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5 tips for continuous youth program improvement

By Betsy Olson

CC BY-SA 2.0, Katy Warner
Continuous improvement seems to be the new normal. Each year, funders, stakeholders and youth participants expect our programs to grow and strengthen, not to mention our own high expectations as youth workers. One tool in our tool box to help our programs continue to build and improve is interactive evaluation or feedback mechanisms.

Youth program quality assessments have started the discussion on continuous improvement, but specific and systematic mechanisms for implementing continuous improvement are still lacking. Survey fatigue and evaluation overload prevent programs from getting robust feedback from their program participants. However, interactive program elements that allow program staff to solicit feedback from participants in concrete manageable ways enliven rather than exhaust the young people we serve.

Here are five tips for continuous improvement and making collecting feedback from young people meaningful:

  1. Communicate program/activity goals to youth consistently

    Generalized feedback can occasionally help us make program improvements. However, when participants understand the goals and objectives of program elements we can collect feedback that is informed and influenced by the outcomes we are trying to reach. This informed feedback much more frequently leads to meaningful program improvements.

  2. More small-group work

    We often think we have to get feedback from every participant if we want to show the group that we care about their input. However, we often then end up collecting feedback from participants who do not really care about or have passion for that program element. If we can instead gather a small group that is passionate about that element and ask them to make meaningful decisions about that program element, the rest of the participants see that youth voice is making meaningful change. This is creates significantly more engagement than collecting feedback from everyone and sorting through everyone’s opinions behind the scenes.

  3. Regular check-ins and wrap-ups

    Ensure that participants know that they have an outlet to express their thoughts, opinions and concerns in a safe way. Provide a regular system for checking in with your participants on the program. You can incorporate reflection activities or simply ask a consistent closing/opening question. If problems or concerns with the program come up, have a mechanism for checking back in on that concern. Don’t let every opinion direct your program, but don’t let concerns go unaddressed, either.

  4. Put youth in charge

    Who said evaluation had to be solely a staff responsibility? Coming up with creative ways to gather the opinions of their peers provides a leadership opportunity for youth leaders. It can also put them in a great position to steer the improvements the feedback reveals are needed.

  5. Mutual accountability

    If both youth participants and adult leaders feel accountable for the outcome of program elements and hold each other accountable, both groups will feel compelled to consider program improvements. Creating an atmosphere of mutual accountability takes work to empower, engage and recognize participants. Youth and adults must both understand their roles clearly. However, when you can achieve mutual accountability, the process of engaging people in change becomes a natural part of the package.
-- Betsy Olson, Extension educator

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  1. Betsy I appreciate the post and especially the key points about consistently communicating key outcome and goals to the young people, as well as involving a small group in a key way. At what age do you think these 2 elements can be utilized? most appropriate for ages 12 and up? or possible for the 2nd-5th grade set also? What would be some elements to consider if trying to do these with younger youth, or a very mixed aged group? Thanks for the easy-to-considerideas.

  2. Hi Anne,
    Great question. I would consider sharing outcomes and goals with all school-age youth. Pointing out what the end goal even with those early elementary age youth is a great way set group expectations early. It will typically be more motivating to young people once they reach middle school and are more developmentally ready to consider future planning. Small group work is a great way to get passionate youth working on a project at any age. The expectations of how much the small group can accomplish will, of course, increase as the membership gets older and develops more leadership and responsibility. What are your experiences with using small planning groups and communicating key outcomes?

  3. I was searching for a project to implement for my youths in my country.I believe this is one of the best..especialy YTY program.I m planing to start work on this for my youths.thank you.

  4. Hi Betsy,

    I see that this blog is from 2016. I'm writing with the hope that you are still in an extension educator position and can provide some feedback and advice. I am pursuing a position similar to yours and am in the research stage of how I can attract new youth and volunteers to the existing youth programs in my community. What can you suggest to strengthen our local youth programs and encourage engagement among youth and volunteers?
    Thanks in advance!
    Cassandra Girling

    1. Hi Cassandra,
      Great questions! Initial recruitment and engagement is all about meeting a need for youth and volunteers. Matching your program to what young people are seeking. Depending on the age category of the youth you are trying to recruit that can vary. I recommend engaging with youth in the community you want to target to hear their needs and building from there. If it is obvious to them that this is a program that will respond to their passions and interests they will buy in.

      I also recommend this blog post about volunteer recruitment ideas.

      Do these suggestions fit your context? Please feel free to reach out again if this doesn't fit what you need!

  5. Hi Betsy,
    My name is Cassandra Girling. I am pursuing a position similar to yours where I would help develop and grow the youth programs in my community. What advice can you give to attract new youth and volunteers to the programs already in place? What are some strategies to reach a diverse population? Thanks in advance!
    Cassandra Girling

    1. Volunteer.
      Reach others through social media.
      Participate in online compaign.
      Join a youth organization.
      Inspiring young people.

    2. Make a youth organization in which youth will participate and share their ideas
      for the betterment of country.


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