Research Summary

Evaluating Youth Development Programs: Progress and Promise

2016

Evaluating Youth Development Programs: Progress and Promise

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YouthREX Research Summaries ask Just Six Questions of research publications on key youth issues. These summaries get at what the youth sector needs to know in two pages or less!

1. What was this research about?
Positive youth development (PYD) theory and research has informed youth work since the 1990s. This research draws on the past 20 years of youth program evaluation and research to examine efficacy and outcome claims ascribed to PYD programs. The purpose of this research review is to provide evidence-based recommendations for the future of youth development program research and evaluation. The researchers highlight the importance of factoring contextual information into claims about the effectiveness of PYD programs. The researchers describe a range of contextual factors that they feel should be included in PYD program evaluation and research.

2. Where did the research take place?
The scope of the literature review is international. The primary research under review took place in the United States.

3. Who is this research about?
This research is about youth workers who may act as researchers, practitioners, and policymakers, concerned with improving the lives of youth through the evaluation of youth developmental programs. This research therefore concerns all youth and adolescents that participate in and are affected by youth developmental programs in their communities.

“The widespread acceptance of the benefits of youth development programs has propelled researchers to declare that the field is ready to move forward from the basic question of ‘does it work’ to more complex questions, such as ‘why’ and ‘what works best for whom'” (p. 191).

4. How was this research done?
A systematic and comprehensive review of adolescent development and positive youth development research was conducted for this article, utilizing North American and international sources. Existing theories and studies were reviewed in order to understand how this field of research has progressed over time. The changes within youth development research and programs are then categorized chronologically into three groups: Version 1.0 (studies through the mid-1980s), Version 2.0 (studies through the mid-2010s), and Version 3.0 (the future phase of research). The advances and gaps of Version 1.0 and 2.0 are identified and discussed, leading the researchers to provide evidence-based recommendations for Version 3.0.

5. What are the key findings?
There is disagreement between researchers on what is and what is not a youth development program, significantly affecting the types of programs being evaluated and the guiding principles on what makes a good program. Determining a standardized definition of a youth development program and systematically studying the defining characteristics of such programs may resolve this inconsistency. Further, there is a need for an increase of evaluation data on youth development program processes, with consideration given to program quality.

This research highlights the importance of understanding how youth development programs can be designed effectively for all youth, as youth participate and have differing experiences for various reasons. This will result in more evidence-based advanced program design, implementation, and evaluation advances. The researchers argue that Version 3.0 evaluations should include methods and measures that examine the social and developmental contexts within youth development programs. Developmental research has demonstrated that an increase in positive youth outcomes does not necessarily lead to a decrease in negative youth outcomes; therefore, this provides a rationale for prevention and promotion approaches to coexist within youth development programming, rather than compete.

6. Why does it matter for youth work?
These findings demonstrate that youth workers can design higher quality programs by intentionally teaching life skills in their programs. Intentionally designed programs provide greater opportunities for active engagement and skill-building (supportive environment), collaboration with adults and peers (collaboration), leadership skills, and engaging youth in planning and intentional reflection (engagement).

Sport programs offer a unique environment that has the potential to develop both physical and psychosocial skills if structured appropriately. Therefore, youth sport programmers should intentionally incorporate youth development strategies into their practice and ensure that youth have opportunities to practice life skills. Additional training and information are needed on this topic for youth sports programmers at institutional and administrative levels so that more youth can benefit from high-quality programs that foster life skills.

Roth, J. L., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2016). Evaluating youth development programs: Progress and promise. Applied Developmental Science, 20(3), 188-202.

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