Issues in Educational Research, 5(1), 1995, 53-70.
The Youth Challenge project: Models, measurement and mentors
L. T. Pike, Edith Cowan University
This paper presents the most recent developments in the Youth Challenge Project (YCP). YCP has been running for 12 years in Western Australian primary and secondary schools and has as its focus enhancement of self-esteem in students identified as "at-risk". The paper provides an overview of YCP illustrating the changes it has undergone, the self-esteem enhancement model underlying YCP and the most recent developments in measurement and mentoring.
An overview of the Youth Challenge project
YCPs are community based projects for "at-risk" youth that have been implemented in Perth and country Western Australia. As such, they are part of an evolutionary process whereby the projects have been developed, refined and implemented in a variety of settings, with modifications and improvements gained from previous project experience incorporated into their ongoing development and implementation.
The projects are a combined community and school programme targeted at students in upper primary and the compulsory years of secondary school. They are designed to develop "at-risk" students' self-esteem and abilities to cope with societal pressure. The projects enable "at-risk" students to establish concrete, meaningful relationships with significant community members. They provide the community and school with a long term resource to assist with catering for "at-risk" students. They also are intended to be a means of bringing together community service resources to focus on needs of "at-risk" students. The projects provide "at-risk" students with relevant challenges, a chance to develop new goals, the opportunity to develop team skills, relationships with long term significant others, an opportunity to develop new peer relationships and an opportunity to develop positive attitudes towards the needs of others and themselves as members of communities within and outside the school. Table 1 outlines the development of YCP between 1983 and 1991.
The model underlying all the projects
The basic project model has six key characteristics:
Data describing student outcomes for the YCPs from 1983 to 1991 had been, at best, speculative for while it was always intended that evaluation be carried out, most of the evaluative studies failed to provide adequate data to use as the basis for judgments either due to lack of expertise or because they were too narrowly focussed. What had been clearly shown, however was that the role of mentors in YCP is fundamental to the projects potential for success. In 1990, and again in 1991, students did not successfully achieve the major community challenge in which they were involved. Despite this, it appeared that the project had significant positive effects on students, and that the relationships they developed with mentors and sustained through a period of failure were the key to such effects.
Clearly all of these aspects raise questions about the role of challenge, the role of mentors and the adequacy of measurement in the project. It is with this in mind that we will proceed to outline some of the most recent developments in the application of models, measurement and mentors in the project.
Table 1: Development of the Youth Challenge project
Linking project characteristics to models of self-esteem
The six characteristics of the YCP model outlined above emerged as being fundamental to the project through the period of its evolution and development as outlined in Table 1 above. These six characteristics also were able to be linked to some of the major components of a theoretical model of self-concept developed and explored by Susan Harter and her colleagues in the mid to late eighties through into the nineties (Harter, 1982; Harter, 1984; Harter, 1988; Harter 1989). Harter has developed a model of self-concept that represents an integration of two different approaches that have evolved in the self-concept/self-esteem literature. On the one hand there have been self-concept theorists like Coopersmith (1967) who have concluded that self-concept is a unidimensional construct best assessed by combining an individual's self evaluations across items tapping a range of content. Other theorists have challenged this unidimensional approach and argued that it masks the important evaluative distinctions that individuals make about their competence in different domains of their life. Harter's model emphasises the role of the multidimensional nature of self-evaluative judgements that the individual makes about his or her perceived competence in different domains as well as the individual's sense of global self-worth. In addition to this, Harter also emphasises the role of significant others in the child's and adolescent's sense of self-worth, stressing that the support and feedback individuals receive about themselves from others also is a major contributing factor to the total self-esteem.
Harter's model was particularly attractive as a means of conceptualising aspects of the Challenge project as it did seem to explain some previously puzzling discrepancies in the project outcomes to date, for example:
The significance of challenge as an important component of self-esteem and individual competence development, has long been recognised in the self-esteem literature,in areas as diverse as children's adjustment to parental divorce and outward bound type programmes (Gatley & Schwebel, 1991; Marsh, Richards & Barnes, 1986; O'Brien, 1990). This body of literature appears to emphasise the importance of successfully completing challenges, whereas experience with YCP would seem to indicate that, while challenge plays a catalytic role, success is not of primary importance, but relationships with significant others are.
Examination of programmes with challenge components similar to YCP indicates that challenge is the key to enhancement of participants' self-esteem (Aubrey & MacLeod, 1994; Finkenberg, Shows & DiNucci, 1994; Hebborn, 1993; Johnson, 1992; Luckner, 1989; March & Wattchow, 1991; Short & Priest, 1993; Sproul & Priest, 1992; Yaffey, 1991). Indeed, YCP was developed on the basis that allowing individuals to achieve challenges they thought they never could achieve would contribute to significant and lasting improvement in self-esteem. With the inclusion of mentors in YCP, particularly in the projects begun in 1990 and 1991, this does not appear to be the case, however. It seems that support in meeting challenges is the key to self-esteem enhancement, not completion of the challenges themselves.
Figure 1 shows the postulated relationships between challenge, significant others, critical age and competence which underpin the research project outlined in this paper. Fundamental to this is the removal of challenge from its central role in self-esteem development. We argue that challenge is important, but it plays a catalytic role in intensifying pressure on individuals to critically assess their competencies in stressful or intensive situations. This would happen in the normal course of events in individuals' lives anyway; presentation of challenges simply speeds the course of this process and allows it to take place under controlled conditions and at the optimum time. The key aspects controlled in YCP are timing of students' involvement, development of relationships with significant others (mentors) and having projects take place in the community in which students live. These are the critical elements in YCP's impact on self-esteem.
In summary, Harter's theoretical model of self-concept provides a means for explaining various inconsistencies in the perceived impact of YCP and a means of explaining the efficacy of different project components for participants. In addition to this, Harter's theory of self-concept development is backed up a by substantial body of research and, as a result of this, several psychometric instruments had been developed that were suitable for the age ranges of participants who were involved in YCP, as well as for the level of evaluation that was now required to validate the effects of YCP and to provide accountability data for funding agencies. The role of measurement in YCP now is discussed in greater detail to illustrate the process of developing and identifying a suitable rationale and instruments for evaluation of YCP's effects on participants.
The evolving role of measurement
Measurement in the early stages of the Challenge project focussed primarily on measurement of self-esteem for the purposes of screening students into the programme. The project was been designed to foster the development of self-esteem in students described as "at-risk", consequently some measure of "at-risk" was required and it was believed that poor or low self-esteem was one key indicator of the type of student the project had been funded to serve. Therefore, measurement initially was used as a screening process to identify students who should have access to the programme.
Selection of student candidates first was achieved through screening using two measures:
In both instances programme participants were identified on the basis of low, or well below average scores on these measures, as compared to other students in their schools. There was no consistency in test conditions between schools, therefore standardisation of test administration was questionable at best. This was one reason data collected using these questionnaires was not considered suitable for project evaluation.
The next phase was to have some teacher input into participant selection designed to augment the use of questionnaires. Teachers have been increasingly involved in the selection of students for the programme during its evolution, with their involvement coming about partly to fill an expressed need for teachers to have a greater role in YCP, and partly to make sure that student selection was not based solely on the use of objective measures. The use of objective measures had created its own problems as some teachers expressed disquiet about the aims and purpose of the project when told which students had been selected for the programme. From the teachers' perspective, some students selected were not "at-risk". A consequence of this was that, in some instances, it was felt that teachers had been less than supportive of the project and, in some cases, it was suggested that they had actively undermined it.
Teachers' assessment of students' needs were made subjectively, with teachers being invited to comment individually and in group settings as to the appropriateness of selection of certain students on the basis of initial identification using questionnaires. If there was a degree of consensus between teachers, that is, three or more agreed that the student was an appropriate candidate for the programme then the student was included automatically. If there was no consensus then a process of discussion and debate ensued until a decision was reached. Rarely were there set criteria against which students' levels of self-esteem were evaluated, and the whole process tended to operate on the basis of anecdotal evidence and personal information or insights.
The procedure outlined above was more or less the format for the selection of students into the programme up until 1994. It then was decided that a more rigorous procedure for the selection of students needed to be put in place, as lack of data about the rationale for candidate selection techniques had been identified as one of the major weaknesses of the project's implementation (Pike & Thompson 1994a). In addition, there were limited data to demonstrate that the programme had been successful or otherwise. While there were abundant qualitative and anecdotal data from teachers, students and mentors to support the notion that they all thought the project was a great success (Pike & Thompson 1994b) and there were the various products that were testimony to the fact that things had actually been done (the marathon, the play etc.), there was no systematic collection or analysis of post programme quantitative or qualitative data indicating student outcomes.
By early 1994 key issues that had been identified as needing addressing in relation to assessment of the project included the following:
It also was becoming increasingly apparent that until there was some greater clarity about the model that was believed to be underpinning the process of development of self-esteem in children, and some clearer rationale for how the various elements of the project were contributing to the enhancement of self-esteem, the project was on questionable theoretical grounds. This growing concern about "what impacts on what and how" has been gradually emerging over the last few years of the project's implementation and as the project has become more complex, so have the interactions. It was felt that a more systematic and rigorous approach to assessment of the project was overdue.
It was decided to address the project assessment issues beginning with a new series of schools that were involved in the project from the beginning of 1994. For the reasons outlined above, it was decided that the previously used measures outlined above would not continue to be administered, but that Harter's scales, the "Self Perception Profile for Children" (SPPC) (Harter, 1985) and the "Self Perception Profile for Adolescents" (SPPA) (Harter, 1986), would be used in student selection and project evaluation. These were considered to best match the project's conceptual model and have been demonstrated to have adequate psychometric properties (Trent, Russell & Cooney, 1994). These measures will be administered pre and post programme under controlled test conditions, thus allowing improved standardisation of test results. This will allow pre and post programme comparisons of students' self-esteem levels to be made with a greater degree of confidence. In addition to this, regarding the use of teacher insight, it will be possible to determine the correlation between students' evaluations of their self-esteem and teachers' judgments, by comparing scores on the "student's rating scale" and the "teacher's rating scale". The first complete data sets should be available late 1995.
Application of Harter's measures of self-esteem to project evaluation should give a clear indication of YCP's impact on participants and assist in validation of the theoretical model outlined in Figure 1 above. These data will show not only whether YCP is effective in raising participants' self-esteem, but also will indicate whether insights into the role of mentors, described in developing the theoretical model of how YCP works, are accurate. The final section of this paper examines the development of the role of mentors in YCP in more detail to show how this aspect of the project became fundamental to its perceived success.
Community mentors: Development of the role
As is evident from its title, YCP has as its central focus a challenge. This challenge is intended to involve students in activities they have not been involved in before and at which they think they would not be able to succeed. The rationale behind this is that the process of meeting such a challenge will give students real opportunities for development of positive self-esteem and learning an array of skills essential to effective participation in society: conflict resolution, goal setting and achievement, coping with failure, and team work.
Since 1983, students in various primary and secondary schools in Western Australia, judged using various methods to be "at-risk" due to negative self-esteem, have been involved in challenges as part of several inceptions of YCP. These have included long distance runs to raise funds for charity, scripting and production of a play and staging a rock concert. Such diverse challenges indicate the evolution of the Project over time, and one aspect which has undergone most evolutionary change, and which in turn appears to have contributed to fundamental change in the Project itself, is the role of mentor. This section of the paper examines the changing role of mentor in YCP and examines the value of this role in achieving the Project's aim of enhancing student self-esteem, as well as difficulties associated with the role of mentor.
In the beginning — inspirational mentoring
The first Challenge Project took place in 1983 at a suburban Perth primary school. Students were brought into contact with a blind marathon runner and autistic children were introduced into classrooms. The challenge for students was to run a relay from Kalgoorlie to Perth to raise funds for an autistic children's charity. The marathon runner and autistic children were introduced into the school in an attempt to raise students' awareness of handicapped people and, in the case of the marathon runner, to demonstrate what such people could achieve despite their handicaps. The autistic children were introduced into classrooms as a means of getting children to reflect on their relationships with peers. The key objective was to inspire students to accept the challenge and to see it through. This objective was achieved and so the role of mentor remained little changed in the next initiative of the Challenge Project.
In 1984 YCP was implemented in a suburban Perth high school. The aim of the project was much as before, to involve students in a cycling and running marathon from Adelaide to Perth to raise funds for an autistic children's charity. Again, autistic children were introduced into classrooms, but this time the rationale for doing so was more clearly articulated:
In the post-project evaluation thought was given to providing more access to community members in future implementation of YCP. Parents were originally intended to have been involved in decision making, but the perceptions of the Project's developers was that parents lacked the skills required for such direct involvement. Community involvement was, however, viewed as a worthwhile aim for future projects.
In 1983 and 1984, the challenge component of YCP was viewed as being of primary importance. Students were brought into contact with persons thought to be a potential source of inspiration to meet the challenges set and to provide an atmosphere conducive to reflection on relationships with peers. There was little opportunity for mentoring in the sense of students being introduced to people who could become trusted advisers or guides.
As was mentioned previously, community members and parents were considered as lacking in appropriate skills for involvement in the project. This perception probably resulted from the climate in education at the time. Moves toward increased community participation in education in Western Australia were in their infancy, and the great potential resource available in school communities was largely untapped.
Involvement and inspiration — reshaping the conception of mentor
In the period between 1983 and 1989, when YCP again was implemented — in three suburban Perth high schools simultaneously — the awareness of the potential for community involvement in schooling had grown considerably. This version of the Challenge Project involved members of the SWY Theatre Company assisting students in writing, producing and acting in a play, and this extended community involvement in development of the project's challenge was viewed as having a significant positive influence on students. Mentoring also was provided in two other ways during implementation of the Project at this time. The Project Coordinator held weekly "self-esteem" sessions with students in each of the three schools. These sessions each were approximately one hour in duration and involved students in role playing, group interaction, completion of individual worksheet activities and simulation activities. At the beginning of the sessions students completed a self awareness questionnaire and were then encouraged to monitor their progress in subsequent sessions.
As a supplement to the overall project, third year teacher training students worked in teams of two or three with groups of six to nine high school students as tutors. This was done on the assumption that the tutors would be more able than teachers to work closely with students in encouraging their continued application to academic studies and development of self-esteem.
Getting it right — community mentors
In 1990, YCP was implemented in one suburban Perth high school and its feeder primary schools. In this version of the project school principals were encouraged to nominate parents as prospective mentors for students. Other community members also were invited, at a public meeting, to participate as mentors. A set of selection criteria was developed for community mentors. Mentors would:
In reality, it was not possible to apply these criteria to the selection of mentors as there were barely enough volunteers to provide the numbers required. Every community member willing to attend the training sessions provided was assigned a group of students and the project got under way with a series of "self-esteem" sessions similar to those held in the 1989 project. The difference here was that, over time, mentors and students began to develop relationships outside the school setting.
The key factor in development of relationships was time. Mentors and students met weekly in school for two terms and, by the time the sessions came to an end, the students had grown to respect and like their mentors. Students would visit their mentors at home outside school hours and call on them when they were experiencing difficulties. The mentoring model adopted for the project in 1990 was showing signs of working. Using community members as mentors was not without its difficulties, however.
The community mentors felt they needed constant guidance from the project implementation team. With approximately half the in-school sessions complete, the mentors had used all the self-esteem activities provided to them at their training sessions. More activities were not forthcoming and this resulted in the mentors perceiving that the project was losing direction. They began to question their roles and the efficacy of the project, and were in danger of withdrawing their support for the project. Nevertheless, they continued to meet with their groups of students and it probably was during these sessions, without the formalised self-esteem activities between themselves and the students, that real relationships were able to develop more fully. This was an accident that almost brought about the undoing of the project, but it developed into one of the project's greatest strengths.
During the latter half of 1990, students became more and more involved in preparations for the rock concert and seemed to drift apart from the mentors who, without guidance, felt that they did not have a significant role to play in this aspect of the project. The mentors remained available to the students, however, and, on the day of the concert, when technical difficulties forced the concert's cancellation, they were able to rescue the students from the depression and sense of failure they felt. The mentors were simply there in a time of need and, because the students trusted them, they were able to turn the failure of the concert into a net success for the project overall.
Readjusting the focus of YCP
Since 1990, YCP has continued at the site describe above. The project now is completely controlled by the school community. In 1991, YCP was implemented at a country high school in WA and its feeder primary schools. The mentoring model applied was much the same as in the 1990 project, but there was one significant difference: the scale of the challenge was reduced. The primacy of challenge in YCP was overthrown by the community mentoring model developed and implemented in 1990. The project begun in 1991 also is still running and also is now completely controlled by the school community.
With community mentoring as its focus, YCP appears to be in a position to provide school communities with a model for addressing the needs of "at-risk" students. It also is an attractive model in the current climate of restructuring education, as the project provides significant links between schools and their communities and an alternative avenue for educational provision. The project is particularly efficacious in terms of what it can offer with respect to equal opportunity for a particular group of students not achieving their full potential.
Challenge for the future
In 1994, YCP was implemented in a number of suburban and country schools in Western Australia. In this latest version of the project the mentoring model was adjusted again. In some of the schools, community mentors were used over extended periods, in some schools community mentors were used for significantly shorter periods. As an addition to this, at some of the schools involved in the project, students were introduced to and worked with sports personalities as well as with community mentors. At other schools, students worked with sports personalities only.
This latest development in the mentoring model provides fertile ground for investigation of which model works best: community mentors, sports mentors or a combination of both? The aim of the current investigation, then, is to build on the knowledge gained in the past and to evaluate which model of mentoring is best suited to YCP's goal of improving students' self-esteem. A number of factors will be of importance here:
Examination of these factors will give a strong indication of the most efficacious model of mentoring for YCP and will provide a useful framework for the involvement of other school communities in similar projects. In addition to this, close examination of the role of mentors, when coupled with analysis of data collected using the Harter self-perception measures, will allow for validation and further development of the theoretical model underpinning YCP. This will contribute to the project's future development and potential for success in achieving the goal of raising participants' self-esteem.
In this paper, more than a decade of research has been synthesised to develop a tentative theoretical model of the workings of YCP. This model is embedded in the theoretical construct for self-concept developed by Susan Harter (1984) and, therefore, has a sound basis which should provide for coherent development of YCP in the future. Until now, research into the workings and effects of YCP had been ad hoc and methodologically flawed. The indications are, however, that the project has great potential for success. Not the least of these is the indisputable fact that YCP has been implemented across different sites without a great chorus of disapproval from school level staff involved in the project. This factor, coupled with YCP's longevity, indicates potential which deserves further rigorous investigation. Thus, the two final sections of this paper examined in some detail the roles of measurement and mentoring. In both of these sections, plans for analysis and evaluation of YCP that reflect sound methodology and the potential for collection of useful data are outlined. In the next few years evaluation of YCP and development of its theoretical underpinnings will continue. The result of this will be an important historical record and analysis of the development and implementation YCP, as well as a sound evaluation and explication of the project so that it can be further developed and implemented with confidence in the future.
Aubrey, A., & MacLeod, M. J. (1994). So ... what does rock climbing have to do with career planning? Special issue: Wilderness therapy for women: The power of adventure. Women and Therapy, 15(3/4), 205-216.
Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Finkenberg, M. E., Shows, D., & DiNucci, J. M. (1994). Participation in adventure-based activities and self-concepts of college men and women. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78, 1119-1122.
Gatley, D. W., & Schwebel, A. I. (1991). The challenge model of childrens' adjustment to parental divorce: Explaining favourable postdivorce outcomes in children. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 60-81
Harter, S. (1982). The perceived competence scale for shildren. Child Development, 53, 87-97.
Harter, S. (1984). Competence as a dimension of self evaluation: Towards a comprehensive model of self worth. In R. Leahy (Ed.), The development of self. New York: Academic Press.
Harter, S. (1985). Manual for the Self Perception Profile for Children (SPPC). Denver, CO: University of Denver.
Harter, S. (1986). Manual for the Self Perception Profile for Adolescents (SPPA). Denver, CO: University of Denver.
Harter, S. (1988). The construction and conservation of self: James and Cooley revisited. In D. K. Lapsley & F. C. Bower (Eds.), Self ego and identity: Integrative approaches. New York: Springer Verlag.
Harter, S. (1989). Causes, correlates and the functional role of global self worth: A lifespan perspective. In J. Kolligan & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Perceptions of competence and incompetence across the lifespan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hattie, J. (1992). Self concept. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum.
Hebborn, J. (1989). The Sierra Nevada expedition. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership, 10(4), 6-8.
Johnson, J. A. (1992). Adventure therapy: The ropes-wilderness connection. Theraputic Recreation Journal, 26(3), 17-26.
Luckner, J. (1989). Effects of participation in an outdoor adventure education course on the self-concepr of hearing-impaired individuals. American Annals of the Deaf, 134(1), 45-49.
March, B., & Wattchow, B. (1991). The importance of the expedition in adventure education. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership, 8(2), 4-5.
Marsh, H.W., Richards, G.E., & Barnes, J.(1986). Multidimensional self-concepts: The effects of participation in an outward bound program. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 195-204.
O'Brien, M. (1990). Northland wilderness experience: An experiential programme for the youth of Tai Tokeray. Auckland University Press.
Pike, L. T., & Thompson, L. J. (1994a). The Northam Youth Challenge Project: A community working for children. Network, 9(1), 39-48.
Pike, L. T., & Thompson, L. J. (1994b). The Northam Youth Challenge Project: A community's efforts to improve peer relations. Paper presented at the Peer Relations Conference, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Pike, L. T. (1990). Challenge '89 project: An evaluation of the project from the adolescent female perspective. Unpublished manuscript.
Pugh, D., & Thompson, L. J. (1985). Kids helping kids. Perth: Cyril Jackson Senior High School.
Short, K., & Priest, S. (1993). Socio-psychological theories of outdoor adventure. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 6(1), 8-15.
Sproul, S. & Priest, S. (1992). The ropes course as an educational tool. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 4(2), 9-12.
Thompson, A. (1992). Implementation of the challenge programme: An analysis. Unpublished master's thesis, Edith Cowan University, Perth, WA.
Thompson, L., & Ristic, J. (1990). Report to P.S.P. Unpublished manuscript.
Trent, L.M., Russell, G., & Cooney, G. (1994). Assessment of self concept in early adolescence. Australian Journal of Psychology, 46(1), 21-28.
Yaffey, D. (1991). Outdoor pursuits and adventure experience. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership, 8(2), 22-25.
© 1995 Issues in Educational Research