Focus Area 1: The Field of Youth Work
6. Professional Development Ensures Your Success

There is never a “one size fits all” strategy when working with young people. Each young person is a unique individual, just as each youth worker is a unique individual. Different young people require different approaches. Different youth workers employ different approaches. However, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better your results will be. Professional development is a guaranteed way to put a wide assortment of tools in your toolbox.

Professional development has many aims but the biggest outcome is that you will develop competence over time. Competency consists of knowledge, skills, and confidence. That’s an unbeatable combination for any youth worker!

Remember that youth work is part science and part art.

It is science because you need to understand best practices and measure outcomes to ensure that what you are doing works. And it is increasingly recognized that a lack of fundamental knowledge when working with young people could actually harm them. That’s not a risk you should be willing to take.

It is art because you need to have the instincts for timing, the nuances of verbal and non-verbal communication, the ability to navigate ethical dilemmas, the skill to think on your feet and improvise when things don’t go as planned…all of which are difficult to teach. The good news is that the art part can be improved when a youth worker is open to making mistakes, and willing to learn from them, and continue to challenge their own growth and development.

No one is expecting you to handle every interaction or every situation with young people perfectly. You’re working with real people – perfect isn’t even possible. But, everyone is expecting you to know when you should seek help and consult a supervisor. The more you know where your competency (knowledge, skills, and confidence) begins and ends, the better off you, your program, and the young people you work with will be.

The skills and insights you bring to work make a difference. Every youth worker - whether new to the field or more experienced - can and should enhance their skills by actively participating in professional development opportunities offered by their employer, as well as seeking out new learning opportunities on their own.

Whether you’re pursuing professional development to refresh yourself on what you already know, or to gain fresh new perspectives that will take what you know to the next level, it is your obligation to the field and to the young people you serve to improve in some way each and every day.

It’s All About Young People 

The better you become in your role, the better the outcomes for the young people you serve

Would you trust a trained surgeon to practice dentistry on you? Just because a doctor is trained in one area does not mean they can do every type of surgery or medical practice. Unfortunately, this is often what happens in the field of youth work.

There is great diversity in how people enter the field of youth work. Some enter the profession through the traditional education route and view their work as their primary occupation. Others enter the profession without formal education or training and gain both knowledge and skills on the job.

Because of the diversity in educational backgrounds, there are times when youth workers are placed in a position with little to no training relevant to the work they need to do. And as it is in any line of work, a certain skill set is needed to be effective in providing programs and services for young people.

Make no mistake about it: the young people you support will benefit in multiple ways when you are well trained. Training will help you better understand the needs and motives of young people. This will help you to relate more effectively to young people and create a strong, trusting interpersonal connection.

With training, you will become better at:

  • Developing and executing interesting activities for youth
  • Helping young people resolve behavioral problems and interpersonal conflicts with less stress
  • Responding to changing or unexpected situations
  • Performing the ‘difficult duties’ (e.g. being the ‘enforcer’ of rules and holding young people accountable)

You must be flexible in your work because much of what you do is improvised. That’s the art part. This requires you to be completely ready to help in ways you may not have expected.

Trends, research, best practices, and circumstances change. To be the best youth worker you can be requires that you keep up with changes and keep stretching your own knowledge, skills, and confidence. That’s how you’ll grow in your career. And young people are counting on you to do that.


The general public typically does not view youth work as a final destination career. It tends to regard working in youth programs as a stepping stone or as a supplemental job opportunity. This does not help our field get the adequate funding it needs nor does it help attract dedicated and skillful youth workers.

Through professional development, you will gain knowledge and skills that will help you to support better outcomes and be proud of the work you are accomplishing. Professional development will also help you better convey the impact of your work to the general public.

You need to remember that:

  • Conducting yourself appropriately while you are with young people and being respectful in what you say about your work has a big impact on how youth work is perceived by the general public
  • Having a positive attitude towards your work and the young people you work with can change people’s views of youth work
  • Being recognized as a professional providing a valuable service to the community will help make sure that you have the respect and resources needed to effectively work with young people 


For youth programs, an ongoing problem is the high turnover rate among youth workers. Research repeatedly shows that professional development can reduce employee turnover. Additionally, offering professional development attracts and retains good youth workers.

How? Through professional development and adding new tools:

  • You will feel better prepared for your work and feel less stress
  • You will feel more confident and competent
  • You will support more positive outcomes for young people

Experiencing less stress and achieving positive outcomes means you are less likely to ‘burn out’ and leave the organization or the field of youth work. The more you learn and the longer you choose to serve young people the better you get at youth work.

Young people need you to get ‘good at your work’ and develop a lifelong passion for serving youth. You have the choice to continue learning and make youth work your career.


Any youth program is only as strong as its least trained staff. This includes the program you work in.

By building your competency, not only will you be better in your own work, but you will be:

  • Better able to provide guidance and feedback to your colleagues in their work with youth. This makes the organization you work with more impactful overall.
  • Prepared and well-versed in youth work principles and practice, which will enable you to represent your program in its best light when networking or collaborating with other organizations.
  • Able to use a common language with other youth workers, which is a critical part of fostering the growth of the field of youth work.
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