February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Commentary // 1COM1

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Why Do Teens Drop Out?: A Developmental View

Participants in youth programs and organizations tend to drop out when they reach adolescence. An examination of adolescent development shows that a major portion of teen drop out is developmentally appropriate and normative. Youth organizations need to adjust their expectations for teen participation and remember that teens participate voluntarily.

Anne L. Heinsohn
Associate Professor
Internet address: aheinsoh@psupen.psu.edu

Robert B. Lewis
Internet address: rlewis@psupen.psu.edu

Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Youth organizations offer both children and adolescents a variety of learning activities. However, at any given time, participation in 4-H, Scouts, and other youth organizations is skewed with 9 to 11 year olds comprising over half of the participants. Typically, individuals join youth organizations as children and participate throughout their elementary school years. As they proceed towards adolescence and high school, their participation in youth programs often declines dramatically. Youth organizations, their professionals, and volunteers continue to ask what is wrong with our program or what are we doing that might be sending these kids elsewhere. A look at early adolescence tells us youth leaving these programs to do something else is a part of the developmental process rather than a programming glitch.

First of all, we must acknowledge that adolescents are not children. Youth programs and organizations that serve youth from childhood through the teen years have long recognized the developmental differences in the two groups. Youth organizations have activities and experiences designed for children and other experiences designed for adolescents. However, teen dropout continues to be a fact of life for 4-H, Scouts, and similar programs. Nine to 11 year olds compose the largest group of participants, in spite of efforts to promote the benefits of remaining active participants in a program. Sometimes teen dropout has been viewed as a program failure that should be remedied. However, from a developmental perspective, a teen's decision to move on to other experiences is not and should not be unexpected. Rather it is a natural part of growing up.

Organized group experiences provide opportunities for children and preadolescents to meet their needs and pursue their emerging interests. Making friends, being with peers, and being part of an organized group are important at this stage of development. These youngsters are beginning to step beyond the home into the community. Entering preschool, then elementary school, are early steps into the wider world. Organized youth groups provide the next approved step. Parents move their children into group experiences. At this stage, children make few decisions themselves. Parents determine the experiences and activities their children will have. Whether these out of school activities are many or few, parents decide how many and which experiences their children will have.

Adolescents, on the other hand, are becoming quite comfortable in the community away from home. They are mature enough to have a say in decisions about what they do and what they don't want to do. They want to pursue interests and activities of their own, not their parents' choosing. Adolescence is a time for exploring and experimenting with new interests or refining and expanding ongoing activities or interests. Also, there are many more activities for teens to choose from; many of which they can access themselves. Schools offer clubs, sports, etc. that may not require the kind of scheduling by parents that is typical for children's activities. Adolescence is also when individuals need to develop some independence from the family. Choosing one's own activities and dropping some pursued since childhood are ways to do so. Adolescents may even drop activities they like and still enjoy so they can make some choices themselves. Part-time jobs offer money and become increasingly available and attractive for adolescents. They find themselves having to make decisions about how to spend or divide their non-school time. There isn't time to do all the things available or to pursue multiple interests and hold a part-time job. Then, too, not all adolescents enjoy groups. There are those who would rather pursue interests on their own.

Adolescents may participate in youth organizations during their teen years. They may be attracted to an organization's activities because they are fun, challenging, even exciting, and because they are different from the experiences they have participated in as children. Adolescents who participate in youth organizations are those who like being part of a group and for whom the group experience is a reason for remaining involved in a particular youth program or organization.

Teens who choose to participate in youth organizations often do so because of the guidance and support provided by staff and adult leaders. They like the adult or what the adults are providing. Adults who work with teens do so in particular ways: they encourage youth to be creative and support them in efforts; they provide guidance but give teens a major role in democratic decision making; and they genuinely like adolescents and are comfortable working with them.

Clearly a major portion of teen dropout from youth programs can be viewed as developmentally appropriate and normative. This in no way denies the value of programming for those adolescents who want and need the group experiences provided by youth organizations--especially for teens. It does mean, however, that youth organizations need to adjust their expectations for teen participation and remember that teens participate voluntarily. Although teens may constitute a smaller portion of the total membership, they choose the particular program over other programs and opportunities. Youth organizations that are flexible and willing to make program changes to reflect changing teen interests will continue to attract and retain participants.