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Effective youth development requires supportive relationships with adults who can recognize a young person’s interests and strengths and use that information to guide them into meaningful endeavors, particularly those related to long-term learning pathways (Barron, Gomez, Pinkard, & Martin, 2014; Barron, Martin, Takeuchi, & Fithian, 2009; Nacu, Martin, Pinkard, & Gray, 2014). Recent reports have also promoted youth agency as an important component of this relationship building; for example, Spencer and Rhodes (2014) have argued that youth-initiated mentoring relationships may be more enduring and supportive in nature, compared with adult-youth relationships that form through other mechanisms. However, relatively little is known about how youth actions contribute to their support networks, particularly in interest-driven areas of learning like digital making, and what challenges exist that may prevent all youth from engaging in such help-seeking.
Our research seeks to fill this gap by highlighting strategies that youth employ to spark or deepen supportive relationships and garner resources for their needs. We introduce the concept of “youth signaling,” defined as actions youth undertake that motivate providers to provide or mobilize resources that may contribute to that young person’s learning pathway. Examples of youth signaling include sharing accomplishments, reaching out for guidance, openly displaying expertise, and networking. Findings come from longitudinal case studies of eight high-school aged youth (Ching, 2016) engaging in interest-driven learning (Edelson & Joseph, 2001) and practice-linked identity building (Nasir & Hand, 2008) connected to digital media making. Focal youth, largely from non-dominant communities, were recruited from afterschool programs affiliated with the Mozilla Hive NYC Learning Network.
We report on two broad types of signaling: open-ended signaling, performed without a provider target in mind and without necessarily intending to generate support; and direct signaling, aimed at a specific provider with the specific goal of garnering support. Both types of signaling led to the accumulation of diverse resources contributing to youth learning pathways, whether that be equipment to support an interest, skill-building help, or a recommendation letter for an internship or college application. However, each form had distinct affordances. Direct signaling had a dimension of reliability in terms of providing “just-in-time” instances of support that youth recognized and valued. Open-ended signaling, by contrast, had the potential benefit of recruiting support from sources not previously identified, as well as support that might not have been imagined as needed or possible by a young person. Also, while prior scholarship indicates that one’s history of interactions with others can affect help-seeking (Colletta, 1987; Stanton-Salazar, 2001), as can modeling of cultural repertoires by parents or others (Lareau, 2011), our analyses suggest other possible mediators. Most notably, we found that support solicitation was a developmental phenomenon. As young people’s practice-linked identities deepened and their understandings of the practice became more precise and detailed, their confidence and determination to signal for support increased as well.
These results can inform a wider dialogue about the design of interventions and additional supports to help all youth—not just those with the “right” preparatory privilege or cultural capital—take full advantage of the support providers in their lives.