Research Summary

The autonomy-authority duality of shared decision-making in youth environmental action

Shared Decision-making Frameworks for Youth Environmental Action

Environmental Education Research

Youth environmental action projects provide opportunities for fostering young people’s personal growth, pro-environmental values, and civic engagement related to environmental issues. However, the sharing of decision-making power among youth and adults in such projects can elicit tensions for educators between encouraging youth autonomy while maintaining some adult authority.

This study explored this “autonomy-authority duality” from the perspective of adult educators and practitioners. Participants included 33 educators and practitioners who facilitate participatory environmental action projects with youth (ages 10 to 18) across the United States. In interviews, the researchers asked these practitioners to reflect on successful components of participatory environmental action projects. The authors defined environmental action projects as solutions-focused, iterative processes that incorporate civic engagement and science through youth-led inquiry. In this study, examples of environmental action included working in community gardens and/or undertaking habitat restoration activities; monitoring water quality; installing filters to improve air quality; and addressing environmental justice-related issues. The researchers identified study participants through peer referrals or national award programs relevant to the study’s focus. They then selected participants with a range of positions, such as informal and formal educators. They selected for a range of types of program and climate, programmatic contexts, educational settings, and geographic locations to maximize the sample’s diversity. The primary researcher conducted semi-structured interviews (either by telephone or in person) with all 33 participants asking each to tell the story of a specific action project, with a particular focus on examining the steps and role of youth.

The authors inductively coded the interview data by identifying two to three main themes for each interview and then finding emergent categories. Reviewing the overarching themes iteratively, they refined codes and categories relating to the experiences of shared decision-making processes. All interviewees described experiencing tensions in sharing decision-making power and reported diverse strategies they used to navigate those tensions. Four key strategies emerged: structuring youth participation, supporting youth, valuing mutual learning, and communicating transparently to develop equitable relationships.

The interviewees described a spectrum of control and responsibility given to youth participants in the programs. Common trends were also evident, including a democratic structure giving power to youth, support through guided reflections, and workshops that prepared youth to use new skills. Equitable relationships between youth and adults relied on the last two components: recognition of mutual learning opportunities through the decision-making process, and transparent communication that created a safe space for youth to lead and value adult wisdom in true partnership.

Practitioners/educators reported creating a structure for youth decision-making that included setting an overall project goal within which young people decided how to implement that goal. The structure also helped them assess the feasibility of different potential directions. Educators supported youth by preparing them through initial training (such as workshops and skill practice) and by facilitating reflections as well as asking guiding questions. Educators also recognized themselves as learners in environmental action and supported mutual learning opportunities with young people. Finally, educators created safe spaces for honest, transparent communication to develop equitable relationships among themselves and youth.

The Bottom Line

Adult educators who seek to facilitate young people’s authentic participation in environmental action can experience tensions in sharing decision-making power. Yet educators can use diverse and creative strategies to navigate those tensions. Such practices fall within the broad themes of: creating an effective structure for youth decision-making and participation; fostering mutual learning; supporting youth prior to and/or throughout the project to help develop skills and agency; and creating opportunities for youth to reflect and voice their perspectives on the project. Educators can tailor those strategies in their own project based on context, young people’s interests and capabilities, their own level of comfort with sharing decision-making power, and factors such as resources, time, and/or program requirements.