Models of youth participation

Youth participation in judicial procedures: research outcomes

Research findings on the involvement of children and youth (from now on, often referred as ‘youth’) in decision-making overwhelmingly show youth’s desire to be included in decisions affecting their lives. Participation makes youth feel respected as autonomous persons. Consistent with the theory of self-determination, an autonomy-supportive environment has demonstrated to benefit youth by stimulating engagement, motivation and achievement – for instance, in education, by parents and in (mental) health care[1]. This outweighs the possible concerns youth have, such as being nervous or scared to talk in court[2].

Contrary, being excluded from participation can result in feelings of frustration, desperation and powerlessness, and even lead to problematic behavior[3]. When prevented from participating, chidren and youth ‘learn’ not to have a say and, as a consequence, do not develop trust in their abilities to make decisions on their own.

Research also shows that young people under the age of fourteen often do not fully understand what judicial procedures entail[4], while older adolescents have significantly more knowledge about judicial procedures[5]. Moreover, not knowing what to expect seems to be one of the main reasons why youth in family law proceedings experience anxiety or stress[6]. Research has shown that legal terms are often used in communication with youth, which can be intimidating and can decrease their motivation to participate[7]. However, it is important to note that the development of individual youth may differ: some are behind, and some are ahead. Simply, the age of a young person is not enough to indicate what they can understand. For example, research shows that intelligence, mental health problems and stress because of the trial may play a role in the understanding of the trial[8].

When youth participates in the decision-making process, it increases the chance that they accept the outcome of the decision, even if this differs from their own views[9] because the reasons for taking the decision are explained and, consequently, better understood by them[10]. Involving youth and youth in the decision-making can even increase their reasoning-skills and facilitate them to better express their opinions in the future[11].

To improve participation of youth in judicial proceedings, three conditions are of importance to take into account[12]:

  1. Informing the young person: using child-friendly communication adapted to their level of maturity, preparing them before the proceedings and explaining the decision that has been made.
  2. Creating a safe environment: an informal setting in which the young person does not feel intimidated – neither by the setting nor by adult participants; including a representative or trusted person of the young person.
  3. Communication skills: reducing the young person’s level of stress by giving explanations and making them feel at ease, stimulating them to tell their story, and avoiding suggestive questioning.

Typologies of youth participation

In the past decades, various models for the effective implementation of the right to be heard were designed. Below, three different models will be discussed.


Roger Hart introduced the Ladder of children’s participation[13], a tool to understand the different types of children’s participation. The ladder consists of the following rungs:


  1. Manipulation: situation in which children are used by adults to pretend certain causes were inspired by children.
  2. Decoration: when children are used to help a cause indirectly, but adults not longer pretend that children are the inspiration behind a cause.
  3. Tokenism: when children and youth are given a voice, but they have little or no influence and opportunities to construct their own opinions.

Participation – different degrees

  1. Assigned but informed: youth gets a specific role and receive information about how and why they can participate.
  2. Consulted and informed: youth provides input and advice to adults; they also how know how their views will be used and are informed about the outcomes of the decisions.
  3. Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children: adults initiate a certain project, but the decision-making is shared with youth.
  4. Child-initiated and directed: youth initiates a project and adults are only there to support.
  5. Child-initiated, shared decision with adults: projects are initiated by youth and decision-making is shared between youth and adults.

Pathways to Participation

Harry Shier developed a model of Pathways to Participation[14], where five stages of children’s participation are described. Shier explains that this model is inspired by Hart’s ladder and serves as an additional tool.

Shier distinguishes five levels of participation:

  • Level 1, children are listened to: youth are listened to with due care and attention, but only when they themselves come forth with an opinion.
  • Level 2, children are supported in expressing their views: adults take action to hear youth, who can openly and confidently share their opinions.
  • Level 3, children’s views are taken into account: this calls for adults actively incorporating youth’s views into their decision-making. It is important to note that this does not imply that youth’s views are always followed.
  • Level 4, children are involved in the decision-making process: this level involves youth in both the consultation and the decision-making.
  • Level 5, children share power and responsibility for decision-making: here, youth are not only involved in the decision-making, but they share power and responsibility for the decisions taken. At this level, adults cannot overrule youth.

Each of these levels may have different degrees of commitment to empowerment. This is why Shier also introduced three stages of commitment that cut across each level of participation. They are:

  1. Openings: this occurs when adults are ‘ready to operate’ and make a personal commitment to work in a certain way;
  2. Opportunity: different needs are met to enable the adult to operate, including but not limited to like resources, skills and knowledge;
  3. Obligation: it occurs when youth participation is built into the system through a policy. This means adults have to act in a certain way to enable participation.
Shier, 2001 – The Lundy model of child participation

Finally, Laura Lundy’s[15] model conceptualizes children’s right to participation. She distinguishes important elements of effective participation based on article 12 CRC: dialogue between adults and children, providing feedback to children on their views, and giving due weight to their views. Lundy’s model sets out four distinct, yet interrelated elements to the right to be heard:

  1. Space: Award children the opportunity to set forth their views
  2. Voice: Facilitate children to set forth their views
  3. Audience: Listen to children’s views and
  4. Influence: Appropriately act upon children’s views.

According to Lundy, tokenistic participation should be avoided. To achieve this, the dialogues between children and adults should be encouraged by decision-makers and authorities. However, she also argues that tokenistic participation is better than no participation at all: just because it is not 100% perfect and meaningful, does not mean it is legitimate to not do it at all[16].


  1. Reeve et al., 2004; Su & Reeve, 2011
  2. Nunes, 2021; Smeets et al., 2020; Birnbaum & Bala, 2017; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2007
  3. Bessell, 2011; Barnes, 2012; Winter, 2010
  4. Grisso, 2000; Rap, 2016
  5. Grisso et al., 2003
  6. Smeets et al., 2020
  7. Ten Brummelaar et al., 2018; Turoy-Smith et al., 2018
  8. Grisso, 2000; Grisso et al., 2003; Lansdown, 2005; Scott & Steinberg, 2008
  9. Saywitz et al., 2010; Cashmore & Parkinson, 2007
  10. Collins, 2017; Schofield, 2005; Van Bijleveld et al., 2015
  11. Fitzgerald, et al., 2009
  12. Rap & Smeets, 2021
  13. Hart, 1992
  14. Shier, 2001
  15. Lundy, 2001
  16. Lundy, 2007

You can download the full list of bibliographical references below