How Youth Get Engaged: Grounded-Theory Research on Motivational Development in Organized Youth Programs

Nickki Pearce Dawes, Reed Larson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For youth to benefit from many of the developmental opportunities provided by organized programs, they need to not only attend but become psychologically engaged in program activities. This research was aimed at formulating empirically based grounded theory on the processes through which this engagement develops. Longitudinal interviews were conducted with 100 ethnically diverse youth (ages 14-21) in 10 urban and rural arts and leadership programs. Qualitative analysis focused on narrative accounts from the 44 youth who reported experiencing a positive turning point in their motivation or engagement. For 38 of these youth, this change process involved forming a personal connection. Similar to processes suggested by self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), forming a personal connection involved youth's progressive integration of personal goals with the goals of program activities. Youth reported developing a connection to 3 personal goals that linked the self with the activity: learning for the future, developing competence, and pursuing a purpose. The role of purpose for many youth suggests that motivational change can be driven by goals that transcend self-needs. These findings suggest that youth need not enter programs intrinsically engaged-motivation can be fostered-and that programs should be creative in helping youth explore ways to form authentic connections to program activities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-269
Number of pages11
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Motivation
  • Organized youth programs
  • Psychological engagement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies
  • Demography

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