Cheri Hoffman on Youth-Led Evaluation

I’m Cheri Hoffman, a program evaluator with Centerstone Research Institute in Nashville, Tennessee, evaluating two System of Care grants for children’s mental health. The values of a System of Care demand that the entire process, including the evaluation, be youth-guided. We recently trained selected members of the program’s youth council in research and program evaluation skills using the “Stepping Stones” curriculum by Youth in Focus. The youth then created a performance aimed at “Stomping Out the Stigma of Mental Illness” and measured the impact that performance had on people’s perceptions of youth with a mental health diagnosis using a pre- and post-survey and a focus group.

The week-long experience was eye opening on many levels. The quality of the work that was produced far exceeded our expectations in many ways. Here are some of the lessons we learned:

Hot Tip – Trust the Process: Young people are capable of much more than we tend to believe. As we taught the Stepping Stones curriculum, the youth went much deeper much faster than we expected. They were able to identify root causes (lack of early screening, discrimination, the need for education, not enough parent and youth involvement) of the issue they focused on (stigma of mental illness). As a result the youth left the week with not only new skills and a successful research project under their belts, but also with a clear direction for future youth-led action research and evaluation.

Hot Tip – Be Flexible: The young people we worked with have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives. Many of them had ADD or ADHD. Putting nine youth with attention difficulties in a room for 8 hours a day might not have been the best way to approach this task (although it worked)! It demanded that we be flexible with the way we approached the subject matter. Make sure the techniques you use are relevant for your youth. If something isn’t working, scrap it and try a different approach.

Rad Resource: Youth in Focus has an excellent curriculum for training young people in youth-led action research and program evaluation. Find out more at

Rad Resource: The Institute for Participatory Action Research and Design did a project with youth called Echoes of Brown that was the inspiration for the project and performance that we created. For more information, you can email them at or see more about Echoes of Brown at

Rad Resource: Kim Sabo Flores has the best book out there on the topic, called Youth Participatory Evaluation:  Strategies for Engaging Young People.*

*Youth Participatory Evaluation is published by Jossey-Bass, an AEA publishing partner. AEA members receive 20% off on this title when ordered directly from the publisher – just sign in to the AEA website at and select Publications Discount Codes from the Members Only menu.

1 thought on “Cheri Hoffman on Youth-Led Evaluation”

  1. I am working on a youth PAR project and your tips are right on. The youth I’m partnering with went deeper faster than I predicted and I think identified the issues facing them much more honestly than most adults. We also had to be very flexible in the schedule and work at a pace that fit them where they were at, rather than a fixed schedule. Skip breaks if they were on a role (at their urging), take longer breaks when they were worn out. Thanks for sharing this.

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