WVU Extension State Program Director –
4-H Youth Development
When 4-H celebrated its 100th birthday across the nation in 2002, the organization began a retrospective look at its guiding principles to begin preparing for the next 100 years.
In 2003, after WVU Extension’s own time of reflection and preparation, the state’s 4-H Youth Development Program was placed into the care of Debbie McDonald, an educator committed to recalibrating 4-H educational programs with 4-H youth development principles.
Ask her why a 4-H’er working with rocketry projects can have positive emotional and intellectual outcomes similar to those of a 4-H’er focusing on nutrition projects.
Her brief response would be to list these four life-changing 4-H experiences: belonging, independence, mastery and generosity.
Then, she would go on to explain that researchers now know how and why 4-H has been so successful in guiding youths to productive lives and careers.
The answers, researchers know, are not found in the projects or activities alone.
The answers are found in those four life-changing experiences—the 4-H Essential Elements. McDonald asks 4-H agents and volunteers to weave the elements into 4-H activities so they can support and guide 4-H members as the youths follow their chosen individual paths.
Traditionalists need not worry. McDonald is not changing 4-H.
Instead, she is preserving it.
She’s helping agents and leaders stay true to the original mission: providing the best possible positive youth development for West Virginia’s youths.
Or, as 4-H’ers say: making the best better.
Continuing a 4-H legacy
McDonald’s 4-H connection began with her grandfather, who was in one of the first Monongalia County 4-H corn clubs, and continued as her mother worked as an Extension agent.
A native of Monongalia County, McDonald started her own legacy as a 4-H member and then moved to camping instructor, volunteer, WVU Extension agent, 4-H parent and now 4-H state leader.
McDonald earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from West Virginia University in family resources education and organizational and instructional communication. She worked as an Extension agent in Hancock County after completing her master’s and even spent time away from 4-H for a few years.
Discovering what works, what doesn’t
When she returned to her 4-H roots in 2003, she focused on discovering the answers to what has made the largest youth development organization so successful.
McDonald served on a national task force, which worked with National 4-H Headquarters (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and the not-for-profit National 4-H Council.
“Looking at the latest youth development research, the task force was in charge of synthesizing data and determining which key messages needed to come out,” McDonald said.
Task force members discovered eight essential elements that they grouped under four categories: belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. They coordinate with the four Hs of 4-H: head, heart, hands and health.
The Eight Essential Elements
1. A Positive Relationship with a Caring Adult
2. An Inclusive Environment
3. A Safe Emotional and Physical Environment
4. An Opportunity for Mastery
5. Engagement in Learning
6. Opportunity to See Oneself as an Active Participant in the Future
7. Opportunity for Self-determination
8. Opportunity to Value and Practice Service to Others
With the essential elements identified, the next step was to develop a training program that would both remain true to the research and remain accessible and entertaining.
Over the next three years, through conference calls and daylong meetings in between their typical work in their respective offices, team members completed the training program and were ready to pilot their results.
Sharing 4-H’s strengths
West Virginia was one of the first states to pilot the program. In 2008, a jury of experts reviewed the curriculum.
The training has been officially used for three years and the overall goal is for everyone involved in 4-H, from Extension agents to volunteers, to complete the training.
In fact, everyone who worked in a 4-H residential camp in 2011 was required to complete the caring adults, safe environments and inclusion modules.
Although the way in which the training is delivered may change over time, the message will always remain the same, McDonald said.
“Exhaustive research shows these elements won’t change. They were important to kids 100 years ago and will be important 100 years from now, as well,” McDonald said.
Putting the elements into action
But once agents and volunteers master the essential elements, how do they set the elements into motion?
Here’s one example: During Alpha II 4-H Camp this summer, some 4-H’ers experienced mastery and independence opportunities as they learned and perfected the skills necessary to build high-flying rockets. Campers measured and constructed fins, attached rockets to a launcher, measured the distance and speed of each rocket, and then headed back to the drawing board to perfect a new design.
During the week, the 4-H’ers built many strong bonds—creating a feeling of belonging, another concept within the essential elements. The youths met other 4-H’ers from across the state and were mentored by older campers. They looked to 4-H volunteers, Extension agents and even McDonald herself for direction in a safe and inclusive environment.
“What I love most,” McDonald said, “is the opportunity to work with people and seeing people develop to their full potential, whether it’s a young person, volunteer or faculty member. The facts we know about through research come alive for them, and I get to see them excel. That’s that ultimate that I love: translating the research into action and practice to learn and do better.”
eb/fsm – 9/30/11