Guidelines for Working with Youth

In developing this toolkit, we learned some valuable lessons about how to effectively collaborate with children and youth. We’ve distilled these learnings and the best practices of others into five guidelines that the adults in your group should review before engaging with young people. These are a starting point. As you do this work, think about the other learnings you have along the way, and how you plan to share them amongst your group.

guideline #1: Cultivate respect for children and youth.

Respect and trust are essential when you are collaborating, sharing about your experiences, and being creative. It is no different when you’re working with children and youth. Speaking and listening respectfully, taking an interest, and providing context and information in age-appropriate ways are key aspects of this principle.

Examples of this principle in action:

  • Respect when children and youth need to take breaks, use the washroom, and voice other needs they have.

  • Give children and youth options for activities or topics to work on, instead of just having one predetermined activity.

  • Speak directly to children and youth. Avoid speak only to their parents or caregivers when they are present. When it’s appropriate, share information directly with the young person, or involve them in the conversation.

  • When getting consent to participate in an activity or research, always provide an age-appropriate explanation to the child or youth, in addition to the information provided to their parent or guardian for consent.

  • Use child and youth-friendly language that does not include acronyms, jargon, or phrases/terms that are specific to your field.

guideline #2: Value young people's voices.

We need to truly hear young people’s voices in order to be effective in using this toolkit. Young people are the experts on their own lives and experiences. They know what matters most to them and what affects them. They also have incredible creativity and capacity for solving problems. We need to commit to valuing young people’s voices—even when they have different priorities or perspectives than the adults in the room.

Examples of this principle in action:

  • Avoid dismissing opinions or contributions of young people—even if they seem tangential to the work you are focused on. Try to find ways to incorporate their contributions.

  • Show your appreciation for young people’s contributions. Thank them for their participation and engagement.

  • When sharing stories and ideas from working with children, avoid framing their contributions as “cute” or less serious than you might when talking about an adult contribution.

  • Make a commitment to incorporating the things that matter to kids and youth into your decisions and design process.


guideline #3: Make time for storytelling and play.

Our minds—especially those of young people—do really well when we have time and space for unstructured play. Encouraging this exploration and creating moments for unabashed storytelling avoids complete energy drain and sets the stage for unexpected thoughts.

Examples of this principle in action:

  • Avoid scheduling every single moment of time with children and youth.

  • Young people are often happy to invite people into the worlds they’re exploring. Take them up on the invitation when it’s offered.

  • Keep a collection of seemingly random kid-friendly toys/objects/supplies and make them available. These are the figurative (and sometimes, literal) building blocks of creativity. Some examples include: Playdoh, stress balls, Lego or building blocks, doodling materials.


guideline #4: Consider the diversity of children and youth.

Childhood spans a large range of ages, experiences and developmental stages. When we engage with children and youth, we need to consider the diversity within an age range, and also the infinite diversity amongst children that’s unrelated to age.

Examples of this principle in action:

  • Avoid assuming that all children and youth have the same priorities, interests, or ways of contributing.

  • Create opportunities for young people to help plan and guide their contributions, so that they have a more engaging and customized experience.

  • Offer different ways for young people to contribute. For example, some children may only want to spend 2 minutes with you. How can you best use that time? Some youth may prefer to engage using online or digital tools. How can you reach them through these channels?

  • Avoid grouping young people by age for activities. Research shows that young people gain more from experiences when they interact with diverse groups, including groups with a mix of ages. Aim to mix it up as much as possible!


guideline #5: Be flexible and trust the Design process.

Build in time for young people to take the reins. Allow time for tangents and for children and youth to direct the conversation. You may not know what's important to them, and what will be relevant to the final outcome of the work.

Examples of this principle in action:

  • Invite young people to help lead a group activity, and practice patience when it inevitably doesn’t go according to script.

  • When a young person interprets an instruction differently than intended, see where things go.

  • Plan extra time to follow the lead of whatever path children take.

  • Avoid taking control because you want things to get done right or quickly. Trust the process and the people you've brought together. They will make great (and maybe unexpected) things happen.

How to be a good adult ally:

Turn your statements into questions.

Ask questions so youth can work through problems themselves.

Be Yourself.

Don't try to be cool. Authenticity and honesty are the qualities youth respect most in adults.

Check your assumptions.

Challenge any negative assumptions you or other adults have about young people.

Avoid adultism.

"You're so young, you wouldn't know what I'm talking about." "You're so adorable." These comments belittle young people and will isolate them from the discussion.

Create a safe place.

Actively work on creating an environment that is inviting, non-judgemental, and inclusive for all young people.


Get started with the Toolkit!