The voice of youth: atmosphere in positive youth development program

Document Type


Department or Administrative Unit

Nutrition Exercise and Health Sciences

Publication Date



Background: Positive youth development (PYD) programs adhere to the notion that all children have strengths and assets to be promoted and nurtured rather than deficits that require ‘fixing.’ The study of PYD programs indicates three aspects which set them apart from other programs for youth: activities, goals, and atmosphere. Of these, atmosphere has been least studied and what is known about atmosphere has been studied from a mostly adult perspective. Interestingly, while student voice is central to any educational process, students are not often consulted directly about their contributions.

Aims: The purpose of this study was to examine the atmosphere of a PYD program grounded in self-determination theory (SDT) through the eyes of the participants. SDT suggests that people have the needs of relatedness, autonomy, and competence which must be met for successful growth.

Method: An ethnographically informed case study was employed. Twenty-three participants from grades four and five (9 males and 14 females) took part in a PYD program using basketball as a medium. Data collection included focus groups, individual interviews, extensive field notes, and artifact collection. Responses were analyzed through open and axial coding. Trustworthiness strategies included: prolonged engagement, data triangulation, extensive field notes and researcher journal, member checks from both the staff and students, and peer debriefing.

Results: Four themes were identified in respect to atmosphere: relatedness, learning, relaxed climate, and enjoyment. Each theme is discussed in terms of how these youth perceived the construct as influencing their participation, and as integral parts of what they viewed as positive atmosphere. Each of these themes indicated that the students were provided with a voice that allowed them to express their ideas and interact positively with the adults and the environment.

Discussion: Relatedness, competence, and enjoyment have been found separately as important components of successful programs. However, it is the interaction of these themes within the relaxed structure that is unique to this study. For instance, the students chose a greater level of autonomy over higher competence. This led to a higher level of enjoyment which led to greater engagement in the program and its goals.

The data also supported the notion that a program grounded in the principles of SDT could be successful, particularly in promoting opportunities for youth in respect to autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Taking into account student voice was a major piece to the success of this program, the student data supported the idea that creating and maintaining a positive atmosphere was good teaching. However, fostering these needs is not automatic but more likely to occur if purposefully implemented through sound pedagogical practices such as the instructional alignment of goals, activities, and assessments.


This article was originally published in Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy


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