Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
4-H Youth Development Programs have been a mainstay of quality Extension educational programs since the inception of Extension in Texas with the Boys Corn Club and Tomato Clubs. Youths who participate in 4-H Youth Development Programs earn higher grades, have higher levels of civic engagement, and engage in less risky behavior (Lerner & Lerner, 2013). However as impressive these impacts may be, these type of results can be made if participants remain in the program (Pratt & Bowman, 2008).
Volunteers and Extension Educators are continuously searching for strategies that will increase Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s capacity to retain 4-H youth. Research reported by Ellison and Harder (2018) investigated the factors contributing to the retention of senior 4-H members.
Previous research has revealed pockets of success related to retention of senior-aged (9th–12th grades; 14–18 years of age) 4-H members (Ellison & Harder, 2019). One rural Louisiana parish achieved a 21% increase in retention of 4-H members in grades 7–12 based on matching program offerings with defined needs, even when these needs varied from traditional offerings (Acosta & Holt, 1991). Acosta and Holt (1991) found that although 4-H might typically offer programs on nutrition, communication, and citizenship, 4-H members indicated needs for topics such as careers, dating, and suicide awareness.
4-H members’ overall impression of the appeal of the program may change with age and maturity (Ellison & Harder, 2018). An Ohio 4-H study (Homan, Dick, & Hendrick, 2007) found 10th-grade youth were less likely to rate 4-H as fun or trendy and more likely to rate 4-H as boring when compared to members in 4th and 7th grades. The same authors found older youth were less likely to agree that being in 4-H was what their friends or family wanted them to do, and less likely to agree they intended to stay in 4-H (Homan et al., 2007).
A youth’s sense of belonging within the organization is another critical factor for retention of members (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Hensley, Place, Jordan, and Israel (2007) said, “Participation in 4-H is voluntary, and members who do not perceive a sense of belonging or believe they are needed in the organization will limit their participation or resign” (para. 21). Hensley et al.’s (2007) research suggests 4-H youth feel a positive sense of belonging that increases as the degree of 4-H participation increases. A 2012 Wisconsin 4-H Retention Survey conducted by Donnerbauer, Olson, and Witzel also found youth self-report a feeling of belonging as what they like most about 4-H, followed by mastery and recognition, and participation in county fairs. In contrast, the same 4-H members reported activities such as record books, meetings, ineffective leadership, and lack of organization as items they liked least about 4-H (Donnerbauer et al., 2012). Top reasons youth reported staying in 4-H were because they liked being with other kids and they were having fun (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Ritchie and Resler (1993) also identified displeasure with meetings as the top reason for a young person to terminate 4-H membership. This dissatisfaction ranges from “boring meetings to not getting enough help with projects” (Ritchie & Resler, 1993, para. 3). Parents of members appeared to hold the belief that volunteer leaders need to do more to make meetings worthwhile and meaningful (Ritchie & Resler, 1993).
It seems the 4-H member’s perception of his or her parental support for involvement with the organization has the greatest effect on satisfaction (Norland & Bennett, 1993). Maurer and Bokerneier (1984) agreed that family support and socioeconomic status appear to affect 4-H membership. Specifically, children of parents who are involved with organizations also tend to seek involvement with voluntary organizations (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Furthermore, more youth membership in 4-H is found among those whose parents enjoy higher income and educational levels.
Ellison and Harder (2019) utilized a theoretical framework for this study from Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB). Ajzen emphasized contended that all human actions are dictated by intentions, and thus whether an individual performs a behavior is dictated by his or her intentions. According to this theory, the stronger an individual’s intention, the greater the likelihood that the individual will complete a related behavior (Ellison & Harder, 2019). According to the TPB (Ajzen, 1991), human intentions are guided by three specific types of beliefs:
An individual is likely to form behavioral intention when he or she believes a behavior is likely to have positive consequences, falls within a range of acceptable social options, and is achievable (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Therefore, when examining the issue of 4-H retention, it is useful to examine what it is that youth believe are the consequences of 4-H membership, what they believe is socially acceptable, and to what extent the decision to remain in 4-H is within their control (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Additionally, the Theory of Planned Behavior has not been previously used to examine 4-H member retention, and thus, this provides a new lens with which to understand the issue (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
This study explored beliefs impacting senior Florida 4-H members’ decisions to continue in 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Specifically, the objectives for this study were to identify and describe behavioral, normative, and control beliefs (Figure 1) of senior 4-H members who had chosen to stay enrolled in the organization.
Figure 1. Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991).
A qualitative design was utilized to investigate individuals’ continued participation in 4-H programs (Ellison & Harder, 2018). An interview guide, framed using Theory of Planned Behavior, was developed by the researchers for use with a purposeful sample of eight information-rich (Patton, 2002) youth currently serving in statewide 4-H leadership positions in Florida. Patton (2002) defines “information-rich cases” as “those from which one can learn a great deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the research” (p. 169). The information-rich cases for this study were selected based on their personal experiences as senior 4-H members and their relationships with large networks of additional senior 4-H members resulting from their peer-elected leadership positions (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Five males and three females, age 15–18 years, were interviewed (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
Interviews were conducted in September–October 2015 (Ellison & Harder, 2018). The length of interview time ranged from twenty minutes to sixty minutes depending on the responsiveness of the subject (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Participants were briefed with the purpose and methodology of the study and informed as to how their responses would be utilized (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Seven open-ended questions were posed to participants to gather their responses on how and to what extent behavioral, normative, and control beliefs may have impacted their level of involvement with 4-H programs (Ellison & Harder, 2018). The telephone-based interviews entailed open-ended questions that permitted participants to elaborate upon their responses in regard to their various experiences (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
Interviews were recorded, and responses were immediately transcribed (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Data were analyzed through a template analysis (King, 2014). Template analysis provides a framework for the organization of qualitative analysis through several steps, including the designation of a priori themes .transcription, initial coding of data, production of initial template, application of the template to full data set, checks for quality and reflexivity, and interpretation of the results (Ellison & Harder, 2018) . A priori coding indicates that the researcher develops themes before examining the data, and in this case, such themes were designed around the components of Azjen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
Trustworthiness for this study was confirmed using quality standards set forth by Lincoln and Guba (1985). Trustworthiness criteria of credibility, transferability, and confirmability were assessed through peer debriefing, purposive sampling, analyst triangulation, and the use of an audit trail (Ellison & Harder, 2019). In qualitative research, the truth of the study is dependent on the accuracy of the subjects and the researchers (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Informal member checks were conducted during all interviews to allow both the researchers and the participants to confirm early conclusions (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
In agreement with the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), an individual’s attitude toward a behavior could influence that individual’s intention to take a certain action (Ellison & Harder, 2018). In regard to this situation, a positive attitude toward 4-H programs and benefits of participation may influence a youth’s intention to continue membership or not (Ellison & Harder, 2018). These researchers reported that although all eight subjects were current 4-H members, their intent to remain involved in 4-H when they were in grades 7–9 were mixed (Ellison & Harder, 2018). All respondents indicated they were aware that there would be some personal gain or competitive edge from participating in 4-H such as public speaking, new friends and networks, benefit for college applications, indicating positive behavioral beliefs about the consequences of 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2018). However, two respondents reported they had no desire to remain involved in 4-H during grades 7–9 (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
In Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviors (1991), normative beliefs refer to an individual’s beliefs about the degree to which other individuals or groups who are important to them think they should (or should not) engage in a behavior (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Participants were differing in their responses in this area based on whether they were reporting on normative beliefs of their peers or their family (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
In regard to peers and nonfamily networks, seven subjects reported they did not believe their membership in 4-H was normal among these groups (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Friends were the top nonfamily group mentioned as not viewing 4-H as a normal activity (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Nicole explained, “My friend group was not cool with it. Sometimes I couldn’t participate in things they wanted to do because I was busy with 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2018).”
In some occasions, respondents did not report that friends had an opinion on their 4-H involvement but rather had no opinion or judgment on 4-H at all because it was not an experience with which they had any familiarity (Ellison & Harder, 2018). As Scott said, “It’s [4-H] just a club that no one else I knew was even participating in (Ellison & Harder, 2018).” The lack of a sense of normalcy of 4-H involvement was not just expressed by friends of 4-H members but also from other adults in the 4-H members’ networks (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Thomas stated, “My sports coaches and some of my clubs, they said it was taking my time from their activities (Ellison & Harder, 2018).”
While this perceived lack of normalcy presented itself as a barrier for some participants, Maggie shared that she viewed 4-H as positive because it was an unusual choice among her peers (Ellison & Harder, 2018). She said,
I go to an IB (International Baccalaureate) school, and I think I’m the only kid in my grade who does 4-H for leadership and not just for the Fair. No one around me was in 4-H at the time except for one friend. I kind of liked that because it was an escape from school and those friends and let me feel special and meet different people (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
The researchers reported that in Maggie’s instance, she appreciated the opportunity to feel she was in some way different from her peers. (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
Although 4-H membership was not perceived to be a normal choice among peer groups, seven respondents reported they felt 4-H membership was an expectation within their family unit (Ellison & Harder, 2018). Nicole stated, “My parents were all for it. My mother was a 4-H alumnus, and she is the whole reason I stayed as a member (Ellison & Harder, 2018).” Marcus agreed that positive maternal influence made his decision (Ellison & Harder, 2018):
My mom and family wouldn’t have liked me not being in 4-H, but they told me I could drop out if I wanted to. But really I wanted to stay in because my mom said it was a lot of fun at the senior level (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
These researcher contend that for senior 4-H members who stay in the organization, the influence of family may carry more weight than perceptions of what peers or other adults consider desirable behavior (Ellison & Harder, 2018).
In future Next Step to Success we will provide other results from this research conducted in Florida.
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