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YFE TIG Week: A positive youth development (PYD) approach to engaging young people in research & evaluation by Sarah Jonson

Hi, I’m Sarah Jonson (Technical Advisor for Youth Agency and Engagement, IYF). At IYF, engaging young people across the project life cycle, from activity design to measurement, evaluation, research and learning (MERL), is one way we practice inclusion and honor our commitment to youth engagement and youth-led evaluation. To ensure youth participation is meaningful, we take a Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach to building young people’s assets and agency, make sure they have opportunities to contribute to decision-making, and emphasize the creation of a positive enabling environment.  

Sarah Jonson headshot

One project that highlights how we do this is the Kiongozi Fellowship, a six-month activity that supported nine young Tanzanians (Fellows) to conduct primary and secondary research on youth livelihood and engagement models. Their work resulted in case studies that informed the donor’s Youth Policy and a multi-stakeholder public dissemination event that brought together young people, government, and youth-serving organizations. 

Hot Tips:

  • Develop a skills training and mentorship plan and tweak it as you go—Following an orientation to the project, Fellows participated in three workshops to build the necessary skills to complete their research, prepare case studies, and engage with the donor and key stakeholders.  Training focused on leadership and collaboration; research and reporting; and human-centered design and systems thinking. Using a strengths-based approach, we assessed and incorporated what skills and experience Fellows had already and used feedback loops to iteratively assess which areas they felt stronger or weaker in to adapt content and dosage. That led us to, for example, spend more time supporting Fellows to edit their case studies rather than on how to use social media to collect data.  
  • Consistently emphasize community building—Creating an enabling environment for youth-led research and evaluation requires time and commitment for youth participants and project support staff to get to know and appreciate each other, bond over shared experiences, and establish pro-social norms. This should be in place from the start and adapted as you go. Project staff should identify how they will express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities and youth participants should be supported to establish and grow relationships with their peers. 
  • Practice good communication skills—An important part of being an effective researcher is presenting findings effectively. That’s why our training plan emphasized effective and clear writing, public speaking, and storytelling. Through participatory learning sessions, iterative written and in-person feedback, and peer-led feedback on pitching their ideas in compelling ways, Fellows developed skills and confidence presenting their analysis in a safe space before presenting to donor and local government authorities. 
  • Engage youth as partners along the way—Young people often cite activity design as the phase in which they have the least opportunities to participate.  Fellows were responsible for selecting their own research topics—those most important to them—to develop and manage their workplans and budgets, and design and facilitate the co-design workshop and dialogue events.  

Rad Resources:

  • Youth Programming Assessment Tool (YPAT)at the end of the project, Fellows evaluated the model and their experience with the YPAT. The tool is easy to adapt and deploy, and all the skill and relationship building paid off in creating a safe space for candid reflection.    

Lessons Learned:

Provide PYD training to youth and adults alike! Youth research fellows, project and donor staff participated in IYF’s two-day Foundations of PYD course at the outset. For staff, this set the expectation to engage Fellows and respect their work and contributions. For Fellows, this helped them set expectations for their engagement and gave them the knowledge they needed to integrate elements of PYD into the programmatic recommendations they made.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Youth Focused Evaluation (YFE) TIG Week with our colleagues in the YFE Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our YFE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 thought on “YFE TIG Week: A positive youth development (PYD) approach to engaging young people in research & evaluation by Sarah Jonson”

  1. Thank you for this post on engaging young people in research and evaluation. I am particularly interested in how to encourage youth to participate in offering feedback and evaluating the supports offered through the guidance department within Ontario high schools. I am a guidance department lead and so I am often looking for feedback and ways to improve our services. We offer students course selection support, pathway planning, educational and socioemotional support. Each year we ask graduates to complete a survey and we try to use the data to drive new initiatives, change the ones we offer or lay to rest some of the programs we offer. One of the articles you cite states that “youth voices are frequently absent from critical first steps: problem analysis and solution identification” (Lindsay et al, 2021). In response to that, I hope to figure out a way that we can include youth in the development of the evaluation assessment itself and have them offer insight on solutions.

    I appreciate the summary of guiding questions to incorporate the positive youth development (PYD) approach. If we want youth to contribute in meaningful ways then we need to build into our organizations some skill building opportunities, provide an enabling environment and create a safe environment (Lindsay et al, 2021). Based on the hot tips you provided I can appreciate the intentionality and the time it takes to implement the PYD approach to any organization. What would you suggest for schools or organizations who would like to take steps towards this approach but are guarded by the school day structure and Ministry guidelines. Have you read about or been a part of high schools guidance departments who have had success in creating a structure that appoints youth as equal partners in the decision making process and solution identification?


    Lindsay, J. E., McGarry, S., Satmukhambetova, A., Raymond, K., Lesheve, A., Jonson, S., Neeno, H., & Williams, C. (2021). Integrating positive youth development: Insights from international youth development programming. Journal of Youth Development. Retrieved November 13, 2021, from https://jyd.pitt.edu/ojs/jyd/article/view/21-16-%282-3%29-SIA-02.

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