A Typology of Youth Participation and Empowerment for Child
and Adolescent Health Promotion
Naima T. Wong •Marc A. Zimmerman •
Edith A. Parker
Published online: 12 June 2010
ÓSociety for Community Research and Action 2010
Abstract Research suggests that increasing egalitarian
relations between young people and adults is optimal for
healthy development; however, the empirical assessment of
shared control in youth–adult partnerships is emerging, and
the ﬁeld still requires careful observation, identiﬁcation,
categorization and labeling. Thus, our objective is to offer a
conceptual typology that identiﬁes degrees of youth–adult
participation while considering the development potential
within each type. We use an empowerment framework,
rooted in evidence-based ﬁndings, to identify ﬁve types of
youth participation: (1) Vessel, (2) Symbolic, (3) Plural-
istic, (4) Independent and (5) Autonomous. The typology is
constructed as a heuristic device to provide researchers,
practitioners and policy-makers with a common language
for articulating degrees of youth participation for optimal
child and adolescent health promotion.
Keywords Youth participation Participatory action
research Empowerment Youth–adult partnerships
Child and adolescent health promotion
In recent years, researchers have begun to shift from seeing
youth (i.e., children and adolescents) as problems to
viewing them as resources for participatory action and
research. Likewise, child and adolescent health promotion
is gaining recognition as a viable approach not only to
preventing youth problems, but also enhancing positive
development. Prior to this shift, young people were rarely
asked to voice their opinions or participate in the devel-
opment of research and programs designed for them. Now,
studies that use participatory asset-based approaches, such
as youth empowerment, are emerging in the empirical lit-
erature (e.g., Cargo et al. 2004; Foster-Fishman et al. 2005;
Jennings et al. 2006; Kim et al. 1998; Wallerstein et al.
2002). The appeal of these approaches is that they both
build on young people’s intrinsic strengths and actively
involve them in addressing issues that they themselves
identify. In addition, the issues young people identify may
also be community concerns; thus, the potential to inﬂu-
ence positively both adolescent and community develop-
ment can be encouraged by actively engaging with youth.
Although participatory asset-based approaches that
enhance youth voice and participation are gaining recog-
nition, the inclusion of youth contributions is often the
exception rather than rule. More than half of research
articles in top adolescent journals focus on problems
(Furstenberg 2000) and much of the literature can be
characterized as adult-centric (Bennett et al. 2003; Daiute
and Fine 2003). That is, child and adolescent research and
practice are largely constructed using an adult lens whereas
the perspectives and real-life experiences of young people
are frequently overlooked.
Despite this adult-centric bias, young people are
uniquely positioned to make important contributions to
research and be agents in their own personal and commu-
nity development. Youth culture, for example, can evolve
N. T. Wong
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, USA
M. A. Zimmerman (&)
Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of
Public Health, University of Michigan, 109 South Observatory,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2029, USA
E. A. Parker
College of Public Health, Department of Community and
Behavioral Health, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
so rapidly that by the time older age groups begin to
understand it, young people have already adopted some-
thing new (Willis 1990). Adults may not be able to relate,
placing children and adolescents in an optimal position to
determine the relevance of efforts geared towards youth.
Moreover, late childhood to early adolescence (i.e.,
10–14 years old) is an opportune time to promote health
and positive development. Many of the habits and health
behaviors observed in adulthood begin during this stage
(Millstein et al. 1993). The desire for experimentation with
different behaviors increases with the need to form an
identity—a major task of adolescence. An Eriksonian view
suggests identity is attained by establishing a stable self-
concept through integrating past and present experiences
with future notions of self (Muuss 1962/1996). This task is
achieved through psychosocial reciprocity, a process of
engaging with others, to resolve three psychological crisis
questions: (1) Who am I?; (2) Where am I going?; and (3)
Who do I want to become? Considering these develop-
mental needs, it is critical that children and adolescents are
provided with opportunities to explore these questions in
an environment that encourages autonomy, yet channels
curiosity in a positive direction.
One strategy for encouraging this type of environment is
to foster opportunities for children and adolescents to
participate in research and decisions that affect their lives.
Participatory action research (PAR), in particular, is an
approach that can appeal to the fresh ideas, energy and
immediate outcomes that younger people seek while
empowering youth to make contributions to address issues
of their concern. The basic tenets of PAR include (1)
collaborating with the population under study, (2) balanc-
ing power between researchers and participants during the
research process through co-learning, and (3) ensuring
research is translated into action (Minkler 2000). Youth
participation in action research encourages healthy devel-
opment for several reasons. Involving young people in
decision-making with adult researchers can build skills,
mastery, and competence. When decisions are made in a
group, youth are exposed to different ways of thinking,
problem solving, and strategizing—which strengthens
cognitive and social development. The co-learning
approach of PAR also supports balancing power between
youth and adult researchers. Acknowledging the value that
both youth and adults can contribute allows for adults to
gain insight grounded in youth perspectives and youth to
learn in an environment that validates their experience. The
action component of PAR also aligns with young people’s
needs for immediate gratiﬁcation. Observing the result of
their contributions can build conﬁdence, self-efﬁcacy and
self-esteem. In addition, young people who are involved in
producing knowledge that impacts policy and action in
their communities may develop a stronger sense of
responsibility to others. Thus, youth participation has
potential to promote individual and community health by
satisfying developmental needs in a positive manner while
also enhancing the relevance of research, policy, and
practice to lived experiences of children and adolescents.
Although the contributions of children and adolescents
may be an under-utilized resource, we do not suggest they
should carry the full burden of promoting health for young
people. Adults ought to share in this responsibility.
Researchers suggest that increasing egalitarian relations
between youth and adults is optimal for healthy develop-
ment (Camino 2005; Fauth et al. 2007; Fogel 2004; Larson
et al. 2005; Whitlock 2007). Yet few empirical assessments
of shared control in formal youth–adult partnerships exist
and, therefore, the ﬁeld still requires careful observation,
identiﬁcation, categorization and labeling (Zeldin et al.
2005a,b). Thus, our objective is to offer a typology that
identiﬁes degrees of youth–adult participation. We draw
from the positive youth development perspective and use
an empowerment framework rooted in evidence-based
ﬁndings to rationalize the structure of the typology. The
typology is also designed with the intention of providing
researchers, practitioners and policy-makers a common
language for articulating degrees of youth participation for
optimal health promotion.
Citizen participation in matters of community has long
been considered an important cornerstone of community
development (Arnstein 1969; Price 1990). Researchers
have found that participation can take on many forms such
as community involvement in block clubs, advisory boards,
and neighborhood watches, and can have multiple beneﬁts
including increased civic competence, community cohe-
sion, and neighborhood improvements (Florin and Wan-
dersman 1990). In parallel, the beneﬁts and promotion of
participatory action research have also expanded over the
past few decades (Cornwall and Jewkes 1995). A turning
point in this expansion was Arnstein’s (1969) classic
typology that articulates levels of citizen participation.
Arnstein uses a ladder metaphor to suggest that partici-
pation can be divided into eight types of participation that
fall into three major categories: (1) non-participation, (2)
tokenism, and (3) citizen power. A major assumption of
Arnstein’s ladder is that participation types are linear,
where citizen power types are preferred over non-partici-
pation types. This framework also places emphasis on
participation from the participation end users viewpoint
rather than those who promote participation (Cornwall
2008). Several other participation typologies using a variety
of frameworks have been published since Arnstein’s ladder
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 101
(e.g., Pretty 1995; Rocha 1997; White 1996); however, they
do not illustrate how participation may differ for youth who
often have a minor social status in society compared to
adults and, therefore, have unique developmental contexts
to be considered with regard to power and control.
Figures 1,2, and 3illustrate three of the more widely
known typologies of youth participation: Hart’s (1992)
Ladder of Young People’s Participation, Shier’s (2001)
Pathways to Participation, and Treseder’s Degrees of Par-
ticipation (1997). Hart’s typology builds upon Arnstein’s
ladder metaphor and adapts the framework to produce a
typology that delineates a stepwise progression of partici-
pation in the context of youth and adult interactions. Similar
to Arnstein’s ladder, Hart’s typology (see Fig. 1) includes
varying degrees of non-participation and participation types
organized in a linear fashion with the assumption that the
highest participation type (i.e., child initiated, shared deci-
sions with adults) is the most desirable.
Shier’s typology is intended to be used in tandem with
Hart’s model. The typology (see Fig. 2) expands on Hart’s
participation types, rather than the non-participation types,
to help practitioners and researchers consider three stages
of commitment that can be applied at each progressive
participation level: (1) openings, (2) opportunities, and (3)
obligations. At each level and stage, Shier proposes key
questions that can be used to probe that current level of
participation or design participatory action with youth and
Shier suggests that a major contribution of Hart’s
typology was that his model helps practitioners uncover
how many activities and programs are designed at the non-
participation levels. To shift the focus, Shier designed his
Fig. 1 Hart’s (1992) ladder of
young people’s participation
102 Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
typology to include only the participation rungs rather than
the non-participation rungs of Hart’s ladder. By doing this,
Shier’s typology misses an opportunity to be a compre-
hensive model that captures the full range of youth–adult
arrangements that have implications for participation.
Furthermore, the questions built into Shier’s typology are
designed for adult responses. This adult-centric framing
further perpetuates the adult position of power. Although
this underlying adult bias may represent a frank reality in
many cases, a reframing of youth–adult relationships in a
model that focuses attention on shared youth–adult control
can offer a way to conceptualize relationships that allow
both young people and adults to jointly determine roles,
participatory readiness, and genuine shared control in
participatory action research.
Treseder’s typology offers an alternative model to the
linear conception of participation (see Fig. 3). He states
that use of the ladder metaphor in Hart’s model implies that
each rung is a progressive step towards the ideal: youth-
driven participation. Treseder argues that youth-driven
participation may be inappropriate in some cases and that it
is instead more practical to describe ﬁve types of unique
yet equal forms of participation. The degrees of partici-
pation in his typology are represented in nonlinear nodes to
indicate that one participation type is not more ideal than
another. The ﬁve participation types included in the model
are: (1) assigned, but informed, (2) adult-initiated, shared
decisions with children, (3) child-initiated and directed, (4)
child-initiated, shared decisions with adults, and (5) con-
sulted and informed.
Although Hart’s, Shier’s, and Treseder’s typologies are
useful frameworks for articulating various youth partici-
pation types, none fully account for recent ﬁndings in
youth–adult participation research. In Hart’s model, the
placement of youth-driven participation at the top of the
ladder can under value the contributions and power sharing
adults can lend to youth and community development. That
is, the lack of adult involvement in youth-driven partici-
pation may hinder rather than encourage optimal adoles-
cent development and empowerment. The assumption that
youth-driven participation is ideal for empowerment
overlooks how youth status plays out in broader social
structures. In her evaluation of youth–adult partnerships,
Camino (2000,2005), for example, found that activity
quality and positive development outcomes were compro-
mised when adults were not involved. Youth may lack the
skills, expertise, and connections to social capital that may
be required to successfully conduct research or an activity,
which can lead to frustration and unintended disempow-
ering outcomes. Similarly, McHale et al. (2001) found that
children who participated in structured activities with
adults rather than unsupervised activities with peers, had
improved developmental adjustment in subsequent middle
school years. These ﬁndings suggest that the neutral rep-
resentation of participation types in Treseder’s model do
not reﬂect the value that certain youth–adult participation
arrangements can lend to the empowerment and positive
development of youth. Few researchers, for example,
would argue that child or youth-initiated research where
children have the ideas, set up the project, and invite adults
to join them is a fair balance of power sharing because
adults have greater access to institutional resources. This
youth initiated arrangement places a disproportionate bur-
den on young people to assume roles they may not be able
to fulﬁll by virtue of their minor status, limited experience
with the conventions of program and research operations,
and potential developmental capabilities. Therefore, shared
youth–adult control in participatory research and action
may be ideal for positive youth development and empow-
erment rather than youth-driven participation.
The TYPE Pyramid: A Typology of Youth
Participation and Empowerment
The proposed typology further builds on the youth focused
participation models by incorporating intergenerational
linkages and considering recent research developments in
youth–adult partnerships. Like Treseder, we shift from
Fig. 2 Shier’s (2001) pathways to participation
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 103
using a ladder metaphor to avoid the assumption that
youth-driven participation is ideal. In contrast to Treseder,
however, we use a pyramid schematic to articulate differ-
ent conﬁgurations of youth–adult control that reﬂect opti-
mal participation types for youth empowerment. Thus, the
Typology of Youth Participation and Empowerment
(TYPE) Pyramid is presented with ﬁve types of participa-
tion that delineate various levels of youth–adult involve-
ment in an inverted V schematic: (1) Vessel, (2) Symbolic,
(3) Pluralistic, (4) Independent and (5) Autonomous
(see Fig. 4). The pyramid shape and arrows depicted in
the model are intended to represent an evidence-based
hypothesis about the degrees of empowerment and positive
youth development potential for each participation type.
The arrows also suggest, that although ﬁve major partici-
pation types are described in the typology, the concept of
youth participation can be observed on a continuum.
Characteristics of the TYPE Pyramid
The TYPE Pyramid combines three characteristics that
distinguish it from other frameworks. These characteristics
are the explicit use of an empowerment theoretical
framework, emphasis on both youth and adult involvement,
and ﬁve participation types that articulate varying degrees
of empowerment and positive youth development.
The TYPE Pyramid uses an empowerment framework to
describe various degrees of youth–adult involvement. An
empowerment framework was chosen for its conceptual
emphasis on enhancing wellness, being strengths based and
identifying sociopolitical inﬂuences on quality of life
(Wallerstein 1992; Wallerstein and Bernstein 1988;
Zimmerman 2000). Critical consciousness, also known as
critical awareness and conscientization, is central to the
empowerment process. The role of critical consciousness in
empowerment borrows from pedagogical principles popu-
larized by Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire (Minkler and
Cox 1980; Wallerstein and Bernstein 1988; Wang and
Burris 1997; Zimmerman and Warschausky 1998). Freire
(1970/2003) notes that people are powerless when they are
unaware of causes that shape their conditions, and that
Fig. 3 Treseder’s (1997)
degrees of participation
104 Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
empowerment occurs through creation of a collective
critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is achieved
when, ‘‘people develop their power to perceive critically
the way they exist in the world with which and in which
they ﬁnd themselves; they come to see the world not as a
static reality, but as a reality in the process, in transfor-
mation’’ (Freire 1970/2003, p. 83, italics in original). Here
Freire suggests that empowerment is derived from an
awareness that is formed when individuals understand how
their circumstances are shaped by not only their own
behavior, but also broader social and historical forces. It is
through questioning these circumstances that youth and
communities can uncover their own sense of agency and
Although critical consciousness can raise awareness
about determinants of health, it is the subsequent research
and behavioral action that addresses these determinants
that can initiate change. Zimmerman (2000) suggests that
the potential for empowerment rests on the strength of the
connection between individuals, organizations and their
communities. Much of this connection rests on the degree
of individual and collective participation. For youth, this
translates to participation in research and action with adult
Youth and Adult Involvement
Previous researchers have suggested that youth-driven
participation is ideal for positive youth development and
empowerment. Children and adolescents, however, cannot
be expected to carry the full burden of empowering
themselves and their communities. Adults ought to share in
this responsibility. The uneven power dynamics that exist
between youth and adults make sharing this responsibility
challenging. An egalitarian approach to critical con-
sciousness, however, may empower both youth and adults
to overcome this dynamic. To achieve critical
consciousness, a democratic value orientation that supports
participatory co-learning is emphasized. In co-learning
with youth, adults can serve as resources and collabora-
tors—versus being the experts—by facilitating critical
dialogue, awareness, and building skills towards critical
consciousness in partnership with young people (Zimmer-
man 2000). Youth participants can be encouraged to be
active collaborators and the sharing of their views con-
tributes to critical dialogue, furthering awareness about
how politics, socioeconomic position, culture and history
can be fundamental in shaping individual life experience
and health outcomes (Rappaport 1995; Wallerstein 1992;
Zimmerman 2000). By being active collaborators, youth
can also increase developmental assets such as compe-
tence, self-efﬁcacy and sense of control by developing
an awareness of and engaging with their environment
(Zimmerman 1995). It is through this co-learning process
with adults that youth can both become empowered and
reap developmental beneﬁts.
Children and adolescents, however, possess different
needs in the empowerment process compared to adults
because, given their developmental stage, youth are not
afforded all the rights and responsibilities of adults. Due to
these limits, young people must often depend on their
elders to fulﬁll a variety of tasks. Adults may be needed for
supervision, guidance and social support. A licensed adult,
for example, must supervise a young person when they are
learning how to drive a car. An adult is legally required to
be present, but he or she can also provide expertise and
monitor driving techniques to ensure safety. Young people
may also look to adults for guidance. Research on parent–
child communication, for instance, suggests that most
youth have questions on a wide-range of topics they would
like to ask their parents (Richardson 2004). Adults can also
provide vital social support and connection to other inﬂu-
ential adults. Young males, for example, with higher levels
of parent support are at reduced risk for suicide ideation
Fig. 4 The TYPE pyramid
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 105
and violent behavior (Brookmeyer et al. 2005; Tarver et al.
2004). Researchers have also found that youth who are
connected to adults with resources increase their social
capital (Jarrett et al. 2005; Lerner et al. 2005; Zeldin 2004).
Adults can expand youths’ social networks by exposing
them to other inﬂuential adults. Subsequently, young peo-
ple may be able to later draw upon these networks for
personal beneﬁt such as increased job opportunities, rec-
ommendation letters and apprenticeship.
Adult involvement may be necessary, but the mere
presence of adults is not sufﬁcient for youth empowerment.
The degree and quality of this involvement can affect youth
development. Adults, for instance, do not necessarily need
to take active roles in young peoples’ lives to inﬂuence
their behavior. Social learning theory suggests children and
adolescents often take cues about their own behavior from
adult role models (Bandura 1977). Findings in youth voice
research support social learning theory by suggesting that
the decisions adults make play a signiﬁcant role in young
people’s lives. Phelan et al. (1992), for example, found that
when they asked students about the school environment,
youth often identiﬁed concerns controlled by teachers or
administrators. Young people are also aware of and
potentially inﬂuenced by negative adult behaviors (e.g.,
crime, drug use, alcohol abuse) (Ginsburg et al. 2002;
Mahiri and Conner 2003; Towns 1996). As Towns (1996)
found, youth tended to excuse negative behaviors displayed
by adult relatives and instead attributed the behaviors
to misfortunate circumstances. Therefore, by observing
adults, youth can learn about the beneﬁts and consequences
of performing certain behaviors. Youth who are exposed to
adults who smoke may acquire a smoking habit. Likewise,
young people who are around adults who engage in pro-
social behaviors are likely to exemplify similar behavior.
Youth empowerment, however, requires adults to be
actively involved in fostering conditions and opportunities
for youth to develop critical consciousness. Adults possess
the authority to create safe environments and youth-cen-
tered conditions where young people feel welcomed and,
therefore, are willing to share their views. In addition,
adults have an increased access to institutions within the
social environment that inﬂuence opportunities for children
and adolescents to participate in decisions that affect their
lives. The burden of the empowerment process, however,
does not lie solely with youth or adults, but implies a
shared co-learning relationship where both respective
groups raise the level of collective critical consciousness.
Therefore, in essence, youth participation is the democratic
practice of young people actively engaging with their
social environment. The point of engagement can be
initiated by three basic approaches: adult-driven, shared
control, and youth-driven. The degree of control, however,
can differ within these types. Thus, although research
suggests that there are three basic types of participation,
this typology includes two variations on adult-driven (i.e.,
Vessel and Symbolic) and youth-driven (i.e., Independent
and Autonomous) participation to capture potential varia-
tion within these types.
The following description of the TYPE Pyramid pre-
sents details about each participation type by following the
schematic, as presented in Fig. 4, from left to right. Dis-
cussion about the broader participation types (i.e., adult-
driven, shared-control and youth-driven) is also presented
alongside each of their respective sub-types.
Adult-Driven Participation Types: Vessel and Symbolic
Adult-driven participation can be described as activities
developed by adults that are designed to engage youth.
Some suggest adult-driven participation can result in
manipulation, decoration or tokenism (Arnstein 1969;
Guinier and Torres 2002; Hart 1992; Hogan 2002; Kreis-
berg 1992). Analysis provided by Guinier and Torres
(2002) about race relations describes a parallel phenome-
non. The authors suggest superﬁcial racial diversity or
tokenism can often occur because most strategies for social
change ascribe to a hierarchical model of power over social
relations. This power over context fosters an environment
where—even among advocacy groups whose agendas are
race-focused—those who are directly affected are not
involved or their presence is merely decoration. As a result,
dominant groups can maintain their power by pointing to
the few examples of minority tokens present and not taking
authentic steps towards egalitarianism. Furthermore, priv-
ilege may allow dominant groups to be unconscious of
tokenism and how their power may operate to suppress
others’ needs. Among youth–adult relations, manipulation,
decoration or tokenism can occur when the main objective
of youth presence is to advance an adult-driven agenda.
Youth participation in this scenario is merely aesthetic.
Young people may be cognizant of this practice and, thus,
skeptical of adult motivations (Zeldin 2004). When this
happens, youth do not genuinely partake in planning
activities, decision-making, or contributing their views.
Instead, young people are present because it may be per-
ceived as politically correct, project a particular image, or
make an organization feel good. This, in effect, works
counter to what adults may have originally intended and
can serve to exacerbate social dynamics that disempower
youth on a whole.
Conversely, one can argue that children beneﬁt from a
traditional pedagogical relationship with adults, especially
when the objective is to teach specialized or technical skills
106 Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
(Larson et al. 2005). Several studies ﬁnd positive outcomes
when using an adult-driven approach to enhance youth
development and prevent violence (e.g., Eccles and Goot-
man 2002; Fields and McNamara 2003; Hudson et al.
2006; Roth and Brooks-Gunn 2003). Larson et al. (2005)
conducted a qualitative evaluation of different youth–adult
partnership programs for high school youth. Although
youth in the adult-driven programs had little or no input in
the development of program activities, they still demon-
strated beneﬁts. In a theater program, youth acquired pro-
duction skills such as mastering voice projection, ad-lib,
and sewing techniques in addition to gaining self-conﬁ-
dence and socio-emotional growth. Similarly, youth in an
adult-driven art program learned skills in planning and
executing a large project, painting techniques, and profes-
sional etiquette in the art world. The researchers suggest
that the characteristics and approach of the adults such as
care, empathy, and use of open dialogue contributed to
Despite potential beneﬁts, May (1972) describes the
underlying intention of this type of relationship as nutrient
power. Nutrient power is power for the other; it essentially
entails a helping relationship. Common examples of
nutrient power dynamics are those relationships that are
between parent and child, teacher and students, and ther-
apist and patient. Labonte (in Bernstein et al. 1994) argues
that a helping relationship is inherently one of power over.
A power over dynamic can potentially undermine any
initial well-meaning intentions. The unbalanced distribu-
tion of authority in many youth–adult nutrient arrange-
ments inevitably challenges initial intentions because
relations, whether subtle or not, operate within a context of
one possessing more authoritative power over the other.
Nutrient power is demonstrated in ﬁndings from
Hogan’s (2002) ethnographic study of an adult-driven
service-learning project. The project was designed to
enhance youth development and participation; however,
Hogan found that adult authority unintentionally and, in
some cases intentionally, limited youth participation.
Power dynamics between the service learning teacher and
high school students created a space where the teacher’s
ideas were dominant. Although unintentional, the teacher
used his authority to steer the discussion towards his
expertise and gave long critical reﬂections when students
did contribute. Hogan observed that the students would
whisper among themselves, but largely refrained from
sharing their views with the teacher, even when prodded. In
another instance, students were asked to design and con-
duct a community survey, but the site’s executive director
overrode their efforts by presenting his own survey to the
board and did not involve youth in any subsequent dis-
cussion. Youth expressed frustration and felt that their
contributions were meaningless. Although the service-
learning project was well intended, both the teacher and
site director were limited by occupational obligations and
were not able to break from their conventional roles
enough to involve the students in participation at an
adequate level to be meaningful.
Adult-driven participation has potential to be both
beneﬁcial and detrimental to youth development. As
research suggests, the approach and characteristics of
adults involved can help determine the degree to which
youth beneﬁt from participating (Camino 2000,2005;
Hogan 2002; Larson et al. 2005). Adults who listen to and
address young people’s needs are likely to observe more
involvement and positive developmental outcomes than
adults who choose to exercise their authority over youth.
Thus, the spectrum of adult-driven participation encom-
passes a range between adults who have full control over
decision-making to adults who listen to youth perspectives
but ultimately make ﬁnal decisions. These participation
types are respectively labeled Vessel and Symbolic.
This participation type describes a traditional youth–adult
relationship that is adult-driven, demanding little to no
input from young people. The term vessel draws upon
Freire’s (1970/2003) writings on power and pedagogy.
Freire describes the traditional pedagogical relationship as
banking education, where the teacher’s task is to ﬁll the
students—who are seen as empty vessels—with his or her
narration. Under these circumstances, teachers are the
trained experts with authority; learning and development
are mediated by adult-determined lessons and agendas. It is
suggested that a banking education approach promotes a
dominant power hierarchy where students may become
overly dependent on teacher authority, therefore, spoiling
potential for critical epistemic reﬂection (Hart et al. 1997;
Kreisberg 1992). This youth–adult participation type is not
only observed in learning environments but is also com-
monly found in the development of research and policy on
children and adolescents, juvenile legal systems, and youth
social services (Camino 2005; Hart et al. 1997; Larson
et al. 2005; Meucci and Redmon 1997).
Due to a lack of youth involvement, the Vessel partic-
ipation type has low empowerment potential. Although
youth may be able to learn skills and acquire useful
knowledge, little opportunity exists for young people to
contribute their own ideas. In effect, this limits potential for
co-learning with adults towards critical consciousness or
awareness, a key part of the empowerment process. Critical
consciousness is gained through an open dialogical practice
where both adults and youth contribute their perspectives
to develop an authentic understanding of the environment.
Once critical consciousness is gained, action can be taken
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 107
to strengthen assets or address concerns. Young peoples’
critical consciousness and motivation to participate, how-
ever, may be hindered when youth voice is not actively
encouraged, and they are not involved in planning and
decision-making. When youth participation is this low,
opportunities to build on strengths like self-efﬁcacy, or to
develop skills like problem solving are limited.
More recent efforts have been geared towards increasing
participation and engaging youth in action and research
(Checkoway and Gutierrez 2006). Many of these efforts
can be classiﬁed as Symbolic participation. In this type of
participation, youth have the opportunity to voice their
perspectives about problems and their potential solutions,
and be heard by decision-makers. Adults may, for example,
set up formal or informal structures for youth to express
their opinions and experiences. Youth positions on orga-
nizational boards, advisory committees, research projects,
and in advocacy work often fall into this participation type.
The participation arrangement is symbolic or representa-
tive of democratic processes; however, in the end, youth
often do not have much power in the decision-making or
agenda setting process.
Symbolic participation differs from Vessel participation
by including youth voice. Youth voice requires a degree of
critical awareness on the part of young people. By voicing
their perspectives, youth have the opportunity to practice
critical thinking by formulating opinions about problems
and solutions. This practice encourages the development of
competence, self-efﬁcacy and mastery—all of which are
key factors in positive youth development (Benson 1997)
and psychological empowerment (Zimmerman 1995).
Findings in youth voice research also suggest that, when
asked, youth may have different ideas about their envi-
ronments compared to adults (Mahiri and Conner 2003;
Morrill et al. 2000; Zimmerman et al. 2004). This differ-
ence may be attributed to youth–adult segregation. Morrill
et al. (2000), for example, found adults were largely absent
as main characters when they asked youth to write about
conﬂict in their lives. Yet, the inﬂuence of adult-driven
institutions and discourse (e.g., media) were evident in
almost all the stories. Youth, as a result, expressed being
inﬂuenced by adult-driven institutional forces, but lacked
the daily interaction they may have needed from positive
adult role models to guide them towards healthy
Adults also can be the gatekeepers for how youth
experience their environments. The intentions of adults,
however well meaning, may be undermined by their greater
control over decision-making or nutrient power dynamics.
In the Symbolic participation type, youth may experience
frustration over being able to voice their perspectives, but
not possessing any control over decisions that will deter-
mine subsequent outcomes. This frustration can reduce
youth access to control and limits empowerment potential.
Youth–Adult Shared Control Participation Type:
A ﬁeld examining the empowerment and wellness potential
of youth–adult partnerships is emerging (Jennings et al.
2006). Researchers suggest that the process of youth and
adults working together can provide optimal conditions for
youth empowerment and positive youth development
(Foster-Fishman et al. 2005; Wallerstein et al. 2002;
Wilson et al. 2006). Adults can serve as role models,
sources of support and social capital, and primary sources
of positive reinforcement when they collaborate with youth
to share decision-making and planning activities. Shared
control occurs as a transactional process between adults
and youth, and is a key component in youth empowerment
conceptual models (Chinman and Linney 1998; Jennings
et al. 2006; Kim et al. 1998; Wallerstein et al. 2002).
Based on a community sample of youth (n =123; 12–
19 year olds) and adults (n =7), Cargo et al. (2004)
describe this transaction as consisting of both adult and
youth subprocesses. The adult subprocess occurs when
adults create an empowering environment by providing a
welcoming climate and enabling youth. For youth, the
subprocess occurs through factors that encourage positive
development and empowerment such as self-actualization,
being engaged with others, and participating in decision-
making and subsequent constructive change. The transac-
tional process is cyclical and occurs through multiple
feedback loops for both youth and adults to share control.
Shared control, however, does not necessarily translate
to every decision and activity requiring equal youth and
adult participation—i.e., both groups can jointly decide
that adults may be better at making speciﬁc decisions or
vice versa. Often, it is more appropriate for youth and
adults to take on tasks and responsibilities that utilize their
respective strengths (Libby et al. 2005). It may, for
example, be advantageous for youth to brainstorm new
ideas and adults to recommend a timeline and procedure
for carrying out the ideas. In this situation, youth might
come up with ideas that adults may not have considered
whereas adults can draw upon experience to suggest how
long the idea will take to implement, strategies for imple-
mentation and where to ﬁnd resources.
Hart et al. (1997) suggest the degree and type of
responsibilities assigned to both youth and adults may vary
depending on the developmental needs of the young people
involved. Middle school aged young people, for example,
have different developmental needs for identity formation
108 Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
than elementary school aged youth. In general, children
(i.e., 8–11 year olds) tend to adopt an external approach to
their identity development, whereas, early adolescents (i.e.,
12–14 year olds) are more inward-focused and philosoph-
ical. Furthermore, group membership serves a different
function in identity development for children and adoles-
cents. For children, social groups provide a space where
they can demonstrate competence, independence and self-
worth. For youth who are older than twelve, social inter-
action in group settings serve as a staging ground for
experimentation with and merging of different ego identi-
ties. Although social interaction is still inﬂuential on
identity formation for adolescents, at this later stage, their
understanding of self is more intrapersonal than in earlier
years. This more inward notion of self in later years may be
attributed to advances in cognitive development. The
ability to critically reason and grasp abstract concepts is not
developed fully until mid- to late adolescence (Millstein
and Litt 1993). Thus, considerations on the type of plan-
ning, decisions and activities that youth and adults decide
to undertake may depend on the ages and cognitive
capacities of the young people involved. Early adolescents
may be more adept at taking on tasks by themselves
whereas children may beneﬁt from more adult involve-
ment. For optimal youth development and empowerment,
decisions about the degree and types of responsibilities
taken on by youth and adults ought to be negotiated by both
groups with a clear understanding of the rationale.
The pluralistic participation type recognizes the
strengths of both youth and adults working in partnership
to create and sustain both healthy youth and community
development. In this type, the relationship between youth
and adults is reciprocal. That is, youth and adults share
planning and decision-making responsibilities to achieve
goals. As partners, youth can offer creativity, a fresh per-
spective, willingness to try new ideas, and a youth-centered
understanding of themselves and their peers, whereas
adults can contribute experience, expertise on planning,
decision-making and evaluation practices, and knowledge
about community history, lessons learned and best prac-
tices (Libby et al. 2005).
Although youth–adult partnerships may have varying
degrees of youth and adult control within them, shared
planning and decision-making is what differentiates the
pluralistic type from other participation types in the pyra-
mid. The shared control between youth and adults provides
a social arrangement that is ideal for positive youth
development and empowerment. In this type, adults are
involved at a level where the purpose of their presence is to
maximize conditions and opportunities for youth to engage
in pro-social activities, yet are not overly dominant or
under-involved to a point where they hinder youth devel-
opment or empowerment. Furthermore, youth and adult
partnerships may have more empowerment potential when
they are designed to both foster healthy youth development
and also aim for positive organizational or community
change (Schulz et al. 1995).
Researchers, for example, are beginning to examine the
potential developmental beneﬁts of youth participating in
organizational and community decision-making. Although
many of the studies on this topic are exploratory (e.g.,
Breitbart 1995; Finn and Checkoway 1998; Zeldin 2004),
some researchers have been able to systematically link
youth participation in decision-making to positive adoles-
cent and community developmental outcomes. Among
studies that examine youth participation in organizational
governance (i.e., youth–adult partnerships that govern an
organization), researchers ﬁnd that youth demonstrate
increased competence, acquire knowledge and practical
skills, and strengthen ties to their communities (Checko-
way et al. 2005; Mandel and Qazilbash 2005; Mitra 2004,
2005, 2006; Zeldin 2004). In an evaluation of eight youth–
adult organizational partnerships, Zeldin (2004) found that
16 youth (i.e., 14–20 year olds) reported an increased sense
of agency and acquisition of practical skills, such as
effective communication strategies, group facilitation,
planning and management. Youth also connected with
inﬂuential community leaders and displayed leadership by
raising awareness about civic issues. Similarly, Mitra
(2004) observed that high school students who were
included in school-wide policy setting built stronger rela-
tionships with faculty and expressed an increased sense of
school belonging compared to students who participated in
peer-to-peer programming. Thus, youth–adult partnership
research is beginning to suggest that Pluralistic type par-
ticipation may be ideal for both empowering youth and
Youth-Driven Participation Types: Independent
Participation in activities and organizations governed by
youth can be thought of as youth-driven participation. This
type of participation can by initiated by young people or
adults, but it is youth who serve as the major decision
makers. By making major decisions, youth can experience
ownership over the agenda, become invested in outcomes
and have opportunities to draw upon leadership skills
(Larson et al. 2005). A common rationale for adults who
initiate youth-driven participation is that youth are valuable
resources capable of meaningful contributions (Camino
2000,2005; Larson et al. 2005). This rationale also
includes the perspective that the uneven power differential
between youth and adults will impede potential for youth
empowerment by rendering youth apathetic. Thus, the
adult-initiated youth-driven approach is often predicated on
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 109
the notion that to eliminate the power differential adults
need to give up their power so that youth may gain power
A major assumption of this rationale is that power is a
zero-sum phenomenon. That is, power is power over,it
exists in limited supply and can only be gained if it is taken
or another gives it up (Kreisberg 1992). Yet, researchers
ﬁnd when adults cede power to youth it may have unin-
tended negative effects. In a youth-driven day camp,
Larson et al. (2005) found that youth initially were able to
brainstorm ideas for activities with ease, but due to inex-
perience, they struggled when it came to organizing and
implementing the activities. As a result, their planning
stalled; attendance at meetings diminished and the youth
expressed disappointment in the end. It was not until adult
advisors gave input when the youth were able to resolve
internal conﬂicts and resume planning. Similarly, Camino
(2005) found youth and adults had differing perspectives in
a youth-driven empowerment program. Adults ranked their
own cohesiveness and productivity with the group as high,
whereas youth ranked them as low. In an effort to give
youth control, the adults attended meetings but rarely gave
input. This limited what the youth could learn from adults,
hindered group effectiveness, and led to the young people
feeling frustrated and abandoned. Similar potential also
exists when youth-driven participation is youth-initiated.
Although youth can be viewed as competent and capable,
many lack experience with organizational decision-making
and technical skills. Deﬁcient skills, coupled with a lack of
guidance, may lead to poor organizational outcomes and
youth feelings of inadequacy.
As a response to traditional Vessel youth participation
types, some adults have taken the approach that they must
give up their power for youth to gain power. Adults will,
for instance, create a space or make resources available for
youth to conceptualize and implement their own pro-
gramming. Although this approach has been recognized for
enhancing youth independence, it has also been criticized
for lack of adult involvement (Camino 2005; Larson et al.
2005). Young people, for example, may have plenty of
creative ideas for programming, but may lack expertise on
how to develop and implement a strategic plan. Youth who
are left to their own devices miss out on the skills and
experience that adults can bring to the table.
The empowerment potential within this type is not as
optimal as in the Pluralistic type, because youth are pro-
vided with limited guidance. Although youth in the Inde-
pendent type may have signiﬁcant opportunities for active
participation, they might take longer to successfully
implement their ideas due to lack of skills, which could
lead to frustration. Young people may also not be aware of
or connected to resources that could make their planning
and activities more efﬁcient. Furthermore, when adults step
aside with the intention to empower youth, they could
inadvertently alienate them instead. Nevertheless, the
practice of organizing, planning, and controlling major
decision-making can build skills and contribute to
increased competence, critical awareness, and self-efﬁcacy.
The Autonomous participation type describes scenarios
where youth have taken measures to create their own
spaces for voice, participation and expression of power
regardless of adult involvement. This type of youth par-
ticipation operates without consent or guidance from
adults. Youth may create spaces to address their own
needs—which can potentially be empowering—but with-
out adult guidance these spaces can potentially be detri-
mental for healthy development. Oppositional youth
culture such as youth gangs can illustrate how this type of
participation may impede positive youth development and
participation. Young people in gangs might organize to
develop independence from adults, gain a sense of cohe-
sion, and participate in decision-making roles; however,
the delinquent and criminal behavior associated with youth
gang activities hinders positive development.
Although deviant behavior may not always be charac-
teristic of an Autonomous participation type, empower-
ment potential is still limited because youth may not make
vital connections to supportive adults who can help create
opportunities, secure resources and provide experienced
guidance. In addition to a diminished sense of empower-
ment youth may feel from having not yet acquired certain
skills, young people in the Autonomous type of participa-
tion also may not be able to beneﬁt from the knowledge
adults can possess about community or organizational
history, best practices and lessons learned. In this case, the
opportunity to pass along intergenerational memory is lost,
diminishing young people’s abilities to connect their cir-
cumstances to the historical narratives of their communi-
ties. This youth–adult segregation can disempower and
stunt the development of both youth and communities.
Implications and Conclusion
The TYPE Pyramid identiﬁes ﬁve distinct types of youth
participation; however, all youth–adult arrangements may
not be easily categorized into one type. It is possible for a
research, organizational, or programmatic approach to be
classiﬁed as a combination of types. A program might, for
example, begin with a Vessel approach and evolve into a
110 Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114
Symbolic type. Research projects and organizations could
also have various stages and processes that ﬁt into different
types of youth–adult participation. Thus, the TYPE Pyra-
mid is not designed to be a rigid framework, but rather used
as a heuristic device to challenge investigators, practitio-
ners, and youth alike when developing research projects
and youth programs.
The TYPE Pyramid also does not illustrate how older
youth can serve as an intermediary between younger ado-
lescents and adults; thus, partnerships can serve as a
pipeline that cuts across multiple generational age groups.
These pipeline partnerships have potential to be empow-
ering for both those individuals that are involved and the
larger community. In addition, the pyramid may not ade-
quately delineate signiﬁcant developmental distinctions.
That is, children and younger adolescents may beneﬁt more
from the increased adult involvement found in adult-driven
participation types whereas older adolescents may derive
more developmental beneﬁts from the youth-driven types.
In some cases, younger children may be less prepared
cognitively and emotionally to share equal responsibility
with adults. It is, however, recognized that theories about
developmental capacities at various life stages are often
socially and culturally bound (Hill and Fortenberry 1992;
Punch 2002). Therefore, socio-cultural expectations of
childhood and adolescence may have more bearing on the
capacity to achieve a pluralistic participation type than
actual innate cognitive abilities.
Although the pyramid may have limited explanatory
potential for various developmental stages among children
and adolescents, methods that align with PAR principles
may help youth–adult partnerships overcome this barrier.
Researchers have identiﬁed a range of techniques for
engaging both youth and adults of diverse backgrounds,
ages, and abilities that include visual methods (e.g.,
drawings, photographs, and video), diaries, vignettes, and
role-playing (Driskell 2002;Hill1997; Punch 2002).
Photovoice is a speciﬁc example of a PAR method that has
been used to enhance empowerment with middle school
aged youth in a youth–adult partnership that focuses on
violence prevention (Franzen et al., 2009). As a partici-
patory documentary photography method rooted in Frierian
principles of empowerment and co-learning (Wang and
Burris 1997), the contributions of researchers and partici-
pants are equally valued in this approach. The method is
highly dependent on visuals rather than literacy, which can
assist in leveling the power differential between adult
researchers and young participants. Basic photography
skills are necessary to apply Photovoice successfully, thus,
the ability level of both children and adults ought to be
considered. Younger children may have difﬁculty working
with complicated cameras that require an advanced
understanding of photography techniques. On the other
hand, some older adults may not be as comfortable with the
newer technology found in digital cameras when compared
to younger people. In this scenario, a joint youth–adult
decision on which cameras should be used can enhance the
efﬁcacy of the project. As such, the co-learning aspects of
PAR methods have critical implications for how power is
balanced within a partnership between youth and adults.
The argument can be made that if careful context appro-
priate methods (i.e., approaches, techniques, and tasks) are
applied, a pluralistic participation type can be achieved
regardless of developmental age.
Another issue to consider is that communities of color,
impoverished, urban, and rural communities may face
several barriers that can impede establishing higher levels
of youth participation. African American, Latino, urban,
and impoverished communities are disproportionately
affected by violence. The violence and crime that afﬂicts
some of these neighborhoods may not readily lend
themselves to be safe spaces for participatory youth
research and community action intervention. In this con-
text, beginning youth–adult partnerships requires a critical
mass of dedicated adults to reclaim public spaces for safe
youth involvement. Adults who work towards reclaiming
these spaces need to consider that the process warrants
time for community buy-in, gaining trust, and building
relationships. Many impoverished, urban, and rural youth
are also challenged by economic divestment in their
communities. Resources may not be available to provide
the ﬁnancial and human capital to build youth and adult
partnerships. In addition, low-income youth may be bur-
dened with extra responsibilities their higher income
counterparts may not face such as working and taking care
of siblings. These extra responsibilities allow little free
time and perhaps energy for increased participation. Fur-
thermore, researchers interested in involving low-income
and youth of color need to be critically aware of how
nutrient power dynamics may impede the trust building
process. Despite these barriers, past research suggests that
youth in these types of communities want to be more
involved in participatory action and research with adult
guidance (Fine et al. 2003; Ginsburg et al. 2002). The
TYPE Pyramid can assist interested youth and adults alike
in determining which participation type may best suit their
As previously suggested, practitioners, researchers, and
youth may ﬁnd the pyramid typology most useful as a
heuristic device. Future efforts may further explore prac-
tical application of the model. One approach that aligns
with TYPE Pyramid is PAR. Both the typology and PAR
projects with children emphasize increasing youth oppor-
tunities to participate in decisions that inﬂuence their lives.
In effect, by valuing participation, empowerment and
action, a PAR approach does not view research as separate
Am J Community Psychol (2010) 46:100–114 111
from practice (Penuel and Freeman 1997). Treseder’s
(1997) practice-based guide may be a useful resource for
PAR researchers interested in forming youth–adult part-
nerships for empowerment. Although Treseder suggests his
manual was developed for children 8 years of age or older,
he also recommends that Miller’s (2003), Never Too
Young: How Young People Can Take Responsibility and
Make Decisions, can be applied with younger children.
Yet, despite increased interest on this topic in the practice-
based and conceptual literature, few empirical studies on
PAR with children exist. Expanding research on PAR with
children may elucidate the practical and theoretical
parameters of the pyramid typology.
Furthermore, youth–adult partnerships in both organi-
zations and participatory action research warrant further
study. Although current trends suggest these partnerships
are creating opportunities for positive youth development
and empowerment, researchers still have a limited under-
standing of what core elements are necessary to make
youth–adult partnerships successful. Understanding the
core elements of Pluralistic youth–adult partnerships may
help reveal how resources can be directed towards
improving youth participation, positive youth development,
Another area of research to explore is expanding upon
the typology’s functions. The typology, for example, could
be used to guide the design of a participatory evaluation
tool. Measurable items could be created to assess each
participation type. Youth–adult partnerships, for example,
that aim to either reach or maintain a certain participation
type could use the tool to assess participation status. This
may be one way for adult researchers, practitioners, policy
makers and youth to begin building towards ideal youth–
In conclusion, the TYPE Pyramid was designed to
contribute a framework for understanding different ways
young people and adults can interact and how this inter-
action affects youth and eventually community develop-
ment. The pyramid was also designed with child and
adolescent health promotion in mind. By combining the
health promoting approaches of both empowerment and
positive youth development, the TYPE Pyramid delineates
what participation types may be most useful at enhancing
the strengths of young people rather than focusing on
problems. The participation types reveal where youth
voices are valued and their contributions can be most
Acknowledgments This paper was supported by the CDC/ASPH/
PRC Minority Fellowship, the W. K. Kellogg Fellowship in Health
Policy Research, the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and
Health and the Rackham Merit Fellowship. The paper does not nec-
essarily reﬂect the views of the aforementioned funding sources.
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