A program leader’s ability to build trust with youth is critical in effective project-based programs that serve as interventions to support skill development. However, there is little empirical research on the trust-building process from the perspective of leaders. The current study explores trust-building through semi-structured interviews with twenty-five leaders from thirteen project-based programs serving high-school-age youth. Constant comparative analytic strategies identified four primary approaches to building trust: (1) respecting youth; (2) building rapport with youth; (3) being consistent; and (4) occupying a nuanced adult role in youth’s lives. Despite facing some challenges to building trust, leaders believed they had successfully built trust when youth engaged in specific behaviors. These behavioral indicators of trust were: (a) youth asking more from leaders on their work or challenges in their personal life; (b) youth sharing more with leaders on their opinions, thoughts, or feelings; and (c) youth communicating they were willing to support the program’s mission by going above and beyond program expectations. We conclude by discussing the theoretical implications of the findings and the practical implications as they relate to the youth development field.
The focus of this study was on the trust-building process from the vantage point of adults working at youth programs. From the perspective of leaders, building youth’s trust involved: (1) respecting youth, (2) building rapport with youth, (3) being consistent, and (4) occupying a nuanced adult role(s) in youth’s lives. While there were some challenges to building or maintaining youth’s trust, leaders reported being able to detect whether youth grew trust in them when they noted: (a) the youth increasingly asking for help on work or other areas of life; (b) the youth increasingly sharing opinions, thoughts, and/or feelings about the project or their life; or (c) the youth communicating a willingness to help with activities that benefit the program.
There are a number of applications this exploratory model can have for the youth development field. One big takeaway from this study is that building trust involves balancing a number of different approaches and that there may be challenges that arise. This suggests that there would be value in having a professional learning community in which leaders discuss specific ways they engage in each approach, how they balance these approaches, and how they resolve challenges faced. Professional conversations that reflect on building trust can reveal the techniques that come naturally to some leaders, have been developed by experienced leaders, and can be utilized by novice leaders. This study’s findings could also be used to develop a self-reflection tool for a leader to journal about interactions with a youth who they may be having a more difficult time building trust. In the self-reflection tool leaders could reflect on their efforts to be respectful, build rapport, be consistent, or occupy a nuanced adult role with the youth; indications from that youth on whether trust has developed; and naming specific challenges faced with this participant.