Youth Worker Reasoning about Dilemmas Encountered in Practice: Expert-Novice Differences

Kathrin C. Walker, Reed W. Larson


This study examines one aspect of youth worker expertise, the ability to appraise and respond to the dilemmas of practice encountered in youth programs. To understand how expert youth workers differ from novices in their reasoning about these dilemmas, a sample of expert and novice practitioners read vignettes of dilemma situations and described their appraisals of the situations and how they might respond to them. Quantitative analyses confirmed four hypothesized differences between the two groups. Experts identified more considerations in the situations and generated more possible responses. Experts’ responses were also more likely to be youth-centered and address multiple considerations. Qualitative analyses suggested that these differences were attributable to the experts having more elaborate mental models that allowed them to understand varied human systems – individual youth, group dynamics, parents, funders, etc. – and to tailor their responses accordingly. The experts engaged in more forecasting of events, anticipating contingencies, and formulating decision trees that took possible contingencies into account. Although preliminary, the findings have implications for how youth workers are trained.

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