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Missouri 4-H Positive Youth Development

Finding Youth Sparks

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Everybody has a skill, a talent, an interest, or a special quality that they are passionate about. We call these things SPARKS. They provide joy, purpose, and direction. Sparks are self-discovered and self-identified. They come from deep within and provide energy, joy, purpose, and direction in one's life. Examples of sparks include:

  • Music, art, and sports (skill or talent)
  • Vintage films, cars, or fishing (an interest)
  • Social justice, environmental advocacy, pet adoption (passionate commitment)
  • Empathy, intelligence, spirituality (a special quality)


A young farmer in a field standing in front of a tractor.

Growth: Sparks provide the "intrinsic fuel" that powers youth to grow and build new skills, and to overcome barriers that stand in their way.

A spark may drive an individual to face down their fear of public speaking, learn new tech skills, get more involved with their community, stay out of trouble, and much more.

Contribution: Sparks create actions that almost always benefit the larger society.

A love of music may lead to playing at a nursing home once a month; a passion for social justice may lead to greater civic engagement; A love of basketball may lead to volunteering as a coach for younger children. The possibilities are endless!

Connection: Sparks spur youth to build networks of peers who share their interests. Sparks create engagement opportunities for caring 4-H adults who have the expertise to help them.

Protective Factors: Youth pursuing their sparks are more motivated to succeed, stay out of trouble, and govern their own behavior.

These youth tend to avoid behaviors that might endanger themselves or others, are motivated to succeed in academics, are self-aware, and make healthy choices.

Positive Adjustment: Being engaged in one's sparks contributes to a larger sense of purpose in life, greater optimism, higher self-esteem. These youth tend to feel a sense of having a place in the world.

Youth actively engaged in their sparks tend to feel a sense of knowing their "niche," and a sense of place in the world. They feel confident, knowing they have a place to fit in.

Thriving Orientation: Youth who benefit from the people and places they are associated with grow in their connection, competence, caring, confidence, and good character. They have high personal standards and take responsibility. When they also start contributing, making the world around them a better place, they are said to be thriving.

Sparks are at the heart of a young person's ability to achieve a thriving orientation, leading to highly positive 4-H outcomes.


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Missouri 4-H programs offer many opportunities for youth to explore and discover their sparks.

  • Community clubs offer a variety of projects that youth can enroll in. This allows for exploration of a new interest and connection to other youth who are also interested in exploring that interest.
  • Like a project, 4-H SPIN clubs offer youth an opportunity to explore a new interest and connect with peers who have that same interest.
  • Afterschool programs introduce youth to different potential interest areas in a shorter amount of time, with freedom to branch off from structured activities and explore any one for as long as they wish.


Developmental relationships

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4-H relationships are about trust, mutual warmth, and respect. 4-H adults are safe and they are here to help. When youth and adults do 4-H work together and everyone grows from the experience, it is a developmental relationship.

Qualities of a developmental relationship:

  • Secure attachment between youth and adult.
    The relationship has mutual warmth, respect, and trust.
  • Bidirectional relationship.
    Youth and adult engage together in their 4-H work, with both gaining from the experience.
  • Grows over time to address changing needs.
    As their world grows more complex, so do the skills youth need to navigate it.
  • Shifts power over time.
    Developmental relationships eventually move from adult-driven to a partnership, reflecting the young person's "increasing competence, personal autonomy, decision making, and identity formation"

Listening • Dependability • Accountability • Reflection • Empowering • Advocating


Quality programs

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4-H programs are structured to make a positive difference in the lives of youth through high program quality.

  • Youth are safe at 4-H events, secure in knowing their ideas matter and that they belong.
  • Youth work in an environment they can trust to be positive and supportive, where they are encouraged to persevere when adversity arises.
  • These 4-H environments are structured for youth to believe in their abilities as they build new skills.
  • 4-H is a place where a young person's family, school, and community can all come together.

How do we know youth are thriving? Five indicators:

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4-H relationships are about trust, mutual warmth, and respect. 4-H adults are safe and they are here to help. When youth and adults do 4-H work together and everyone grows from the experience, it is a developmental relationship. Thriving occurs when youth are growing from their 4-H experience, and using that experience to help the world around them. Thriving occurs when youth are actively pursuing their sparks, supported by their environments (such as a 4-H program) and in developmental relationships that encourage this pursuit.

An openness to challenge & discovery: They enjoy a challenge, and like to explore new things!

A hopeful purpose They have a sense of purpose in life, and optimism for future.

Positive emotionality They are genearlly positive and optimistic, and can manage their emotions.

A pro-social orientation They are respectful, honest, responsible, caring, and value helping others.

Intentional self-regulation: They set goals and create effective strategies to achieve them.
They persevere, making adjustments when necessary to achieve their goals.


4-H developmental outcomes

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According to to Arnold's (2019) Thriving Model of Positive Youth Development research, youth in 4-H are particularly likely to:

  • Grow in competence with their skills
  • Have high personal standards
  • Become more connected to their world.
  • Experience academic motivation and success
  • Engage in fewer risk behaviors
  • Make healthful choices
  • Contribute more to their club, community, country, and world.

Strategies for best results: What YOU can do.

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  • Encourage youth to explore many interests.
    This is how they find their sparks!
  • Celebrate the uniqueness of each individual.
    This helps your program enrich each young person, And creates opportunities to add value to 4-H.
  • Actively recruit underrepresented youth.
    This enriches your club with new perspectives, prepares youth for career success, and broadens the impact of your work.
  • Create engagement from a variety of safe and caring adults, rather than the same ones every time.
    This provides expertise for youth as they explore their sparks, and creates developmental relationships needed for thriving!
  • Model two-way communication between youth and adults.
    Mutual warmth and respect enhances fun, efficiency and growth.
  • Shift over time from adult-led to youth-led with adult support.
    This creates challenge, helps older youth prepare for careers, inspires younger youth, and makes your program more appealing. It is often the hardest thing for adults to do.
  • Help Missouri 4-H maintain high quality standards.
    Trained & screened volunteers with youth-led activities in a safe and fun environment provides a nutrients for opportunities to grow.
  • Recognize competence, connection, caring and character when you see it in youth.
    This reinforces the top developmental outcomes 4-H is wired to produce, and leads to contribution that benefits club, community, country and world.

In 4-H, Positive Youth Development is the idea that all youth have potential for bright futures. With opportunities to discover their sparks, and positive networks of youth and adults to assist them, 4-H helps youth thrive. The 4-H Thriving Model helps us understand how positive youth development works, and the power of youth makes 4-H the largest youth development organization in the world.