Staff Matter, Professor Says
By Rob Schroeder
March 13, 2018
Youth organizations pour significant time and energy into designing programming to appeal to teens and pre-teens, but new research from the College’s Aerika Brittian Loyd (photo, right), PhD, assistant professor of educational psychology, and colleagues argues for emphasis on how organizations view staff.
Her paper, “Staff matter: Gender differences in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) career interest development in adolescent youth," in the journal Applied Developmental Science, found marked differences in how males and females connect with staff.
“We’re learning a lot about what makes youth programming work, so the exciting thing is understanding the important role that staff play,” Loyd said. “Young people connect to people before they connect to institutions and that has implications for learning and development in programs.”
Her central finding identified females connecting with staff through the lens of staff as teachers, whereas males identified staff as mentors and friends. In some instances, youth thought of staff as fictive kin (or family members).
Part of a larger collaborative project, Developing YOUth!, this study examined youth’s experiences in the Science Minors and Achievers program at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Science Minors are students ages 14-18 who attend 10 weeks of science education and training, then volunteer to conduct interactive science experiments for Museum guests; Science Achievers are youth who complete the Minors program, who have volunteered for 50 hours and return for another year.
Loyd suggests youth perceptions of staff could be related to who predominantly exists in school contexts, with more women than men as teachers. Likewise, she wonders if the presence of men in roles such as coaches, mentors and advisors in schools impacts youth perceptions of male staff in youth organizations.
“The take-home from this paper and the broader literature on youth programming is that organizations need to invest in their human component, in staff retention and effectiveness, because they are critically important resources in youth organizations,” Loyd said.
Part of the challenge in focusing on staff effectiveness, she says, is the structure of employment in youth programs. She cites irregular hours, inequitable pay and lack of access to health care as some of the big challenges facing youth workers. The net result is significant turnover in out-of-school settings, creating a barrier to retaining effective staff.
“Often times we see people moving from face-to-face interactions with youth into administration in youth organizations, because the face-to-face work is not as valued or compensated as compared with administrative work,” Loyd said. “An important question is, how does society view this work, and do we as a society view this work as valuable?”
It is important for Black boys and girls to see Black men and women in positions of leadership, and similarly for Latino children, yet such representation is often not the case. Loyd hopes to expand her research to further probe identity development in youth as related to interactions with staff in youth-serving organizations. She wonders how youth of color navigate spaces and build relationships with supportive people and how that process impacts both identity development and career aspirations.