Study finds benefits for youth in 4-H programs, especially girls

Published 6:23 am Monday, July 16, 2018

A common question asked by parents and community leaders stems from the inquiry of how will youth benefit from affiliation with or participation in an organization such as 4-H.

Families are extremely busy and have a lot to do in a sparse amount of free time each day. That free time is worth quite a bit; they need to make it meaningful and productive from a standpoint of contributing to the overall well-being of their child. As a community, we all want our young people to have a nurturing and fulfilling component to their lives that enables them to grow, prosper and succeed.

To better speak of the specifics of the benefits of the 4-H program, a longitudinal study accessing over 7,000 youth from an array of diverse backgrounds was performed at Tufts University. Researchers partnered with faculty at land-grant universities to study how participation in 4-H allows youth to succeed in academic and life experiences through positive adult mentoring, structured learning, and consistent encouragement. Results were published in the Study of Positive Youth Development, and details of the study can be accessed at

Email newsletter signup

Over the course of the study that began in 2002, research revealed that, in comparison with other youth, young people in 4-H: Experience greater educational achievements have greater motivation and aspirations for future education are more civically active are more than 3.3 times more likely to contribute to their communities have significantly lower drug, cigarette, and alcohol use are 2.3 times more likely to exercise and be physically active report better grades and higher levels of academic competence are nearly 2 times more likely to go to college.

Developing a formula for effective out-of-school programs is no easy task. The 4-H organization, though, seems to be doing something right, based on a new study that found youths in 4-H experienced more positive development than their peers who did not. The benefits were especially strong for girls.

The study, conducted by the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, found that young people’s experiences with 4-H led to gains in their “positive youth development” and that, compared with their peers who participated in other out-of-school activities, they contributed more to their communities. (The study’s definition of positive youth development rates individuals on several characteristics, including their competence, confidence, character, and caring.)

The study looked at 4-H participants as they aged from 5th to 12th grade, with a focus on its effects over the course of 10 years.

4-H is a public-private partnership focused on developing student citizenship, healthy living, and on science, engineering, and technology programs. The organization reaches more than seven million youth in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country.

Youths involved in 4-H programs participate in everything from hands-on STEM programs to events that encourage citizenship and community action, such as Citizen Washington Focus. That particular initiative shows students first-hand how the country is governed. Other programs also include opportunities for creative expression, including photography and filmmaking lessons, or opportunities to work in finance and consumer decision-making.

The research was intended “to identify the strengths of young people…and to align those strengths with resources that exist in their communities,” said Richard Lerner, the study’s principle investigator and director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts, in an interview with Education Week.

The study found that 4-H participants are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities than students in other out-of-school activities. Girls in 4-H displayed higher indices of positive development than their male counterparts. They were also less likely to engage in risky behaviors in most grades than males in 4-H..

Additionally, 4-H appeared to have a significant impact on girls’ interest in science, engineering, and computer technology programs. Girls in 4-H are two times more likely in grade 10 and three times more likely in grade 12 to participate in science programs, compared WITH girls engaged in other out-of-school activities.

Three important characteristics to develop for 4-H and any other out-of-school programs, the study says, are building positive and sustained relationships between youth and adults, providing activities that build important life skills, and providing opportunities for youth to use these skills in community activities.

4-H is led by a unique private-public partnership of universities, federal and local government agencies, foundations, and professional associations.

For more information, contact Raymond Cox, 4-H/Youth Development agent, at 606-573-4464 or 606-273-0835.

Raymond Cox is the county extension agent for 4-H/youth development. Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability or national origin.