Teens Share Tips for Creating Positive Program Spaces and Relationships

The mentoring working group convened five focus groups at different youth-serving organizations in Chicago.  Twenty-six youth participated in focus group discussions about their experiences working with staff and volunteers.


They were asked about:

  1. Positive characteristics of adults that facilitate relationship building with youth
  2. Negative characteristics of adults that impede relationship building with youth
  3. Environmental characteristics that facilitate relationship building between adults and youth
  4. How adults build connections and support youth

The focus group discussions were read, transcribed, and coded to generate themes related to the topics above. The youth elaborated on many of the themes and added additional themes.  You’ll find what the youth had to say below.



Positive Adult Characteristics (Descriptors)


  • Positive (optimistic)
  • Outgoing
  • Enthusiastic
  • Open-minded

  • Open to constructive criticism
  • Fun & humorous
  • Laid-back
  • Caring & warm

  • Genuine
  • Welcoming
  • Supportive
  • Non-judgmental

“I like that they ask for our opinions on things. With the Youth Council teachers, they’re more outgoing and open to whatever ideas you have.”


“I think that they always try to relate to us because we’re different age, so it’s easier to work with someone if you can relate to them.”



Negative Adult Characteristics (Descriptors)


  • Adult driven vs. youth driven
  • Arrogant and cocky
  • Judgmental and makes assumptions
  • Lack of respect

  • Lack of interest in getting to know youth
  • Lack of common interests, shared purpose or connection
  • Lack of communication skills/difficult to engage with youth

  • Lack of instruction/teaching
  • Unethical behavior
  • Low expectations
  • Failure to display affection or emotional reactions

Environmental Characteristics (Descriptors)


  • Physical space – fun, happy, colorful, open, playful
  • Location easily accessible
  • Size of space allows for more activities
  • Décor/furniture is comfortable and creative

  • Safe space and play space
  • Designated spaces for working and socializing
  • Smaller setting so everyone can be heard
  • Informal space, laidback and not too strict

  • Supportive learning environment
  • Open door policy
  • Organized setting promotes time management
  • Respect contributes to comfortable environment

Adult Practices that are Supportive of Youth


  • Foster mutual respect
  • Ask about youths well-being
  • Provide guidance
  • Be a positive role model
  • Be available and accessible
  • Give youth responsibilities & build accountability
  • Show interest in youth’s work
  • Create opportunities for networking

  • Refer youth to other programs, events or peers
  • Teach and develop skills in youth
  • Cultivate youth voice
  • Encourage youth to share opinions and perspectives
  • Provide academic support by helping with college searches, scholarships and writing letters of recommendation

  • Provide career development support by encouraging youth to pursue career interests, share information and opportunities to gain experience in field of interest
  • Provide motivation and encouragement
  • Provide support for personal problems, including emotional and moral support

“They ask us what we’re interested in and what stuff we like, so that just gives me a better look on them because then they’re showing that they actually care about us and that it’s not just over a paycheck or anything like that. They’re really interactive with all of us.” 


“I have program coordinators that help me out with college stuff.  One of my mentors, she actually set up a meeting with her and one of her friends who got the Bill Gates scholarship.”



Adult Practices that Foster Rapport Building


  • Get to know youth interests and needs
  • Share background and experiences
  • Share personal struggles and tribulations
  • Share websites and places that are helpful

  • Share/set purpose for learning
  • Provide step-by-step instructions
  • Provide visual representations
  • Demonstrate/model for youth the skills being developed
  • Demonstrate confidence

  • Inform youth about the positive outcome (s) from learning new skill
  • Inspire youth to learn by designing youth interested activities that are engaging and informative
  • BE yourself!
  • BE empathetic!

“Every time I stepped foot through the door, they asked me- they actually ask me if I want to be a part of something there.  I always agree because I just want to actually interact with different people.”


“I feel so comfortable. They know what I’ve been through and they tell me what they’ve been through and we just got a connection. I just talk to them. I don’t talk to nobody else.”