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.
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 (2019) investigated the factors contributing to the retention of senior 4-H members.
While Heinsohn and Lewis (1995) assert that it is developmentally appropriate for a teen to discontinue membership for multiple reasons, other research has indicated the great benefits of continued long-term involvement among 4-H members. According to an eight-year longitudinal youth development study by Lerner and Lerner (2013), 4-H members are more likely than other youth to (a) contribute to their communities, (b) be civically active, and (c) make healthy choices. Identifying the factors that contribute to the retention of high-school aged 4-H members is thus critically important (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Dissatisfied 4-H members are more likely to quit membership. Norland and Bennett (1993) found securing opportunities for high-school aged members to serve younger members and gain responsibility may be beneficial in keeping older members involved in 4-H. Other factors related to increased satisfaction among older members included high-quality club meetings and positive competitive experiences.
Age and gender of youth also appear to influence 4-H member retention. Harder, Lamm, Lamm, Rose, and Rask (2005) found older youth were less likely to join 4-H as new members than their younger counterparts. Thompson (1998) found 4-H members who re-enrolled had initially joined 4-H at a younger age (average of 9.7 years) than those who did not re-enroll (average of 11.1 years). Youth who did not re-enroll often reported being busy in other activities, which were deemed more important, and contributed to a lack of time for 4-H (Thompson, 1998).
Even youth who wish to remain involved in 4-H may struggle if barriers beyond their control prohibit them from doing so (Ellison & Harder, 2019). A study of Pennsylvania teen 4-H members found the top three limiting factors to youth participation were time requirements, financial costs, and their own parents (Gill, Ewing, & Bruce, 2010). This reinforces other previous research that has found parents to have a large influence over whether their children remain involved in 4-H programs (Hartley, 1983; Ritchie & Resler, 1993).
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).
This study explored beliefs impacting senior Florida 4-H members’ decisions to continue in 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Specifically, the objectives for this study were to identify and describe behavioral, normative, and control beliefs of senior 4-H members who had chosen to stay enrolled in the organization.
A qualitative design was utilized to investigate individuals’ continued participation in 4-H programs (Ellison & Harder, 2019). 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, 2019). Five males and three females, age 15–18 years, were interviewed (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Interviews were conducted in September–October 2015 (Ellison & Harder, 2019). The length of interview time ranged from twenty minutes to sixty minutes depending on the responsiveness of the subject (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Participants were briefed with the purpose and methodology of the study and informed as to how their responses would be utilized (Ellison & Harder, 2019). 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, 2019). The telephone-based interviews entailed open-ended questions that permitted participants to elaborate upon their responses in regard to their various experiences (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Interviews were recorded, and responses were immediately transcribed (Ellison & Harder, 2019). 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, 2019) . 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) TPB (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
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, 2019).
Not only was 4-H membership perceived as a family norm among youth, but in some instances, there was reported maternal pressure to participate (Ellison & Harder, 2019). One participant indicated that it was completely his decision to be involved with 4-H and he felt no external pressures from others to make the decision (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Two participants revealed that while they wanted to participate, there was also an expectation by their mothers that they would participate (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Five participants indicated that enrolling in 4-H was their mothers’ decision as opposed to theirs, validating they potentially felt little perceived control in regard to their 4-H participation (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Nicole shared, “My mom was the one who signed me up for everything and was like – ‘Just so you know, you are doing this.’ I didn’t really want to, but mostly it wasn’t my decision (Ellison & Harder, 2019).” Scott agreed, “I really didn’t want to do Boy Scouts or 4-H. 4-H seemed like it was boring and I wouldn’t really get anything out of it. My mom really wanted me to do something (Ellison & Harder, 2019).” Anne indicated a strong desire to quit 4-H membership without the ability to do so, explaining, “My siblings were in the same boat [wanting to quit during middle school], but my mom made us all participate in 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2019).”
The researchers indicated that while many of the youth reported either a hesitation to join 4-H or a desire to drop out at some point (typically during the middle school years), they did stay involved at a high level, and all eventually became elected state 4-H officers (Ellison & Harder, 2019). These researchers indicated that while it appears maternal pressure/support did play a role, these members also became more self-motivated as they found things within the 4-H program that appealed to them (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Five participants stated making friends with like-minded peers at district- and state-level events as a major positive experience through 4-H (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Maggie expressed, “My mom said I needed to make friends, and 4-H was the first place I met friends I really liked and felt comfortable with. At the end of middle school, I went to my first Executive Board and met people and saw the potential for more friends (Ellison & Harder, 2019.”
Marcus shared finding a new network of friends through his position as an elected state officer:
As a senior member, I look back, and when I first joined the program, I didn’t have one friend. I now have over 100 friends. I never thought I’d be representing 230,000 kids in 4-H. I just feel loved at every moment with my friends at every 4-H event (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
As youth surround themselves with new friends who possess similar normative beliefs (i.e., 4-H membership is positive), this may impact a young person’s feeling a sense of belonging and lead to further commitment to 4-H and a desire to continue membership (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
For some, experiences beyond the county, like camp, became the catalyst to other 4-H activities (Ellison & Harder, 2019). According to Jeff, “I went to camp, and that was the first time I was like – ‘That was really cool!’ And then, Legislature was great, and then I met people who were going to University, so I wanted to go also (Ellison & Harder, 2019).” Anne reported being motivated to continue membership upon being exposed to greater opportunities designed for senior 4-H members (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Specifically identified was this participant’s experience with 4-H District Council (Ellison & Harder, 2019). The participant shared, “I went to District Council and met older kids, and they were like, ‘It is really fun, and you need to go to Executive Board, Legislature, and University (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
When utilization a qualitative approach the generalization of findings beyond the members interviewed are not possible, and readers will have to determine the degree to which the conclusions and implications may be applicable to their own context (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Based on these findings and within the context of the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), control beliefs appeared to have a greater impact on the intent of senior 4-H members to stay in the organization than did normative or behavioral beliefs (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Youth were either discouraged or prevented from dropping out of 4-H by their parents (Ellison & Harder, 2019). This parallels previous research suggesting that parents have a great deal of influence over youth out-of-school time activities (Gill et al., 2010; Hartley, 1983; Maurer & Bokerneir, 1984; Ritchie & Reeler, 1993). From a recruitment and retention perspective, this finding emphasizes the importance of educating parents – particularly mothers – about the importance of positive youth development and the benefits of long-term 4-H membership (Ellison & Harder, 2019)..
This research revealed that most of the interviewed senior 4-H members expressed a desire to drop out of 4-H at some point (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Youth typically experiment with different activities, particularly during the middle school years (Heinsohn & Lewis, 1995). Understanding this need for experimentation among youth, 4-H programs should consider employing more short-term project experiences that allow for such experimentation (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Experiences such as 4-H camps and conferences that 4-H members recalled positively are examples of activities that allow youth to try new things without feeling obligated to commit (Rogers, 2003). Based on this, further exploration of the short-term 4-H SPIN (Special Interest) Club model may prove beneficial to increase engagement of older youth (Ellison & Harder, 2019).
Participants in this study articulated that their 4-H participation was not viewed as a normal choice among their peer groups (Ellison & Harder, 2019). One reason for this may be the use of the community-based club model employed by Florida 4-H, which is conducted independently of the school environment (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Activities available through a youth’s school may be recognized as more normal among peer groups because all youth in the school are exposed to that activity or program (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Increased presence in the school setting may help to normalize 4-H as a youth choice and increase a 4-H member’s intention to remain in 4-H (Ajzen, 1991).
This research reported that all 4-H members interviewed shared positive beliefs about senior-level activities beyond the club and county level (Ellison & Harder, 2019). Local 4-H programs should pay attention to marketing new opportunities during the intermediate 4-H member ages (11–13 years), where 4-H offerings continue to feel new and fresh as a young person advances through the program (Ellison & Harder, 2019). It would also potentially benefit the program if 4-H youth were advised and mentored in such a way that a clear path for advancement in 4-H can be conceptualized.
4-H programs that are deliberate about incorporating strategies such as this, as well as others designed to positively impact behavioral, normative, and control beliefs, are likely to see increased numbers of youth choosing to remain in 4-H through their senior membership years.
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