Roger Hart, then a research sociologist with UNESCO, studied several hundred organizations that involved children in decision-making in the early 1990s. In his 1994 “Ladder of Children’s Participation”, he proposed that the pinnacle experience for children in organizational decision-making was to initiate action and share decision-making with adults.
Since that time, the Ladder has been used and misused, reinterpreted hundreds of times, and critiqued until groups were blue in the face. People have made different models and identified different pathways towards children’s participation, young peoples’ involvement, and youth engagement, all in response to Hart’s Ladder.
All the while there’s been a debate raging about the pinnacle experience for young people in decision-making. The question stems from whether it is best for adults to initiate activities and share decision-making with young people; young people to initiate and direct decision-making in their activities; or for young people to initiate activities and share decisions with adults. Through his research, Hart came to the conclusion these were the best positions for young people.
After spending several years grappling with these rungs on the ladder myself, I have come to understand that Hart was misunderstanding the opportunities that presented themselves to him. In the late 1990s, while reading the stories he included in his seminal work, Children’s Participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care, I saw the misalignment of his understanding against the practice I’d experienced through my previous decade-plus work in the field of youth development. Now, more than another decade later I’ve come to understand why they seemed katywampus. That’s because they were.
Like many others, I have recently re-envisioned the ladder to accommodate my new understanding. However, instead of merely installing alternative words or shuffling around different words to other places, I have added wholly new concepts to the ladder. I still believe illustrating the differences in involvement this way can help adults and young people critically examine the myriad ways children and youth participate in the activities throughout their lives, focused on decision-making and much more. However, I think its essential to consider the following.
Rung Seven: On the seventh rung, which is still youth-driven, adults are not situated in positions of authority. Instead, they are there to support young people in passive or very behind-the-scenes roles. This gives young people the platform to take action in situations where adults are apathetic or young people are not seen with regard for their contributions, only for their deficits. In this way, self-led activities by young people mostly operate in a vacuum where the impact of their actions on the larger community isn’t recognized by the community. Activities driven by young people may not be seen with the validity of co-led activities either. Developing complete ownership of their actions can allow young people to drive their developmental, cultural, social, and educational experiences with a lot of effectiveness, and they can experience the potential of their direct actions upon themselves, their peers, and their larger communities.
Rung Eight: When young people are completely equitable with adults, the activity they’re involved in occupies the eighth rung of the ladder. Equity allows for this to be a 40/60 split, or 20/80 split when it’s deemed appropriate by young people and adults. Everyone involved- young people and adults- are recognized for their impact in the activity, and each has ownership of the outcomes. Youth/adult equity requires conscious commitment by all participants to overcoming the barriers involved. It positions adults and young people in healthy, whole relationships with each other while moving forward in action. This can ultimately lead to creating structures to support differences by establishing safe, supportive environments for equitable involvement. In turn, this may lead to recreating the climate and culture of communities, and lead to the greatest efficacy of young peoples’ participation.
Learn more about Hart’s Ladder and more from these links:
- UNICEF Innocenti Research Center – Children’s Participation: From tokenism to citizenship, Hart’s original work.
- The Freechild Project – Ladder of Youth Voice
- SoundOut – Ladder of Student Involvement in School
- Shape Up Europe – Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation
- Cornell University – Hart’s Ladder
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