Americans for the Arts: YouthArtsArts Programs for Youth at Risk: The Handbook
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Program Planning

Determining Program Activities

Use your intended outcomes and impacts to help you determine your program activities. Keep them in mind while you do the following:

Here are some questions to consider when determining program activities:

  • What will your program do?
  • What activities will you provide to help solve the problems you have identified and achieve your intended outcomes?
  • What instruction will you provide?
  • How will you select sites, select kids, choose an art form, and decide on staff ratios?
  • What hours will the program be in session?
  • How long is the program
  • How will you manage the logistics such as space, food, transportation, and supplies?

The first step in deciding what types of programs to design and implement is to review your goals—your intended outcomes and impacts. Once you have clearly described them, you can begin to think about the many types of activities that might be used to achieve them.

Too often, service providers will implement a program simply because they have the resources needed to do so—not because they are convinced that it is the best way to achieve a clearly defined goal. Such short-sighted planning often leads to inefficient programming and frustration. To avoid these pitfalls, make sure that every step you take in designing and implementing your program will lead you toward your desired outcomes.

See pages 40-44 of the full chapter (in PDF format) for case studies.

In This Section
The planning model
Risk and protective factors
Forming a collaboration
Defining program goals
Selecting youth
Determining program activities
Running your program

How to use this site
Best Practices
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Selecting an art form

It is important to identify your specific population's needs and interests before selecting an art form because some art forms or disciplines are better for some youth than others.

In addition, you will want to choose an art form that lends itself to your goals. For example, if one of your anticipated intermediate outcomes is to improve reading scores among English as a Second Language students, you will probably want to choose an art form that allows you to incorporate into the instruction some reading and writing components designed for this type of student.

See pages 45-46 of the full chapter (in PDF format) for case studies, including a mosaic art project in Atlanta and a video project in Portland.

Determining staff-to-participant ratios

Running arts programs with youth at risk is very labor intensive. The Team Training section looks at the characteristics of youth from high-risk situations and the challenges they face in an educational environment. Given these challenges, such youth require a great deal of individual attention.

While we can't say that you should have exactly three adults for every 15 youth, we can make two general statements: First, intervention programs require a lower youth-to-staff ratio than prevention programs. And second, because bonding with an adult role model is a critical part of prevention and intervention programs, the lower the youth-to-staff ratio the higher the probability that the youth will bond with the adult role model.

The average ratio in Youth Arts Public Art is 10 students to two artists and two probation officers. Probation officers attend all arts sessions, provide support to the youth outside of the program, and maintain contact with their families. While the cost of staffing these programs is high, the benefits are high as well. (See the Costs, Resources, Advocacy section for more discussion of the comparative costs of providing prevention and intervention services to the costs of incarcerating youth.)

Determining program frequency and duration

How often should your program meet and how long should each meeting be? Each YouthARTS site operates for different amounts of time and at different frequencies. However, all of the programs lasted at least 12 weeks, with arts instruction provided at least twice a week. Our evaluation shows that the YouthARTS programs have had a positive impact with these durations and frequencies (see the Evaluation section). The length of time of individual sessions ranged from two to three hours.

See pages 48-49 of the full chapter (in PDF format) for case studies, including the Youth Arts program that met once a week for four and one-half hours to study printmaking.

Creating a safe haven

A safe haven is a critical component of arts programs for youth at risk. Here's how a program creates a safe haven for youth at risk

Youth need to know that they are in an environment in which they can take risks. Stanford researchers Shirley Brice Heath and Elisabeth Soep found in their research that arts programs were more effective learning environments than other afterschool programs for several reasons. One, the arts call for youth to take greater risks. To be able to take these risks, the youth must be in a physically and emotionally safe environment.

Caring adults are critical to a good, strong program. The artists are key, because they have the most contact with the youth. The team members who work with the youth must have avenues outside of the arts program to resolve conflicts that arise among themselves. Youth from at-risk environments recognize conflict immediately and can use conflict to create chaos—or they will not attend the program to avoid the conflict. Selecting the right team to work with the youth and resolving team-member conflicts are discussed in the Team Training section.

Choosing a site

Selecting an appropriate site for offering your program activities is a critical part of creating a safe haven. Your program site needs to be in a safe environment—safe both physically and emotionally. Youth need to feel that they are supported by all who come into contact with them. The site needs to be accessible to the youth—they must be able to travel to and from the program safely. And, the site must be appealing as a creative environment to both the youth and the artists.

Learn about real-life examples in the full chapter PDF.


Transportation is an integral part of afterschool programs. Program goals determine to a large extent the transportation component of the program. If you find that transporting the youth to and from the program is the only way to get the youth to attend the program, as was the case with the Youth Arts Public Arts program for gang youth, then you may need to provide transportation at first and later work on building their skills of arranging for their own transportation.

Learn about real-life examples in the full chapter PDF.


Providing a nutritional snack helps contribute to a safe haven; youth who are not hungry are more apt to be able to concentrate on their art and are more likely to be able to work cooperatively.

Providing snacks and, if necessary, full meals is another key feature of successful programs. Clearly defining who is responsible for ordering, preparing, and cleaning up after a snack is necessary to ensure smooth art sessions. Art-at-Work found that having nutritious snack food that can be stored on site (such as sandwich fixings) created the least amount of commotion. Program participants are responsible for making their own snack and cleaning up afterwards.

Learn about real-life examples in the full chapter PDF.

Determining youth incentives, including field trips

Showing up on time at every program session is a challenge for many youth, particularly those who have a history of truancy, of being late to class, and/or of not following through on tasks. Incentives for youth to show up on time and attend all program sessions were built into the three YouthARTS programs.

When attendance dipped or students started showing up late, the teams attempted to identify any program changes that might have decreased the participants' satisfaction with the program, such as the addition of a new artist or a change in the attitude of any of the program staff. Field trips can be used to encourage attendance and broaden the youths' view of their communities. Occasionally, youth input helped determine the selection of field trips.

Selecting social service case management approaches

At-risk youth have special needs that require the attention of trained social service providers. While other types of service providers, such as arts instructors, can develop very positive relationships with these youth, they cannot provide what social workers provide.

For example, an instructor may have several in-depth conversations with a girl where she reveals that she has witnessed domestic violence in her home. The instructor might provide her with a sympathetic ear and give her referrals to the appropriate social service providers, thus having a lasting positive impact on the girl's situation. However, going farther than that—by attempting to talk to the youth's parents, for example—would overstep the instructor's appropriate role and could cause considerable damage. (See pages 57-58 of the full chapter PDF for detailed guidelines for arts instructors).

Arts programs that work with at-risk youth should incorporate a case management component into their program activities. They can collaborate with a social service agency, or hire or contract with a social service professional who can help plan and operate this component of the program.

A comprehensive case management component

  • provides counseling services to the youth and their families on a regular basis
  • provides training and ongoing technical assistance on social service-related topics to arts instructors and other program staff
  • tracks the youths' progress in various settings, such as the school, the home, and any extracurricular activities to ensure that all of the youths' needs are being met through direct services and/or referrals.

While providing such a component may prove too demanding or expensive for a new program, the closer it is able to come to a comprehensive case management system, the better for everyone involved in the program.

Learn about real-life examples in the full chapter PDF.

Determining appropriate levels of family involvement

Determining to what extent families will be involved in your program is a key step in the program planning process.

For example, parents could be invited by to see their children at the program or encouraged to attend exhibits and sales of the youths' completed artwork. A collaborative arts project during program orientation is another way to involve both parents and youth.

Planning public exhibitions, performances, sales

You will need to plan how your program will end at the outset of the session. Public recognition for a youth's achievements is one of the critical elements in programs that enhance adolescent development and prevent juvenile delinquency.

Urban smARTS includes a public performance or exhibition at the end of each rotation with an artist. And the youth are involved in the production of the exhibition or performance. At the end of the year there is a special exhibition at the public library featuring the work of youth from all Urban smARTS schools. This final exhibition includes videotapes of all Urban smARTS performances; viewers can access the videotapes by pushing a button to see the performance from a particular school. Exhibitions of artwork also are set up throughout the library. A special reception is held to honor the students. Youth are given a certificate signed by the artist, caseworker, and teacher for completing the program.

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