Framing Youth Issues for Public Support

Ann Lochner
January 30, 2007

Communicating effectively about the community’s role in promoting positive youth development is critical to generating public support for quality youth programs.

Framing Youth Issues for Public Support

Ann Lochner and Susan Bales

Research has confirmed short and long term positive effects of quality youth development programs. Young people who participate in structured developmental programs have better school attendance, better grades, more positive attitudes toward school, and higher aspirations for post secondary education. Adults who as young people participate in activities outside of the regular school day are more likely to trust their parents, settle in stable relationships, be employed, report being happy with their lives and be active in their communities. Despite this evidence, policies supporting these programs are inadequate due in part to limited public understanding about the developmental process and the role of quality youth development programs during the middle years. This conclusion prompted the Minnesota Commission on Out of school Time and its Minnesota collaborators to sponsor a FrameWorks Institute study of the attitudes of Minnesota citizens and parents toward youth and youth programs and how to effectively increase their understanding about and support for positive youth development programs. Communicating effectively about the community’s role in promoting positive youth development is critical to generating public support for quality youth programs.

Framing Youth Issues for Public Support

Ann Lochner and Susan Bales

Research has confirmed short and long term positive effects of quality youth development programs. Young people who participate in structured developmental programs have better school attendance, better grades, more positive attitudes toward school, and higher aspirations for post secondary education. Adults who as young people participate in activities outside of the regular school day are more likely to trust their parents, settle in stable relationships, be employed, report being happy with their lives and be active in their communities. Despite this evidence, policies supporting these programs are inadequate due in part to limited public understanding about the developmental process and the role of quality youth development programs during the middle years. This conclusion prompted the Minnesota Commission on Out of school Time and its Minnesota collaborators to sponsor a FrameWorks Institute study of the attitudes of Minnesota citizens and parents toward youth and youth programs and how to effectively increase their understanding about and support for positive youth development programs.Communicating effectively about the community’s role in promoting positive youth development is critical to generating public support for quality youth programs.

Framing Youth Issues for Public Support

Ann Lochner and Susan Bales

Research has confirmed short and long term positive effects of quality youth development programs. Young people who participate in structured developmental programs have better school attendance, better grades, more positive attitudes toward school, and higher aspirations for post secondary education. Adults who as young people participate in activities outside of the regular school day are more likely to trust their parents, settle in stable relationships, be employed, report being happy with their lives and be active in their communities. Despite this evidence, policies supporting these programs are inadequate due in part to limited public understanding about the developmental process and the role of quality youth development programs during the middle years. This conclusion prompted the Minnesota Commission on Out of school Time and its Minnesota collaborators to sponsor a FrameWorks Institute study of the attitudes of Minnesota citizens and parents toward youth and youth programs and how to effectively increase their understanding about and support for positive youth development programs. This article highlights how a youth policy commission came to identify the need for public will building as a priority in promoting positive youth policies. Recommendations that emerged from a research study exploring how the policy conversation about youth and youth programs could be successfully reframe are reviewed. Common dominant frames that negatively influence the way people think about youth issues are identified, along with alternate frames that evoke a different way of thinking –more supportive of positive policy solutions. Implications of reframes for effectively communicating about youth and intentional programs so vital to their optimal development are demonstrated.

The Minnesota Commission on Out of School Time

The Minnesota Commission on Out of School Time was convened in December of 2004 by University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks as part of his Presidential Initiative on Children, Youth and Families. Commissioners were experts in the fields of child and adolescent development, as well as representatives of business, philanthropy, youth development programs, county state and tribal government and youth. The Commission’s charge was to create a vision and strategies to ensure every Minnesota youth access to opportunities supportive of their optimal development during non school hours. The Commission’s work was reinforced by research confirming the critical role of high quality out of school opportunities in assuring that young people reach adulthood ready to assume roles as responsible community members and leaders. Through a series of work groups, meetings, dialogues, and a youth caucus this intergenerational group identified a vision for out of school time in Minnesota that includes key issues facing families, young people, program providers and policy makers; as well as a series of recommendations.
Throughout Commission deliberations, communities were viewed as the critical intersection where key developmental influences converge during the middle years. Building on the foundation established by families during early childhood and extending beyond the purview of academic learning, communities increasingly become the nexus of opportunities through which young people chart their course through childhood and adolescence. It was acknowledged that considerable public support would be required in order for communities to provide an adequate supply of quality programs replete with relationships and experiences so integral to the middle years of development.
Commissioners recognized that despite the enormously high stakes for the development of young people and the vitality of their communities, access, availability and quality of out of school opportunities across Minnesota communities varied dramatically. Commissioners began to see connections between uneven quality among programs, program funding cuts, insufficient legislative attention and a general shortage of good information about youth development and the importance of developmentally supportive programs. Increasingly, attention focused on the need to engage the public and policy makers in seeing the merit of positive developmental opportunities for all young people. Commissioners called for a public will building effort to engage the public at large and voting citizens in Minnesota communities in understanding the added value of intentional community-based learning and development opportunities for young people.
Given the limited research on public attitudes about out of school and afterschool programs, learning more about how Minnesotans think about the role of these programs in the development of young people was deemed a critical first step in reaching out to the public. FrameWorks Institute was engaged to design a research study that would clarify dominant frames influencing public attitudes regarding youth, their development, their developmental needs and the policies and programs that would impact their success.

FrameWorks Institute

The FrameWorks Institute works with non profit and philanthropic organizations interested in stimulating a broader conversation about the causes and solutions associated with a variety of social issues. The last decade of research in the social and cognitive sciences strongly suggests that the challenge of communicating about social issues requires an understanding of the conceptual frames that ordinary people bring to any given policy discussion. Using a multi-method, multidisciplinary approach to communications research, called Strategic Frame Analysis ™, FrameWorks documents dominant frames in public discourse, determines their impact on public opinion and policy preferences and suggests how public thinking can be re-directed (reframed) to support positive policy solutions more in keeping with the recommendations of scholarly research and policy experts.
Frames
From the perspective of Strategic Frame Analysis, public understanding of an issue depends upon its association with what Walter Lippmann called “the pictures in our heads.” Put simply, people use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world. These mental shortcuts rely on “frames” – a small set of internalized concepts and values that allow us to accord meaning to unfolding events and new information. Put another way, frames are “organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.” These frames can be triggered by various elements, such as language choices and different messengers or images. Each of these communications elements, therefore, may have a profound influence on decision outcomes. The result is that policy preferences and attributions of responsibility vary dramatically depending upon the way an issue is framed or defined for the public. Framing “gun control” as an issue of individual autonomy, for example, leads to very different conclusions from those evoked when the same issue is framed as a matter of public health. And the same individuals, exposed to these different frames, can rotate between alternative views. When it comes to public affairs, people get most information from the news media which over time sets up a framework of expectation about issues, or dominant frames. Habits of thought are developed that configure incoming information to conform to established frames, becoming mental short cuts for processing new information. Understanding is thus frame-based rather than fact based. Even when confronted with new facts about an issue, most people will rely upon the frame most familiar to them rather than contest that frame by accepting the new facts as truth. This is important in a number of respects; first, it tends to preclude new understanding of an issue but, more subtly, these frames also establish who is responsible for fixing any given social problem.
The social science literature of the past two decades has confirmed that the perspective from which stories are told, or how they are framed, is a powerful influence in assigning responsibility for an issue or problem. Understanding which frames advance which policy options (solutions) is critical to effective communications.
Political psychologist Shanto Iyengar describes two types of frames that are frequently used in the news media. Episodic frames (which dominate US television newscasts) depict public issues through the lens of concrete occurrences that happen in a specific time and place, such as crime reports. In most cases, the story is narrowly focused on the individuals involved-- the victim or the perpetrator and resembles a case study. The individual is assigned responsibility. By contrast, thematic frames place public issues in a broader context, identifying the circumstances in the community or systems that contributed to the problem. Using the crime report example, a thematic frame would describe the conditions in the community or shortcomings of current policies as well as related trends, a distinctly different story from the episodic focus on life stories or salient characteristics of perpetrator and victim. Experimental research demonstrates that thematic frames more effectively engage the public in policy solutions.
Thus, Strategic Frame Analysis focuses on broad societal conditions and systems responsible for social issues, recognizing that social issues require admission of a problem to the public arena in order for it to be prioritized for policy solutions-- a long-term process. This approach distinguishes Strategic Frame Analysis from more typical marketing, public service advertising, persuasion and public relations campaigns that target individual behavior and use cryptic messages in communication with consumers over a shorter time span, with the goal of stimulating individual actions or behaviors. And, in seeking to align expert and lay understanding of an issue, Strategic Frame Analysis takes on the complex job of translating the thematic understanding of social issues into simpler terms without losing the important frame elements of context and attribution of responsibility.

Focus of Minnesota Research

The Minnesota research built upon a broader research base established through a more extensive national study of public attitudes about adolescent development conducted for the W.T. Grant Foundation from 1999- 2001. FrameWorks tested those earlier findings with the Minnesota public and posed additional questions to probe possible approaches for re-framing the role of community in advancing youth development in the state. Among the earlier findings (for W. T. Grant cited above), which proved of special interest in Minnesota was the predominantly negative perception of youth held by many Americans. The conclusions from this earlier study portray mixed attitudes about young people influenced in large part by the media. Today, youth are viewed as being fundamentally different than they were in the past, and the difference is attributed by adults to declining values. Parents are seen as the culprits for this negative trend and are held primarily, if not exclusively, responsible for the well-being of their own children and youth. Good parenting is defined narrowly, as protection from physical harm and the negative influences of peers and community. Perhaps most notable is the belief that youth are fully formed rather than progressing through a predictable stage in human development during which behavior and decision-making are profoundly affected by documented changes in brain architecture.

Methods for Understanding and Testing Public Frames about Youth

The first step in any effort to engage the public in a political or social issue requires a descriptive analysis of the information people have available to them. Given most people’s relative unfamiliarly with most social and political issues, this requires an understanding of the way an issue has been portrayed in the news, our culture’s primary political story-teller. Secondarily, analysts attempt to discern – using qualitative research methods – the degree to which these news frames have been internalized by citizens and the extent that they can remember and reason based on the stories taught to them by the media. In the case of youth development, where some familiarity with the issue is presumed, communications scholars attempt to identify missing pieces of information that prevent ordinary people from learning new ways to think about an issue. This is especially pertinent for those issues about which the public is asked to understand complicated scientific phenomena and to reach policy judgments based on that understanding – whether this relates to global warming, ozone depletion or human development.
Building on FrameWorks’ earlier work on youth development, as well as extensive work on early child development, a series of hypotheses or testable propositions was developed to guide the work in Minnesota. These included the following:| The dominance of parental responsibility is likely to undermine initial support for public investments in youth programs.| The absence of an identifiable social good to which after-school
programs are a means, will reinforce the identity of the issue as private for most people.| Positive community actors and influences will require conscientious reinforcement if they are to establish community as a locus for positive impact on the lives of youth.| Framing after-school programs narrowly as crime prevention is unlikely to result in greater support for quality developmental programs.
| The absence of a concrete metaphor – or simplifying model -- will prove a stumbling block in teaching the public new information.
To test these propositions, and to determine whether they could be overcome using speculative reframes, FrameWorks Minnesota research was structured as a two-tiered information gathering approach involving focus groups and cognitive elicitations in local communities.

Focus Groups
Eight geographically representative focus groups were conducted in Minnesota, in addition to two groups dedicated| The absence of a concrete metaphor – or simplifying model -- will prove a stumbling block in teaching the public new information.
To test these propositions, and to determine whether they could be overcome using speculative reframes, FrameWorks Minnesota research was structured as a two-tiered information gathering approach involving focus groups and cognitive elicitations in local communities.

Focus Groups
Eight geographically representative focus groups were conducted in Minnesota, in addition to two groups dedicated| The absence of a concrete metaphor – or simplifying model -- will prove a stumbling block in teaching the public new information.
To test these propositions, and to determine whether they could be overcome using speculative reframes, FrameWorks Minnesota research was structured as a two-tiered information gathering approach involving focus groups and cognitive elicitations in local communities.

Focus Groups
Eight geographically representative focus groups were conducted in Minnesota, in addition to two groups dedicated exclusively to minority representation. Focus group members were chosen randomly to include “engaged citizens”, or individuals who are likely to be voters and community contributors. A series of hypothetical news articles, modeled after actual news reports, were used as the stimulus for a series of discussions about youth and youth programs. Focus groups were designed to explore:| How Minnesotans think in general about youth, their developmental needs and types of policies and programs that affect them.| What frames are most frequently used by adults when thinking about youth

and the impact of these dominant frames on adults’ consideration of policy proposals such as using public funds to expand after-school programs.| Which alternative frames would prove effective in evoking a different way of thinking -- more supportive of positive policy solutions.

Cognitive Elicitations

To validate and extend the focus group findings, one on one unstructured interviews were also conducted with twenty average Minnesota citizens and analyzed by a team of linguists and anthropologists associated with the FrameWorks Institute. These research subjects were recruited through an ethnographic networking process.

Findings on Public Attitudes

Minnesota research findings confirm the earlier youth development research conducted for W. T. Grant. As hypothesized, the public’s dominant frame was one of personal and parental responsibility for youth which prevented people from according a public role for positive youth development, in the form of after-school programs. When frames emphasizing the importance of protecting youth from crime were tested, adults were indeed willing to support after-school programs, but not the quality developmental programs that research has demonstrated and social policy experts believe make a difference. While there was limited awareness about the influence of community actors as influences on young people, Minnesotans remembered and reaffirmed the role of mentors when reminded of these actors in ways that did not displace the role of parents.
The Minnesota research also revealed three critical frame elements that can greatly aid in public reappraisals of youth programs: brain development in youth, the role of youth in community development and the role of community in youth development. First, it is important to explain youth in developmental terms with an emphasis on the active phase of brain development activated by particular features of programs in which they are engaged. Second, people need to understand the critical link between positive youth development and the community’s, state’s and nation’s future viability. Minnesotans are likely to rethink their reaction to youth programs if these are understood in the context of community development. It is important to emphasize that high quality youth programs provide the pathway through which communities are transformed, as are actively engaged young people. Investment in youth is investment in the vitality of communities. This kind of statement is likely to help Minnesotans see the end-goal to which youth development is a necessary means. Third, it is in community settings that developmental opportunities take place. The use of strong, concrete developmental metaphors – like the stages of brain architecture that accompany development – helps people understand that young people are experiencing a predictable, biological stage of growth and change that and is interconnected with the environment of developmental opportunities available in their communities. This is dramatically different from their perceived identity, as documented in the previous FrameWorks’ research—Youth as “The Other.” In sum, a substantially different conversation can be had with Minnesotans about the importance of youth development if this topic is framed in terms of community and development, not risks, crime and parental responsibility.

Youth Messages Re-Framed

As was illustrated in FrameWorks’ research findings, engaging public support for positive youth development programs requires understanding of the developmental process, the role of intentional opportunities as essential developmental tools and communities as both the locus of intentional experiences as well as the ultimate destination for the developmental journey. FrameWorks’ framing advice is instructive in guiding the creation of a more compelling story to engage the public in supporting positive policy solutions for young people:| The solution is placed up-front to indicate what readers should understand as the central need, reasons they should be concerned and the change needed.| The relationship between the role of parents, youth programs and communities is made explicit by framing them as interconnected and interdependent.| The developmental benefits of youth programs and how they support young people’s developmental needs is made explicit by employing brain architecture as a simplifying model. This analogy describes the developmental construction work in which youngsters are engaged and portrays development during the middle years into adulthood as biological phase through which all young people must navigate.| Community is positioned as the place young people naturally navigate as their maturation process progresses and is the locus of developmental activities.| The value of developmental opportunities is elevated when correlated with practicing roles they will later play as adults as integrated community members and contributors.

The Minnesota message re-framed:

The importance of providing essential experiences during out of school hours cannot be overstated in light of recent brain research about the critical role they play in the development of young people:| Through experience, practice and experimentation with roles they will later play as adults-- like teamwork, decision-making, leadership, and community contribution-- young people ensure the developmental connections needed to establish these competencies are completed.| This real-life skill building happens in communities ---in structured programs like 4-H or CampFire or activities in the wider community where parents and other adults serve as community guides for the developmental journey of young people.| As children and youth engage in high quality developmental experiences over time, they practice the skills they will need to become responsible adults and enhance the vitality of their communities in the process: a win-win situation.

Lessons Learned: Perspectives about Framing Youth Issues

Advocates for intentional youth programs, and those who document their benefits, have long wondered about the shallowness of public support. While people say they would support youth programs, that consensus dissolves in the face of argument, for reasons that the FrameWorks’ research reveals.
As illustrated in FrameWorks’ research findings, generating wide public support for positive youth development programs requires grounding the issue in an understanding of the developmental process of adolescence, explaining the role of intentional opportunities as essential tools for growth and development, and positioning communities as both the locus of intentional experiences as well as the ultimate destination for the developmental journey.
Clearly, this research argues, positive youth programs must be framed in terms of the larger societal benefits that accrue from youth engagement in these programs. Additionally, by helping Minnesotans understand how development support for positive youth development programs requires grounding the issue in an understanding of the developmental process of adolescence, explaining the role of intentional opportunities as essential tools for growth and development, and positioning communities as both the locus of intentional experiences as well as the ultimate destination for the developmental journey.
Clearly, this research argues, positive youth programs must be framed in terms of the larger societal benefits that accrue from youth engagement in these programs. Additionally, by helping Minnesotans understand how development works, and how youth programs of various quality support or impede adolescent development, policy advocates can engage in the important work of public education.


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