking about non-program related things
  • Eating together
  • Listening
  • Having drop-in times outside of program
  • Being willing to talk about difficult topics appropriately
  • Inviting conversation about popular culture and school learning
  • Peer-to-peer interaction (community building strategies)
  • Listen and remembering details
  • Ask questions about youth
  • Share stories
  • Snack time/food/eat with them
  • Check in to see if they’re having difficulties with what they are doing
  • Informal spaces – humor
  • Support and compliment their style and interests (creating comfort) – create space for discussions about their interests and ideas
  • “Hanging out” with them in the space at the beginning and end, prior to program
  • Asking them about their love life
  • Behaving in more awkward and weird ways
  • Creating casual environment – relaxing and comfortable

Develop trust with youth

  • Relationship built on trust, honesty, and communication;
  • Give non-judgmental advice
  • Ensure students feel respected
  • Consistency in availability to give guidance and support
  • Follow-up and follow-through: Do what you say you are going to do
  • Mentoring relationship should be reciprocal; learning from each other
  • Personal boundaries, clear expectations
  • TLC, students although may reject it at first do positively react to TLC from caring adults.

Be (and include) Positive Role Models

  • Model active listening and positive conflict resolution
  • Including inviting youth to participate in the “practices” of the mentor
  • Professional role models

Allow youth to have a voice in what they do in program

  • Value youth input
  • Allow students to have choices.
  • Promote autonomy and ownership
  • Allowing students to have a strong voice in choosing projects
  • Students have input in curriculum
  • Adapting instructional materials according to students
  • Develop story ideas around community impact theme
  • Use the information to develop activities, incentives, trips, artifacts, agreements
  • Develop activities that elicit students to share their background and interests
  • Tailoring projects individually to each participant
  • Develop program themes that reflect youth culture and community interests
  • Design curriculum around their interests and need
  • Invite guest speakers/role models that reflect their cultural background
  • Gathering previous and existing knowledge on topic from youth perspective
  • Speaking panel opportunities for youth to present their work
  • Train artists to work with students to allow them to tailor the projects to fit their own interests
  • Use activities they are already engaged and incorporate into space/programming
  • Build in incentives based on their interests

Provide space for youth to develop skills

  • Goal setting with students and checking in on progress
  • Challenging youth while retaining relevancy.
  • Share Content knowledge
  • Linking students efforts (design work) to longer-term career pathways

Recognize youth accomplishments

  • Celebrating accomplishments.
  • Making time to share students design work

Consider and value student interests and experiences

  • Genuinely interested in the youth’s abilities and products
  • Keep the LARGER context in mind. (What happens outside the program greatly impacts what happens in the program.)
  • Don’t let the program exist in isolation/Connect the mentorship to other aspects of their lives.

Other qualities

  • Diversity among staff/mentors
  • Humor/Silliness

Set tone (respect/inclusiveness) for space

  • Emphasize respect and inclusiveness as a top priority (not tolerating harassment)
  • Encourage cooperative culture
  • Instill accountability, groups goals, and rules/guidelines
  • Develop peer support
  • Commitment discussion

Creating structure/routine

  • Recognition celebrations
  • Routines
  • Fun routines – mood check-ins, secret handshakes
  • Using program logistics – (set up, points earned)
  • Introduction to space and resource
  • Introductions to newcomers

Reflection activities

  • Reflection activities
  • Social/emotional skills activities
  • Journaling
  • One-on-one check-ins
  • Periodic check-ins throughout program

Tips for staff (RANDOM)

  • Working in small groups
  • Be passionate about what you teach – this gets youth excited
  • Know everyone’s names
  • Goal setting
  • Teacher/mentor outreach

Go out of your way to connect within the program outside of your role?

  • Working with teens when you’re not the instructor of the workshop
  • Find common interests within the space/program
  • Provide adult mentor to guide their work

Electronic communication

  • Email, text, Facebook communication
  • Engage youth through blogs and other social media

For students you may not see regularly or more than once, what are five strategies you employ to make that brief interaction impactful?

Continue to pay attention to their interests, ideas, and needs through programming

  • Find out about their culture/background through the ways they express themselves through media (programming)
  • Identify points where students are avoiding work/not participating to their full potential – then engage one-on-one
  • Use appropriate vocabulary and language
  • Directing youth to resources based on their interests
  • Internet access prior to or after work time

Meet youth where they are

  • Taking background of students into consideration and meet them where they are at (i.e. writing may not be their strong suit due to a host of reasons)
  • Understanding different learners – celebrate differences
  • Meet them where they are and provide support for education (homework help)
  • Consider youth background knowledge about topic to tailor level of programming
  • Work closely with teachers to make sure content reflects what students have learned
  • Marketing materials geared towards youth (accessible language)

Learn more about the youth and youth’s interests

  • Asking students questions about what they have been doing lately in school, or in other programs, or at home
  • Relating the material back to their own lives.
  • Collect information from them, getting-to-know you survey or participation card
  • Discuss barriers of consistent attendance

Make adjustments to meet the youth’s needs or interests

  • Taking the extra time to get them caught up quickly
  • Modifying the assignments to ensure they can participate.
  • Designing activities that give students space to grow and challenge themselves.
  • Thinking about arc of a one-time program so that it includes welcome, activity, and a culmination to bring closure to the experience
  • Make sure the workshop is hands on and very fun.

Make connections between youth’s interests and the program

  • Showing them the work we’ve been doing to encourage further participation
  • A piece of information or strategy that has the learner leaving while wanting to learn more or come back
  • Gain as much info about prior knowledge before they arrive or quickly upon arrival-plan and engage the students in a unique experience that they may have never otherwise done
  • We ask all students to make a creative contribution to a longer-term, larger design effort.
  • I always try to find out about what the student is interested in so that I can follow up with more information and connections for them later
  • Connect teens with peers and other staff based on their interests.

Make the value of youth’s presence known

  • Complimenting their previous work in the program; recognize their participation and accomplishments

Use youth strengths, lived experiences, and expertise

  • Explore what they already know about neighborhood, school, and youth leadership
  • Harness new and previous knowledge to begin creating ideas
  • Ask them to bring their expertise to the program
  • Use their personal experience and expertise in development of program goals and projects
  • Have them write essays with their personal viewpoints
  • Ask good questions during application process
  • Develop story ideas based on real-life experiences
  • Dig for stories that are not often heard about their communities
  • Be honest about your own knowledge and expertise (do not pretend to know all their interests – have students teach/inform you)

Empower young people by giving them the creative control over aspects of the program

  • Assign leadership roles to students – giving them valuable responsibilities
  • Give use power/control by giving them the opportunity for input
  • Customize program to meet the needs and interests of participants
  • Give them choices in creating work environment (food, music, set tone, etc.)
  • Give students creative control over content/curriculum
  • Utilize tools they use (i.e. social media)
  • Youth lead some aspects of program
  • Have youth make program decisions
  • Have youth introduce new staff and youth to space
  • Ask youth what they want to learn, opinions, comments questions (opportunity for student voice)

Incorporate topics/issues that are relevant to young people

  • Designing together to solve issues in education and child welfare
  • Attend youth school functions
  • Incorporate community events/activities into program
  • Using age-appropriate activities (games, their interest in popular culture)
  • Learning topics related to community issues in Chicago

Include youth in the acquisition of funds/resources for programming

  • Obtaining funding for program needs and scholarships
  • Provide understanding needed for program
  • Acquire equipment that will expand their interests in and out of the program

Value their work/knowledge/skills

  • Emphasize new learning/skills as economically valuable
  • Peer-to-peer work (show other youth their work)

List five strategies you employ to get youth to return to your program.

Incentives and Perks

  • Incentives (stipends, retreats, celebrations, field trips)
  • Perks: Access to technology and art materials
  • Drop-in schedule
  • Free food
  • Short-term incentives (service learning hours) and long-term (internships)
  • Field trips
  • Attendance incentives
  • Provide letters of recommendation
  • Offer advancement opportunities in career or school

Remove barriers

  • Remove barriers to participants (transportation, safety, parental permission)
  • Welcoming and inclusive safe space
  • Find times/locations convenient for students
  • Offer alternative options for those who don’t get into program

Create a welcoming environment

  • Be welcoming, friendly, open, and have positive interaction with youth
  • Engage youth in conversation; Intentionally listening and asking thoughtful open-ended questions;
  • Build rapport, make a personal connection.
  • Remember the teen’s name or something personal about them

Establish various modes of communication with youth

  • Stay in contact via facebook and social media
  • Keeping communication constant through other means i.e. texting/calling/email to check in

Connect youth to other resources (i.e. outside of program)

  • Inform them of resources to pursue their interests outside of program

Develop relationships within youth’s social network

  • Develop relationships/engaging check-ins with families/parents about programs and youth development/changes
  • Build connections
  • Develop relationships with teachers and other school administrators
  • Online connections/community – able to communicate beyond program with staff and other participants
  • Follow up with friends and parents about absence
  • A LOT of consistent communication through social media (Facebook, posting silly videos, etc.)
  • Train artists to establish rapport with youth
  • Connect experiences and build on them
  • Engage alumni to support current programming/events bring together current students and alumni – have them mentor current participants

Fun and diverse programming

  • Offer ladder of opportunities
  • Making work fun
  • Work with partner organizations to bring in a diverse range of workshops
  • Remain in contact through email
  • Relationship building/personal connections
  • Offer job opportunities or paid internships
  • Pathways to build expertise

Create responsibility and accountability for youth

  • Develop sense of accountability for participants
  • Give youth real decisions making and evaluation roles
  • Telling them when the next workshop is repeatedly – importance of attendance
  • Emphasizing team work – importance of being present (team building activities with peers)


  • Say “Good job, see you tomorrow?”
  • Call youth and ask them to come/reminder calls
  • Themed days – so participants know what to expect
  • Create learning plan and future interaction opportunities (follow-up)

Show them impact of their work and connect to larger goals

  • Create individual folders for each participant with all their work
  • Acknowledge that youth are providing you a service by coming
  • Show them their impact on the organization
  • Have a visual of the end goal to motivate them
  • Clarify larger goals of program


Directly asking for information

  • Surveys about preferences and interests, getting-to-know-you, pre-surveys/assessment applications, registration information
  • Interviews
  • Journaling exercises related to identity
  • Recommendations

Having youth develop their own profiles

  • Profile pages
  • Recording short introduction videos
  • Teens present their interests and work to each other

Activities as part of programming

  • Design thinking/human centered strategies – asking youth about school and other informal education
  • Expressing themselves through technology (making videos, websites, Photoshop)
  • Asking youth to set goals
  • Talk to youth about their projects
  • Learn about youth through watching them interact with other youth
  • Structured activities between mentors/staff and youth
  • Creating websites or other art work (ceiling tiles)
  • Leaderboard has youth names on it
  • Display youth’s work in the space
  • Mini-bios of youth who have completed program – to ensure they are meeting their goals
  • Creating and sharing art work, interests, blogs
  • Field trips
  • Public speaking exercises on childhood memories
  • Designing projects around youth interest