Fostering Youth-Adult Partnership

As adults working with and alongside young people, fostering meaningful, supportive youth-adult partnership is an important step towards achieving meaningful youth engagement. In this section of our framework, you’ll find recommendations from young people on how to make those partnerships beneficial for everyone involved.

Make yourself approachable.

When we asked youth to tell us about positive experiences they’d had with mentorship or youth-adult partnership, the most common answers we got were all about approachability! The great news is, making yourself approachable as a mentor or as a support person to youth is—according to youth themselves—a pretty easy task. 

  1. Consider First Impressions | Where and how you choose to have initial conversations with youth matters! In our Youth Voice section, we talked about meeting youth where they’re at—but when you are bringing youth into your space, how do you make that first impression count? 

“When you first bring somebody into a new space and you are introducing them to people or you are talking to them … where you choose to do that and how you choose to do that sets the tone for that relationship.” (Youth Interview Participant)

One of our interview participants shared an experience about a workplace that stood out, in comparison to their previous jobs; instead of meeting in the boss’s office, their initial meeting with their supervisor happened at the lunch table, and was followed by a tour of the office where they were introduced to the other team members in a relaxed, informal manner. They told us that the relaxed atmosphere played a big role in them feeling comfortable with their supervisor and colleagues, especially in comparison to previous jobs where the power dynamics of leadership sitting behind a desk put up a bit of an invisible wall.

“If leadership brings a person in, chooses to sit behind a desk … and a lot of the time we know strategy wise the desk in behind is raised up higher than the one, you know, it’s a subordinate situation and it’s a very strict and stringent experience then as a young person who perhaps does not have the greatest amount of confidence, you are immediately going to tighten up.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Starting introductory conversations and meetings by taking the time to learn more about each other as humans, rather than as colleagues, is also something that can have a big impact on first impressions. Diving right into work might be tempting, but getting to know one another—at least a little bit—is an important part of starting to build a relationship.

  1. Be Open to Questions | Almost every youth we talked to told us that being able to ask as many questions as they needed to in a judgment-free environment was something that they either wish they’d had, or that made their experience coming into an organization a positive one. Starting a new job or engaging with an organization for the first time can come with a lot of uncertainty, and being made to feel like an annoyance when asking for help can cast a shadow over what should be an exciting experience. 

“I feel like it’s pretty intimidating to have your first job … just having someone who was really willing to normalize not knowing things instead of having an expectation that you would just be fully prepared was super helpful.” (Youth Interview Participant)

As an adult working with youth, you can make sure you’re a safe person to ask by setting the expectation early; tell youth up front that they can come to you with anything—that no question is too big or too small—and when they do come to you, make sure you take them seriously. In the beginning, it might also be helpful to anticipate some of the questions youth may have, so you can get the ball rolling; think back to when you were their age, and ask yourself what might have been confusing for you, or what you wouldn’t have seen before, and offer those answers proactively. Building time for questions into any one-on-one check-ins or group meetings is also a good way to help increase comfort, and if you’re working with a larger group, you might consider creating a question box for youth to ask questions anonymously. 

  1. Get to Know Each Other | While there’s certainly an argument for keeping the personal and professional separate, allowing some degree of personal into your space when working with youth can help build trust and strengthen your relationship. Youth told us that in the work setting, being able to chat with their supervisors and colleagues about what they did on the weekend or what was going on in their lives outside of work helped them feel more comfortable bringing forward work-related questions or concerns; seeing their supervisors or colleagues as human, above all else, made them more approachable. A number of youth also shared with us that they were learning things from these personal intergenerational connections that they were going on to apply elsewhere in their lives, showing how valuable that little bit of personal can be long term as well.

“As a young person going into a workplace you always think there is going to be such a separation between you and your boss or your supervisor … I think the trust comes later when you start to have the more personal conversations, and I mean you don’t need to tell them your most intimate life story or anything but like just sharing oh I did this on the weekend.” (Youth Interview Participant)



Know when to be hands-off (and when to offer support).

One of the most difficult things to learn when working with youth is how to strike a balance of support—knowing when you need to step in and offer help, and when it’s best to take a step back and let youth figure it out on their own. While that balance will look different within every youth-adult relationship, the youth we spoke with overwhelmingly shared that they wanted the opportunity to show adults what they can do, and to put their skills to use. Like most adults, they didn’t want to be micromanaged or have someone constantly looking over their shoulder—they wanted to feel like they were trusted enough to carry out their tasks, and ask for help if they needed it. 

“I felt like the response [at my last workplace] was always someone stepping in on my behalf and it didn’t feel like something I couldn’t handle … if that person had stepped in and had been like, ‘you are speaking to our Coordinator of Logistics, they are really competent so I am going to let them handle this, but if you have any questions they will let me know.’ Something that just reasserts that I have that position in the company for a reason … instead of being like ‘ok, hand me the phone’, you know.” (Youth Interview Participant)

On the other end of the spectrum, youth identified having too much freedom as something they struggle with as well, especially if they’re just starting out at a new job or with a new organization. Here, they shared that they really appreciated support from supervisors or colleagues in organizing priorities, setting goals, and determining timelines and expectations—this was particularly so for young people coming out of school, where all of those things were structured by someone else. Having someone to help them advocate for themselves when it came to issues surrounding pay, overtime, or other workplace specifics was also something youth appreciated, as they noted that they didn’t yet have a full understanding of what was ‘normal’ in those settings. Overall, having some extra support available during any sort of ‘settling in’ period was something many youth wish they’d had more of.  

“Don’t underestimate the power of providing an example or a template. I feel like that is something we tend to drop the ball on in general. We assume everybody knows.” (Youth Interview Participant)


“So, I was a chemistry student. I had never had to deal with humans in research ever. I shined light on water and all of a sudden there’s ethics and there’s people … and I was like ‘hmmm, this is very different than shining my purple light on my water and figuring out if my chemical is going away.’ Going through that, I don’t think I really got the guidance that I needed … there are things that I think with a little more guidance I probably could have done in a month rather than six months.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Within the CEI and Coady Institute, we know the balance between these two ends of the spectrum as ‘supported autonomy’ —youth being offered the space and flexibility to take control over their own work or learning, while simultaneously being offered guidance and resources from those around them. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Check in and have a conversation about how much support the youth you’re working with are looking for. Since the level of support any youth will need is highly individual, hearing from them directly is really the only way to find a balance that works. The level of support that youth need may change as they continue learning and finding their footing, and as they face new challenges—make sure to re-evaluate support needs often!
  • When asking youth to complete a task a certain way, provide an example or template so they can clearly see what you’re looking for (especially if there isn’t much room for flexibility). If you don’t have an example to offer, ask if they’d like you to walk through part or all of the first task with them.
  • Ask youth how they prefer to receive feedback, and let them know what it normally looks like for you to give feedback—then, figure out together an approach to feedback that makes the most sense for both of you. People like to receive feedback, suggestions, and support in different ways, so having this conversation will help make sure that the process of giving and receiving those things is a positive one for all involved.

Make space for two-way learning.


“One of my favorite things that ever happens is to be in a room and for a young person to stand up and say something and for the old bald white guy at the front of the room to say ‘I am sorry, I don’t know what that means, could you explain it to me?’ And I am like, yes sir, we will explain it to you. Thank you for saying you don’t know.” (Youth Interview Participant)

While youth can certainly learn a lot from adults within youth-adult partnerships, that learning goes both ways. Youth are experts in their own experiences, and the idea that ‘older is wiser’ doesn’t always hold true—particularly when it comes to more generational topics like the rise of technology, or prevalent social issues. The idea that youth need to learn everything from those more senior can stifle some really wonderful, mutual learning opportunities. Going into youth engagement with a strengths-based approach that recognizes everyone’s skills, talents, and assets can help foster two-way learning between adults and youth, and promote a more positive environment for everyone overall.

“I was never really mentored, but in my last year I did take on a mentorship role to the newest employee and I feel it was beneficial for both of us. I could guide from experience and knowledge of working in the field while learning new and improved information from my coworker fresh out of college.” (Youth Survey Participant)

Youth also called for organizations to recognize the benefits of bringing in a new perspective; youth or not, when you bring someone new into your organization, they see it differently—being open to hearing what might not be working, or where things could go more smoothly, is of benefit to organizations and youth alike. One youth told us that being asked for their input or impression on how an organization functions really helped them build confidence, and feel like their voice mattered; the organization they worked for, meanwhile, was able to apply some of their feedback and improve the workplace experience for all. 

How can you integrate this practice into your work?

  • Take a strengths-based approach. 
    • Take the time to learn what the youth you engage with are good at, and support them in using those strengths at work. 
    • Be open to learning new things from youth—don’t get stuck in the mindset of older being wiser! Everyone has wisdom and knowledge to share and something to learn.
    • If you’re looking for ways to share your strengths with each other, the CEI often uses personal asset-maps as part of our onboarding activities or when we work with advisory groups as fun tools to start the conversation!
  • Make space for intergenerational conversation among those in your organization—both formally, in the sense of having youth and adults working side-by-side, and informally, in more relaxed settings. 

BLOG | #YouthAdultPartnership

© 2022 Centre for Employment Innovation, St. Francis Xavier University. All rights reserved.