This article is kindly written for UNESCO IITE by Ann Hagell, Association for Young People’s Health, London
On the 6-7 July 2021 over 80 experts and young people across European and Central Asian countries joined together on Zoom to take part in a multi-stakeholder consultation to promote adolescent well-being.
The discussions were part of a World Health Organisation (WHO) collaboration with UNESCO, UNICEF and UNFPA to identify policies and practices to help countries accelerate progress towards adolescent well-being and inform the revision of the Global Accelerated Action for the Health of Adolescents (AH-HA!) Guidance that provides different stakeholders with proven approaches to designing and implementing programmes for adolescents.
All the participants were assigned to discuss one of six topics: relationships and connectedness, mental health, sexual reproductive health, nutrition and physical activity, digitalization and education. I acted as the rapporteur for the group discussing relationships and connectedness. The session was moderated by Antony Morgan (professor, Glasgow Caledonian University), Sergey Mkhitaryan (freshman, American University of Armenia) and Tigran Yepoyan (UNESCO IITE). Sergey was one of our youth participants.
Our conversations were focused on issues and solutions. At the outset of the meeting, we noted that adolescents are one of the groups who have suffered most from the pandemic.
We talked about the importance of relationships and connectedness in three domains – parenting, school and the community.
There was a general acknowledgement that parents of adolescents would benefit from more support, including help in building communication within families, and better understanding of what it means to be an adolescent. The perennial challenge to parents is to balance young people’s freedom and protection. As one participant commented on our shared Jamboard, “Parents need information on how to protect teenagers, give them freedom, but not break relations with them”. Broadening access to parent support classes seemed critical.
A number of local examples of existing parent support programmes were shared, including The Family Resource, Information, Education, and Network Development Service (FRIENDS) website, SAAF – Strong African American Families, based in Atlanta, and “Programme 15”, developed and implemented in many Russian regions.
School is clearly a critical context for youth development. Participants strongly agreed that the central aim of education needed to be broadened beyond just academic attainment, and that we needed to acknowledge the critical role of education in supporting the development of healthy relationships and connectedness. As participant shared on our Jamboard, “One barrier for connectedness in schools is wellbeing not being acknowledged as an important outcome in itself (to the same extent of academic outcomes)”.
There was widespread support for the positive work done around healthy (health promoting) school programmes, taking a whole school approach to promoting well-being. Participants were also very supportive of the role of social and emotional learning classes and health, relationships and sexuality education for students. These play a crucial role in reducing bullying and interpersonal violence in all their forms and building adolescents’ agency for making informed decisions, developing positive relationships and enjoying better health. The importance of extra-curricular opportunities was also emphasised along with the need to ensure young people’s perspectives are part of the solution; “Schools often don’t take into account students’ opinions; curricula is often outdated and developed from adult’s perspective of what youth need, not what youth think they need”.
Teachers need to be reminded how important they are beyond just conveying educational content. Their own wellbeing is crucial. Their workload, as well as the workload of students has to be balanced to reduce everyone’s stress levels. School staff cannot support young people if they are not supported themselves. Teacher training programmes should emphasize the importance of the emotional and relationship building elements of teaching, and teacher burn-out needs to be tackled.
As Professor Morgan had commented, the role of community is often the least discussed area in relation to young people’s well-being, and one where perhaps we are less confident about how to intervene. However, participants felt this was a very important domain in the lives of young people, and agreed that a lot of good community-based programmes for youth do exist. However, the challenge for community programmes is ensuring equality of access. More effort needs to be made to reach those most in need.
Overall, there was strong support for giving young people more chances to make a community contribution. We stressed the importance of expanding opportunities for youth employment and skills development that would help them finding gainful jobs. Business and local companies can offer internships and work skills acquisition programmes to young people.
Adults outside the family (including youth workers) can play a huge role in youth development, while peer-to-peer education also can be very effective.
Some specific programmes were mentioned, including an international sexual and reproductive health promoting and youth empowering programme called Dance4Life, youth movements such as the Scouts, and programmes that involve youth in community works, for example environmental projects, provide organized leisure and sport activities for adolescents. Another example of a youth editorial board for an online youth media Teenslive.am in Armenia was mentioned. In this, young people learn new skills and use them for peer education, and feel empowered and rewarded by positive feedback from the media users.
Some cross-cutting themes
There were several cross-cutting themes in our discussions. One was about the need for concerted efforts to reduce inequalities and address the needs of diverse groups of adolescents, including the most vulnerable and marginalized. A second was about the need to ensure sustainable and sufficient funding for youth programmes, including those that support youth volunteers that play an important role in local communities.
Finally – and most importantly – participants constantly stressed the importance of involving children and young people themselves, as experts in what they need. While some of the issues and approaches may be culture specific, there was a lot of agreement on what was needed.