The Evidence Portal

Youth Work - Agency and Empowerment Evidence Review

Youth work refers to a broad range of supportive practices and activities conducted with young people, aged between 10 and 25 years, across a range of different settings. Youth work is:

  • a practice that places young people and their interests first
  • a relational practice, where the youth worker operates alongside the young person in their context
  • an empowering practice that advocates for, and facilitates a young person's independence, participation in society, connectedness and realisation of their rights
  • voluntary, participatory, responsive, and contextual.

Authentic relationships built on trust and mutual respect form the foundation of good youth work practice, together with having an ecological focus, encouraging personal agency, and fostering alternative possibilities.

The Research Centre for Children and Families, the University of Sydney, conducted an evidence review on Youth Work – Agency and Empowerment.

The evidence review found that many youth work interventions directly or indirectly foster empowerment and agency in young people. The recent shift towards a rights-based approach, and recognition of the need to give primacy to youth voice and participation in decision-making, have seen a number of programs emerge that variously empower young people by safeguarding their rights to participate in the processes that shape youth organisations. While these programs and approaches vary, they converge in their goal of improving outcomes by involving young people in activities considered meaningful, and by promoting equitable relationships and participatory practices.

The findings of this evidence review has implications for the design and delivery of youth work interventions for vulnerable young people. A synthesis of components of best practice in youth work include:

  • Connectivity: development of programs and services that are long-term, sustainable and relationship-based, birthed and sourced from within the community
  • Strengths-based approach: embracing notions of independence and autonomy among services for young people
  • Capacity building: ability to build capacity in terms of staff professional development, effective research, evaluation and information gathering and sharing, and leadership in the area of governance and management
  • Contextual and systemic considerations: consideration of macro-contexts including economic, political and social and cultural factors.

The evidence review also looked at youth work approaches and practice with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth

The evidence review found a number of key approaches and theories to be central to conducting good youth work practice, including examples.  See the following:

For details about how the evidence review was conducted see the Search Strategy (PDF, 687.3 KB).  Other available outputs from the evidence review are:


It is well-established that youth work scholarship is limited by a lack of documentation and synthesis of practice-oriented knowledge (Moensted, Day & Buss, 2020). Veerman & Van Yperen (2007) partially attribute the paucity of experimental studies in youth work academic literature to difficulties associated with evaluation of non-standardised interventions that characterise much youth work practice. These gaps in available literature preclude this evidence review from being an exhaustive overview of available youth work interventions and programs that foster agency and empowerment. It is highly probable that many additional, and effective, youth work interventions operate to foster agency and empowerment in young people, but that these interventions have not been evaluated or identified in our searches of academic databases, grey literature and stakeholder submissions. These deficits in youth work scholarship are particularly pronounced for youth work targeting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander young people, and CALD youth more generally. 

Additionally, there are definitional inconsistencies and ambiguities surrounding concepts such as agency and empowerment. These terms are variously defined and measured in the literature which precludes comprehensive review of the way these processes and outcomes are realised in youth work practices and programs. Similarly, many interventions may indirectly foster agency and empowerment in participant youth but not necessarily report on these as outcomes or substantive processes.  

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We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations Peoples of NSW and pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future. 

Informed by lessons of the past, Department of Communities and Justice is improving how we work with Aboriginal people and communities. We listen and learn from the knowledge, strength and resilience of Stolen Generations Survivors, Aboriginal Elders and Aboriginal communities.

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