Evaluation of the psychological outcomes of a residential youth leadership program

Edwards-Hart, T 2012, Evaluation of the psychological outcomes of a residential youth leadership program, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Health Sciences, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Evaluation of the psychological outcomes of a residential youth leadership program
Author(s) Edwards-Hart, T
Year 2012
Abstract The Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) is a training program for young people run by Rotary worldwide. In Rotary District 9790, near Melbourne, Australia, RYLA is a 7-day conference for young adults aged 18-30. Anecdotal evidence from past participants describes it as a lifechanging event. Yet, despite its 50-year history, little is known about what changes may occur, the theoretical explanations for those changes or their potential implications for leadership development and positive psychology. One key concern is whether RYLA does, in fact, develop leadership. While there are numerous leadership theories that could be considered, most can be described in terms of trait or behavioural theories. Hence, to effect leadership change, RYLA must change enduring personal characteristics (traits) or the functional behaviours used by participants. However, it is also possible that RYLA is a personal development program with no measurable effect on leadership. Since no comparable programs have been previously investigated, and RYLA is not based on an identifiable theory that can be tested, an exploratory mixed-methods research program was developed to identify the key changes for participants following RYLA. The research incorporated four studies using a fully mixed, sequential design with concurrent components.

To identify the key themes of change during RYLA, the first study invited recent RYLArians from District 9790 to participate in two focus groups. Eight participants (3 female) met to discuss their experiences before, during and after RYLA in discussions moderated by an independent facilitator. Subsequent thematic analysis of the transcripts identified the three constructs most likely to change as confidence (interpreted as General Self-Efficacy [GSE]), sense of meaning in life, and the personality factor of Openness to Experience.

For Study 2, a participant observation study, I attended the entire week of RYLA in District 9790 in December 2009. As observer-as-participant, my research role was disclosed to RYLArians by Rotary in advance, and was in addition to my existing role as a paid Facilitator to run adventure-based “Leadership Challenges” on specific days of the conference. Other activities throughout the week included lectures, group discussions, juggling, roleplays and project management tasks. I noted the high levels of support that developed between participants and their corresponding willingness engage with challenging experiences. “Challenge” was a common theme throughout the week. Content that appeared to be frequently referred to by RYLArians included using body posture to influence mood (consistent with embodied emotion theories. e.g., Niedenthal, 2007), along with awareness of the chatter of “the inner critic” (consistent with therapeutic approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. e.g., Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson,1999). Practicing self-awareness and emotional regulation were integral to several sessions and, along with challenge and support, seemed key elements of the week.

Study 3 used a quantitative survey to measure change in the constructs identified in Study 1. Of the 26 RYLArians in 2009, 24 (13 female) participated in the study. Based on the results of Study 1, it was hypothesised that GSE (measured with the General Self-Efficacy Scale; Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995), Meaning (Orientations to Happiness Scale; Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005), and Openness (Australian Personality Inventory; Murray et al., 2009) would all increase following RYLA. In exploratory analyses, other constructs were also assessed for change: pleasure and engagement; all five personality factors; and Satisfaction with Life (Satisfaction with Life Scale; Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985). Compared to baseline measures, there were significant increases at 4-month follow-up in GSE, t(18) = -5.61, p < .001, d = -1.287; Meaning, t(18) = -3.10, p = .006, d = -0.711; and Openness, t(17) = -3.98, p = .001, d = -0.937. All remaining variables, except Conscientiousness and Satisfaction With Life, showed significant change at follow-up. The significant effects all suggested positive life change and could not be explained by regression to the mean.

To check interpretation of results, Study 4 incorporated anonymous qualitative responses (provided by 19 of the 24 participants) on the survey used in Study 3 and a focus group consisting of eight RYLArians (three female) from 2009. The data from Study 1 were included as a further step to check for common themes across years. When asked, participants strongly endorsed the constructs of GSE, meaning and openness. Thematic analysis indicated some support for decreased Neuroticism and increased Extraversion, as reported in Study 3, and the importance of support and challenge, as noted in Study 2. Participants emphasised the importance of not knowing the content of RYLA, or other participants, prior to the week.

The four exploratory studies indicate that the RYLArians demonstrated clear increases in GSE, Meaning and Openness, with similar increases in Engagement, Pleasure, Extraversion and Agreeableness and a decrease in Neuroticism. The latter was illustrated by descriptions of enhanced emotional regulation. With previous research suggesting links between both Openness and emotional regulation and leadership, it appears that RYLA is an effective leadership education program. While further research is required to replicate and verify results, some initial theoretical implications are considered. Mechanisms for increasing GSE are suggested, and tentative links between changing GSE and personality variables are explored. Pillemer’s (2001) observation that landmark events in early adulthood form ongoing reference points to guide behaviour may help explain the continuing effect of RYLA and provides a lens for interpreting the importance of novelty and challenge throughout the week. From the perspective of cultivating learning environments (Little, 1975; Outhred & Chester, 2010) it is possible that support and challenge represent the key aspects of effective change environments. To integrate the four studies, results were interpreted in light of Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Taken together, the results suggest RYLArians are happier, more open and more self-aware. RYLA, at least in Rotary District 9790, is a positive life-changing experience.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Health Sciences
Keyword(s) leadership development
positive psychology
RYLA
mixed methods
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