Measuring youth outcomes from a place of strength

By Katy White, Youth Collaboratory

For over 100 years, the youth development field has predominantly taken a deficit-based approach to youth services. Addressing this period of “storm and stress” in adolescent development by focusing on the things we want to avoid. That’s how we come to have programs and approaches that are focused on things like: avoiding risky behaviors, reducing juvenile delinquency, and eliminating truancy. We clearly know what we DON’T want youth to do…but what CAN they do? And more importantly, what are youth ALREADY doing and how do we foster and grow that?

As we started Youth Collaboratory’s Mentoring+ program, we knew that we wanted to look differently at how we assessed and talked about the experiences of youth and families who participated in our programs. We wanted to start from a place of strength, looking at what is going right in the lives of youth and families, and building resiliency using a strengths-based approach. The Mentoring+ model adheres to the rigorous practitioner standards detailed in the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring (EEPM) 4th Edition, with a special emphasis on enhanced services involving parents/caregivers, structured activities for matches, and on-going mentor training and support. The idea is to use these key enhanced services as a way for staff, mentors, youth, and families to explore the strengths and interests of the youth in a way that would ultimately build protective factors in the life of that youth.

Since 2012, Youth Collaboratory member agencies have served over 4,400 youth in the Mentoring+ program, with an additional 2,000 youth to be served by 2022. These youth participated in over 1,500 activities for matches and for extended family- activities to help them explore their interests such as coding events, paint nights,  fitness events, countless trips to museums and festivals, as well as plenty of games and pizza parties! Over 1,000 families accessed new resources in their community – resources that not only helped the family but also strengthened the relationship between the family and the mentoring program. Lastly, 1,158 mentors completed ongoing training on topics such as positive youth development basics, understanding generational poverty, and helping youth navigate the college process. But more important than any of these numbers, are the 4,400 youth who have seen the value of another caring and supportive adult in their life who says they matter, they have something to offer, and they have a future.

It quickly became clear over the course of the last few years that the M+ model was connecting with programs and with young people and their families using a strengths-based approach, but how could we measure that impact? We needed a method to determine how exactly we were supporting youth to develop these protective factors. Not surprisingly, in a world of programs trying to prevent youth from doing things, most of the evaluation tools for youth programs also focused on what we were helping youth avoid doing. Finding a strength-based outcomes evaluation tool was not an easy task. Our search eventually led us to Dr. Edmond Bowers from Clemson University, who was working with a team to expand on the work of Dr. Richard Lerner and the 5 C’s of positive youth development.

Dr. Lerner believed that we as a field didn’t have the words or the ways to measure the good things that are going on in the lives of youth. Along with a team of researchers, they developed the 5Cs framework – character, competence, confidence, connection, and caring (Dr. Lerner later stated that a young person who is strong in the 5Cs will lead to a 6th C which is Contribution). They demonstrated that when youth are able to explore and develop in these 5 areas, they are able to build strong protective factors that contribute to long-term positive outcomes. Together they explored and tested several measures with youth in the National 4-H program to see if there were variations based on age and developmental differences. What resulted was an 81-measure tool where questions corresponded to one of the 5Cs. This lengthy tool seemed a little daunting to many programs and eventually a 34 measure version was created – Positive Youth Development-Short Form survey – with separate questions for youth ages 6-12 and another for youth ages 13-18. This is the tool we chose to use for the Mentoring+ program.

At the start of each match, we ask youth to complete the PYD survey. We then ask youth to complete the same survey at the 6-month and 12-month mark in their match relationship. When the survey is scored, program staff look not only at a cumulative score, but a score for each of the 5Cs. Breaking it down to this level allows the survey to become a tool that programs can use as a starting point for talking about strengths and interests of the youth. If a youth has a high score in competence, for example, this is something to celebrate, and the match might explore how the youth might build on this strength – maybe they would be interested in tutoring their peers. Or if a youth had a lower score in character, the match might identify things they are interested in, and look for opportunities to do some service learning. Finally, we had a tool that valued youth and their development in the same way we did.

Programs saw the value in asking positive questions, and mentors and youth had a survey that could also help them plan for their match and activities…but what about the actual outcomes? After 3 years of using this tool, 97% of youth participating in the Mentoring+ program increased their protective factors- that is to say- 97% of youth increased in at least 1 of those 5 Cs. That’s 97% of youth who have demonstrated growth in areas associated with positive youth development.

We have known for quite some time that a caring and supportive adult can make a big difference in the lives of young people. Youth Collaboratory’s M+ model has moved the needle on this – confirming what we have long suspected. Starting relationships (and programs) from a place of strength leads to greater positive outcomes for young people, and enhances the skills and capacity of the mentors, program staff, and families who support them.


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