Spirituality in Youth Programming

Youth Catalytics has produced a series of three major reports on spirituality in youth programming. Reports explore the current state of spiritual programming with youth and what young people themselves have to say about its place in their lives. This series marks a path forward for child welfare providers responding to guidance issued by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families on the importance of addressing youth’s social and emotional well-being in everybody work with young people in care.

Practice Unbound: A Study of Secular Spiritual and Religious Activities in Work with Adolescents

(2002). Melanie Wilson. 74 pp.

What We Did

In this first comprehensive report on secular spiritual and religious practices in work with vulnerable adolescents, Youth Catalytics (then NEN) conducted semi-structured interviews with staff from a random sample of nearly 200 youth-serving agencies, reaching from the U.S. eastern seaboard to Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. Our goal was to understand how extensive spiritual programming was, who was doing what, and how significant a difference staff felt the practices made for youth in their care. The result is a compendium of program summaries broken down by category that include guided visualization, yoga, martial arts, 12-step groups, rites of passage rituals, and religious education and rituals.

Why We Did It

We conducted this inaugural study to answer a question that had repeatedly been put to us by the youth-serving agencies with whom we consulted. Simply put, they wanted to know whether, given the state of knowledge about the benefits of a range of spiritual practices, they should consider incorporating such practices into their own programming. If so, which practices, and with what subpopulations of young people? Little information existed on the topic, however; this report attempted to create a baseline measure of how these practices were being used, and thus a way of measuring their future evolution.

What We Found

Sixty percent of the agencies we interviewed reported using at least one secular activity — guided visualization and 12-step groups are the most common — and 35% offer at least one religious activity. Both secular and faith-based organizations that already offer spiritual activities strongly support them and intend to do more, but say they need more training. Of those agencies resistant to incorporating spiritual activities, many cite the dearth of conclusive evidence showing that it is beneficial. Others claim they lack time, money and manpower. And still others have the impression that instituting such programs, especially those with religious content, could jeopardize board and community support as well as public funding. In fact, though, the risk of losing government funding appears to be minimal.

Who Should Care

This report summarizes dozens of spirituality-based programs and approaches used in nearly 200 agencies, and makes an extremely valuable reference for agencies, schools and other youth-serving organizations searching for ideas about programming and real-world examples of what various kinds of programs actually look like on the ground.

A Part of You So Deep: What Vulnerable Adolescents Have to Say About Spirituality

(2004). Melanie Wilson. 48 pp.

What We Did

Using extensive focus group interviews, personal interviews and surveys, we set out to discover how young people experience spirituality and their attitudes toward a variety of spiritual activities, both secular and religious.

Why We Did It

Youth services have traditionally been oriented toward fixing what’s gone wrong rather than recognizing inherent strengths, and especially those that derive from young people’s evolving understanding of who and what is of primary importance. Techniques that teach young people to quiet themselves, regulate their emotions, and find strength within a larger order represent another tool for youthworkers and clinicians — perhaps the last tool to be fully recognized and developed.

What We Found

The study yielded two categories of findings. The first includes young people’s personal stories, drawings and written reflections on activities, people and places that they consider spiritual, or that offer spiritual support. The second included results of questionnaires administered to 149 young people ages 14-22. Of those surveyed, 23% said they were religious and 44% somewhat religious. Fifty-seven percent said they attended church regularly as a child, and 35% report attending church regularly now. African-American youth and females were more likely to consider themselves religious than other groups. Forty-one percent of youth said they consider themselves spiritual, and 45% said they were somewhat spiritual. Ninety percent of youth said that it was possible to be spiritual without being religious. Asked to name the types of spiritually oriented activities they were most interested in exploring, 55% percent chose arts, drawing and painting, and 49% said martial arts. The report includes an extensive literature review that frames spiritual development in terms of overall identity development in young people.

Who Should Care

This report highlights the complicated inner world of our society’s most vulnerable teenagers, and offers crucial insight to counselors, teachers and anyone else committed to nurturing the spiritual lives of young people.

Adolescent Heart & Soul: Achieving Spiritual Competence in Youth-Serving Agencies

(2005). Melanie Wilson, with Cindy Carraway-Wilson and Nancy Jackson. 56 pp.

What We Did

Our third and final study explored in-depth spirituality programming in seven agencies around the United States, three secular and four faith-based. Two based their programming on spiritual beliefs and practices of the clients’ culture, and two others borrowed practices from other cultural traditions. One agency had evaluated its chaplaincy program, finding that young people who chose to enter into spiritual counseling with agency clergy had lower recidivism rates upon leaving the agency than those who did not.

Why We Did It

The final question in our research coalesced around the issue of how and why some agencies become highly committed to spiritually based practices with young people. Looking in-depth at six agencies, we explored their culture, assumptions, experiences and approaches to young people in hope of offering practical resources to others contemplating beginning, or expanding, their own spiritual programming.

What We Found

Each of the seven ‘spiritually competent’ agencies we highlighted recognize spirituality as an important component of a holistic therapeutic approach, and deliver their spiritual programs in conformance with widely accepted standards of clinical care and the principles of youth development.  This report includes tools such as spiritual assessment questionnaires, faith-based clinical protocols, and descriptions of secular rituals.

Who Should Care

Social service agencies that are interested in the diverse forms that spiritual programming can take, and in the administrative and clinical infrastructure that supports them.