Utilizing Teens as Teachers to Promote Healthy Living


The goal of many youth development programs is teaching leadership skills to young people. One of the best ways to do this is to give youth opportunities to apply their knowledge and build skills such as communication, decision making, and problem solving while teaching younger children, their peers or adults.  Research indicates that when youth are involved in teaching they take on the role as a positive role model for those they are teaching (Smith, 2014).  Studies also indicate that when youth engage in teaching health, they improve their own healthy behaviors. Youth report being more physically active and eating a healthier diet (Smith, 2014). Other benefits of the teens as teacher model include: teens are able to better connect with younger youth, they can bring new or fresh ideas to a program, and they are more familiar with current trends (Ripberger & Blalock, 2011).

Implementing a successful Teen as Teachers program involves careful planning and time.  It requires training for both youth and adults.  Youth need to build skills and knowledge necessary to be successful teachers, such as communicating effectively, developing lesson plans, and creating safe learning environments.  Adults need training on how to support and nurture youth so they can be successful.  In their review of 14 Teens as Teachers programs, Lee and Murdock (2001) describe ten essential elements for achieving positive outcomes in a Teens as Teachers program:

  1. Dedicated adults who support teens: Working with teens requires patience, flexibility, time, and passion. Teens are still developing and maturing and leadership requires practicing and internalizing more adult-like skills.  These include patience, active listening and flexibility in addition to knowing when and how to ask for support.
  2. Active teen recruitment: As with any volunteer recruitment, the process is very relationship/trust based and succeeds best with an organized and clear process.  Targeting schools with active teen programs and clubs, and guidance counselors who know youth well, can help encourage participation.  Bringing a friend and making it fun will help keep teens coming back.  Make sure to have a process for acceptance to be a teen teacher also.  What are the minimum requirements to be considered a teen teacher?  What is the application process (a written application, an interview, etc.)?
  3. Strong curriculum: The curriculum should be appropriate for teens to use.  The selected curricula should be something teens can easily understand and facilitate.
  4. Initial training:  This is the hook to get your teens to keep coming back.  It is essential to give them an opportunity to understand the expectations of being a teen teacher, give them the training they need to get started, and make them feel comfortable to try new things.  Oftentimes teens may not have experience with the materials you’re asking them to teach or they may realize they’re nervous to speak in public.  Give youth an opportunity to practice skills needed for teaching to build their confidence.  Think about how much information you should present in the initial training.  Providing too much information can be overwhelming.  Think and plan for content that might be appropriate for possible follow up trainings.
  5. Ongoing training and support: Providing opportunities for teens to learn more skills and enhance their resume is important.  Teens are looking to get better at the tasks you have set before them.  Give them the chance to provide feedback and have buy into the program while continually giving them resources to get better at what you’ve asked them to do.
  6. Attention to details: Make the evaluation process collaborative and built on trust. Identify the strengths you have observed in the teen. Then ask them how they think they are doing and where they would like support. Evaluate your teens.  Do they need help with speaking and interacting with youth or adults, do they need to be more organized, or do they need help making the lesson more age appropriate?    Let them know what they are doing well and what they can improve.    It is essential to make sure the communication lines are open between the teens and the adults.  One good practice is to schedule a regular time to meet with the youth to provide them constructive feedback.
  7. Recognition and reward: Be prepared to recognize the job they have done for you. Ask youth I about how they like to be recognized and rewarded.  Is it a pizza party, gift card, or scholarship?   Instead of always recognizing them individually, consider offering a group reward like an out of town trip.
  8. Team building: Start with WHY.  Provide opportunities for the teens to engage with one another this can be done in the initial training or in on-going trainings.   Building a peer support network allows youth to learn communication and problem solving skills from one another.
  9. Setting teens up for success: One of the most important roles adult can play in a teens as teacher model is to ensure that youth will experience success.  Adults can help youth be successful by setting high expectation, providing high quality training, and making sure youth are ready to teach.
  10. Feedback and evaluation: Collaborate in the beginning of the program/training to identify “what success looks like for this program”. Review these characteristics regularly and get group input on how things are going. Identify opportunities for quality improvement as the program is being implemented. Evaluate how the program is working.  Provide the necessary feedback to teens and give them an opportunity to share their evaluation about how the program is going.  Also, give the younger youth a chance to state their opinion about the program.  What do they like?  What do they want to happen differently?

When implementing a Teens as Teachers program it is important to follow these essential elements.   The Teens as Teacher model is effective in helping young people grow and develop but it requires time and a large commitment on the part of the adult implementing it to have positive outcomes and be successful. The testimonial below illustrates the potential of this program.

Aaron’s story

Aaron joined 4-H three years ago as a camper in the 4-H GOAL (Great Opportunities for Achieving Leadership) Summer Camp in Osceola County, FL.  The summer camp focused on Healthy Living by using soccer as an incentive to get physically active, learn how to eat healthier, and find a stress outlet to insure mental health.  The next year Aaron approached the Extension Agent in charge of the program and asked if he could lead the summer camp.  An independent, responsible, goal-oriented, and sometimes shy young man, Aaron was excited for the opportunity to serve as a mentor to younger youth.  Through Teen Ambassador training, Aaron became a Healthy Living Teen Ambassador/Advocate in Osceola and learned the skills he would need to be a successful educator to younger youth as well as his peers.  Now in his third year, Aaron has participated in summer camps, health fairs, 4-H University, and the National 4-H Healthy Living Summit.  After his first trip to the 4-H National Conference Center, Aaron returned excited, invigorated, and ready to plan for the summer.  He looked forward to increasing what the healthy living summer camps offered and infusing some new things he learned from the summit into his summer programming this past year.  Although his plans are to pursue engineering, Aaron was able to utilize the skills he obtained in 4-H as a teen leader to inspire others.


Vanessa Spero, University of Florida

Michelle Krehbiel, University of NE Lincoln/4H Youth Development


Lee, F, & Murdock, S. (2001).  Teenagers as teachers programs: Teen essential elements. Journal of Extension. 39 (1). Retrieved from:  https://joe.org/joe/2001february/rb1.php

Ripberger, C., & Blalock, L. B. (2011). 4-H Science in urban communities promising practices guide. Retrieved from http://urban4hscience.rutgers.edu 

Smith, A. (2014). Peer health teaching improves nutrition behaviors in the teen teacher population. University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nutritiondiss/48/