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More than a number

4-H model helps youth thrive in Oregon and across the nation

Mary Arnold

At age 10, Mary Arnold signed up for 4-H thanks to her love of horses. Now as a CPHHS professor and youth development specialist, she is influencing 4-H programs nationwide — and still rides her horse almost daily.

Mary, MS ’92, PhD ’94, was unsatisfied with the lack of evidence about the impact of 4-H on youth, and how exactly 4-H works it magic. To make a stronger case for the program, she sought to unveil why and how 4-H leads to positive outcomes.

She set to work to develop a theoretical model based on current research in child and adolescent development.

“I wanted to align 4-H with what we are doing in the human development field,” Mary says. “We have leading self-regulation researchers right here in our college. It is an important part of youth development, but we never had it in our 4-H vocabulary.”

Her determination was strengthened after attending an Oregon Youth Development Council meeting in 2013, where a consulting firm presented their findings on the effectiveness of youth organizations in Oregon. Mary says they provided detailed reports about most organizations, but for 4-H they simply acknowledged the great work.

“I thought we really have to do better than that,” Mary says. “We can’t ride on the fact that we just do good work. I started developing the model in earnest at that point.”

Mary took a leave of absence and read everything she could about the ingredients of youth development models and how they are combined to create a development setting, such as placing an emphasis on fostering relationships between youth and adults so they feel welcome, supported and challenged in 4-H programs.

Around the same time, leading experts in the field released a statement that research on youth development needed to shift to an understanding of the process, with the result of improving practice, leading to better outcomes for youth.

“I thought, I’m already there,” Mary says. “I’m measuring it. I got very excited!”

After years of research and testing, Mary and co-author Ryan Gagnon, assistant professor at Clemson University, confirmed their hypothesis. “We found that high-quality 4-H programs enhance a youth’s ability to thrive, and thriving youth achieve key outcomes,” she says. “These results provided illumination into the process of youth development.”

The 4-H Thriving Model enables 4-H educators to approach their work proactively with greater intentionality and focus, Mary says. She is now sharing the 4-H Thriving Model with organizations across the nation, and it is already making an impact.

She recalls a daylong training she facilitated in Arizona. “With the Grand Canyon in their backyard, they do a lot of hiking in the Arizona 4-H program but have never really taken the time to think about how they could talk about challenge and discovery, or emotional regulation,” she says. “A lot of emotions happen when you’re hot and tired, so how can we prepare for them in advance?”

After the training, Mary asked the participants to share their takeaways. “They reported a confirmed sense of what they need to do in their programs. This is empowering because they can begin to use a lens of promoting thriving. They can question if an activity promotes thriving or how it could be tweaked to do so.”

She says these results and the 4-H Thriving Model directly align with her OSU Extension Service role, which is to ensure research gets translated into effective practice. “The science behind what we do in practice is critical, but sometimes we get lost in the science without remembering that we’re really talking about real humans and real lives that are being affected.”

The main beneficiaries of the model – our nation’s youth.

“A thriving prosocial youth possesses a growth mindset, is hopeful about their purpose and future, and can self-regulate their emotions,” Mary says. “These traits then lead to positive attitudes about education, increased social competence, personal responsibility, high personal standards and connection with others.”