Develop staff

As a child and youth mental health agency, you already have staff members that are committed to working with youth towards better mental health outcomes. As you get ready to strengthen youth engagement capacity, you will want to engage staff to create a youth-friendly environment and to work in partnership with youth.

Youth engagement requires a shift in how child and youth mental agencies deliver services: to work with youth rather than for youth. Agencies new to the practice should strongly consider having all staff trained in youth engagement since participation from all staff will allow for a shared understanding of youth engagement from the initial stages of implementation. As a result, youth engagement will emerge as a way of working rather than a distinct program or activity that exists within a larger structure.

Featured story: The art of youth engagement
In collaboration with the New Mentality, the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health developed a training program: The Art of Youth Engagement. Co-facilitated by youth and service providers, this workshop uses participatory leadership techniques to facilitate dialogue and increase participants’ understanding of meaningful youth engagement.
  • Level 1 training, Openings and Possibilities, aims to increase understanding of youth engagement within the child and youth mental health context, and identify specific activities that agencies can undertake to increase engagement.
  • Level 2, Broadening and Strengthening, builds on the strengths and energy of existing youth engagement initiatives to further develop the practice.

Youth engagement requires both a personal and an organizational commitment. At the systemic level, agencies and communities create youth-friendly environments and opportunities for youth engagement across programs, and at all levels of decision-making. Use the youth engagement readiness assessment to reflect on your agency’s strengths and areas of need for supporting youth engagement.

At the personal level, staff can use the individual reflection sheet to consider their their attitudes and beliefs about working with youth. Some of the biggest barriers to introducing youth engagement practice into adult-led organizations are the biases that both youth and adults possess about each other. If these false perceptions are not addressed, the result can be unknowingly engaging in oppressive behaviours. Of course, attitudes work both ways. The Continuum of Change is a conceptual model developed by Youth Infusion (2010) to illustrate the different ways that youth and adults may perceive one another within partnerships.

Youth are viewed as the target audience

Youth are viewed as a time-limited resource—
the focus group

Youth are viewed as a volunteer source

Youth are viewed as decision makers, equal partners and agents of social change

1 2 3 4

Adults are viewed as authoritarians— out-of-touch with the younger generation


Adults are viewed as an time-limited advisor—someone to go to in times of need


Adults are viewed as mentors—someone to learn from in both good and bad times


Adults are viewed as trusted guides and lifelong learners—they both teach and learn from youth

Critical reflective practice is a useful process for staff to engage in a process of continuous learning about how their power, privilege, oppression can impact their ability to work with youth as partners in decision-making. 1 Critical reflective practice helps staff shift from power over youth to sharing power with youth. Critical reflective practice can also help make more inclusive, respectful and safer spaces for youth and service providers. 1 For more on equity in child and youth mental health, consult the Centre’s e-Learning module, Striving for equity: Anti-oppressive practice in child and youth mental health.
Featured story: Closing the gaps in equity 
The North York Service Collaborative, a part of the CAMH-led initiative Systems Improvement through Service Collaboratives (SISC), is responding to gaps in equity in their region through the implementation of Peer Positive Services. Beyond simply engaging people with lived experience, this shift toward Peer Positive Services aims, to ensure that spaces are supportive, equitable and responsive to the participation of young people and their families. This is achieved through action on three codependent components: 1) critical reflective practice, 2) addressing inequalities and 3) co-learning (co-review, co-design and co-delivery).

Adult allies: Youth-adult partnership (Y-AP)

An adult ally can be anyone with an interest in supporting youth. 2,3 Adults and youth develop reciprocal relationships that are long-term and involve a personal connection, rather than just a working collaboration. 4,5,6,7

Youth identified the following characteristics as being important in adult allies: 3


  • Able to relate to youth interests
  • An active listener
  • Compassionate
  • Competent
  • Flexible
  • Friendly
  • Fun
  • Helpful
  • Honest
  • Knowledgeable
  • Non-judgemental
  • Not condescending
  • Outgoing
  • Positive
  • Sensitive to the needs of youth

Here are five tips for establishing authentic intergenerational partnerships, adapted from Ilona Dougherty’s report on Intergenerational decision-making partnerships. 8

Set out clear goals Make sure everyone is on the same page and that no one is left surprised or overburdened. Projects work well when goals are collaboratively defined. 9 Goals must be realistic, concrete and should complement individual skills. 8,10
Encourage creativity and differences Partnerships can be strained if the people involved do not respect each other’s views. Use diversity as strength. New opinions and feedback can enhance a project if all individuals are respected and valued. 11
Make connections Use partnerships to learn about each other and build authentic relationships. 3 As these connections develop, preconceived ideas about each other can change. Youth can start to view adults as trustworthy lifelong learners, as adults view youth as capable decision makers and equal partners. 12
Provide mentorship and support Research shows that youth respond well to mentorship that is provided by someone they trust, which can include adult allies and/or their peers. 13 Peer-to-peer mentorship can be both a teaching and learning opportunity for youth. Youth must be supported on all levels to actively engage in a partnership, including clinical safety, resources (e.g. honorariums and subsidies), skills development and more. Making sure that the partnership is safe and accessible should be a priority for the adult ally.
Communicate openly The best partnerships occur when participants feel safe to express themselves honestly and openly and when their ideas and opinions are invited and validated.


For more on youth-adult partnerships, take a look at Ready, Set, Engage: Building Effective Youth/Adult Partnerships for a Stronger Child and Youth Mental Health System.

We asked youth on our training team how adults fit into youth engagement. Here is how they see the role of adults within youth engagement.

  • 1. a. b. Northwest Toronto Service Collaborative, n.d.
  • 2. Libby, Rosen & Sedonaen, 2005
  • 3. a. b. c. Pereira, 2007
  • 4. Deutsch & Spencer, 2009
  • 5. Grossman & Rhodes, 2002
  • 6. Hurd & Sellars, 2013
  • 7. Mitra, 2004
  • 8. a. b. Dougherty, 2004
  • 9. Pauw, 2011
  • 10. Zeldin, Petrokubi, & MacNeil, 2007
  • 11. Texas Network of Youth Services, 2002
  • 12. Youth Infusion
  • 13. Schwartz & Peterson, 2008