Learning a World Apart from School – The Youth Leadership Program

With Kids In The Spotlight (or KITS) just over a month away, Denise Goldbeck describes the intricate and organic process of the Youth Leadership Program. Take a look backstage into the work and training behind the magic of KITS!

By Denise Goldbeck. 

For 20 years, the Youth Leadership program at The Haven has brought together dozens of youth aged from 13 to 23 for a personal growth experience that offers a unique alternative to the model of standardized schooling. This summer, immediately before Kids In The Spotlight (KITS) gets under way, the 2019 group of youth leaders will come together for intensive training which will equip them for their work in the KITS season. Just like with KITS, a complex structure of scaffolding takes place, with youth at different levels of experience supporting one another in their learning as they prepare to facilitate KITS programs in the month and years to come.  

This environment is in many ways a world apart from school. It avoids rigid criteria for progress, following instead a more flexible and holistic approach to leadership development that adapts to the unique strengths and needs of the individual participants.  This approach supports a transition from rule-boundedness to agency, empowering participants to design and implement learning opportunities themselves, becoming effective and compassionate leaders in order to build and foster community.

Many people are needed to support the mixed age grouping of KITS. People are needed to track and facilitate the process of each participant.  A special detailed approach is critical to foster learning in an environment with such diversity of experience.  Throughout the 5-day training program youth learn and develop strategies for teaching a series of models – such as identity status, communication, listening, life stages, leadership, the Haven Selves model, and more. These models are then applied to real-world leading in KITS. Youth are able to apply and try on the learning from the models in a specific setting and receive direct feedback from the children they are leading. 

In addition to the models the participants in the leadership program plan and prep the musical show that will be produced in KITS. Learning and teaching are integrated in an experiential way with important life themes in the musical they are producing. Each year, new material related to the themes in the annual musical is introduced. By learning these models, youth come up with their own strategies for teaching. Immediately they have the opportunity to turn around and put these strategies into play throughout the KITS program. Over time, youth develop leadership skills in a supportive, yet real life environment. From working on their own development to supporting kids in theirs, youth can reflect back on and develop compassion for their own process. Through the magic of scaffolding, this feeds back into the empathy they provide to those they support,  opening up a circle of support that builds confidence, self-esteem, identity and social understanding. These experiences help our youth become happier and more effective models, leaders and teachers.  


This program is very different from school and from many other children’s educational programs. In school, the learning environment tends to be bounded by rules. Moving between grades is assessed according to a clear set of criteria.  However, the real world outside of school is not clear-cut like this, and a focus on “How am I doing?” can make it challenging to be present.  Learning to be present and moving away from obsessing about assessment and self-assessment can boost social understanding and confidence quite rapidly. This is one reason we emphasize improvisational techniques, as we find that youth benefit from the suspension of negative judgments from all sources. This lack of a traditional assessment method and clear-cut criteria for advancement can in itself be a source of anxiety and puzzlement. As challenging as this can be for participants and parents alike, the benefits of an individualized program that comes closer to real-world experience outweigh the difficulties. Youth will have many experiences where the criteria are standardized, where the curriculum is set and they are expected to adapt to it. These experiences are wonderful and extremely valuable, but a little easier to come by in our current society. The Youth Leadership program offers something rare in our culture.

The Youth Leadership program offers enough flexibility to morph to the individuals who attend.  An understanding of their progression comes from watching how much they engage and hold the group, use their physical body in communication to create the container, and provide the crucible for development right in front of our eyes. This means that we do not have a curriculum that hinges on a particular point, rather we consider the individual and their developmental path, their leadership style, their attachment style and their identity as a whole. The program offers youth the agency to step outside rule-boundedness, create and implement teaching strategies themselves through their creativity and unique contributions, to be present as they come into their identity and gain confidence, and to have fun at the same time.  All of this adds up to an experience that in many ways more accurately reflects and provides tools for navigating the real world.

The growth that comes from this type of learning can be difficult to articulate.  It is a more holistic, pervasive benefit. This approach comes from the idea that the kinds of things we’re used to using as markers of progress might not be the most useful.  It even comes from the idea that the types of things we most benefit from we don’t get by pursuing directly or forcing a process, but rather, by holding openness and being present in our process. Magically, this more organic, unstandardized approach seems to help the youth leaders when it comes to their standardized more traditional educational endeavours. The confidence that is won through this holistic experience spills over into every aspect of life. As the youth enter their 18thor 19th year, there is a rapid process of generalization where knowledge that was acquired in specific settings is generalized as need be. This means that KITS leading knowledge is carried on lifelong. In fact, children who participated in KITS, became youth leaders, and are now parents who are bringing their children back to KITS report this phenomenon. Now some of those parents, who were child participants and youth leaders are being scaffolded into leading the KITS programs. A supportive circle indeed!

Denise Goldbeck MA, PhD cand., DipC, RCC is a developmental psychologist specializing in social and moral development in children. She has been working with children, teens and families for over 35 years. She is the founder of Kids In The Spotlight and the Youth Leadership Program and leads Personal Parenting. Denise’s purpose in life is to smooth the way for young people as they discover their identities and build their lives. She helps parents increase harmony in their homes and raise children who are prepared to thrive in our challenging world.

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