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YFE TIG Week: The Importance of Empathy in Youth Focused Evaluations by Monica Coleman, Shannon Sharp and Moira Ragan

Greetings! This is Monica Coleman at the Center for Research Evaluation (CERE) and doctoral student in Counselor Education and Supervision at the University of Mississippi. I am joined by my colleagues Shannon Sharp and Moira Ragan, evaluation associates at CERE.

We are sharing our thoughts on using empathy—the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings—during evaluations involving youth, particularly those ages 12-18. Ever notice how youth often share and express deep, strong emotions about programs and projects that impact their lives? Why is that? And what is our responsibility as evaluators working with youth given this phenomenon?

A Personal, Passionate Choice

Youth are more engaged when programs are personally impactful and action-provoking. Though we are working to change the narrative around compensation for youth involved in evaluation work, youth are often underpaid, if paid at all, in this work. Thus, their motivation for getting involved is often intrinsic—based on internal factors such as how they feel about a project or program.

Consider Anatomy

The development of the brain during adolescence gives insight into how emotions drive youth at this age. The part of the brain that helps us recognize feelings or emotions rapidly develops during adolescence. Evaluators working with adolescents must be mindful that youth typically experience a variety of emotions about a lot of things because of the order in which the brain develops. 

Additionally, we—evaluators—often ask questions that provoke emotions as we seek to understand value, meaning and efficacy as a part of the evaluative process.

Hot Tips: 

  • While working with youth throughout the evaluative process, we can be empathetic by utilizing emotional checkpoints to normalize conversations about feelings. 
  • Using basic attending skills while interacting with youth can validate their emotions. Some attending skills are nonverbal, such as using eye contact and mirroring body language. Others focus on verbal communication, such as restating what someone shared and asking questions to seek clarity. Be sure any skills you use are culturally appropriate.

Consider Psychosocial Development

Let’s shift from anatomy to psychosocial development milestones impacting adolescents. According to Erik Erikson, adolescence is a time when youth are exploring their identity and work on “finding themselves.” Thus, adolescents’ experiences during evaluative work may shape thoughts about who they are and what they are capable of achieving.

Further, adolescents start developing their own set of values, which may deviate from those learned in childhood. Values-oriented evaluative work presents great opportunities for youth to explore and express their own values while those methods and strategies focused on objectivity can create dissonance for youth. 

Hot Tips:

  • Ask youth how they would like to contribute to the evaluation, rather than having preset roles, to support their identity exploration.
  • Keep in mind that young people working with you need to be heard, seen and understood throughout the evaluative process, regardless of their role. Use methods and strategies that can facilitate this and foster safe spaces for youth to share values and question anything, including the purpose of the evaluation itself.
  • Engage youth as early as possible in the evaluation process.

In summary, it is necessary to use empathy while working with youth during an evaluation as adolescents’ emotions dominate at this stage in their development. Empathy allows us to better understand young people as we listen, see their passion and intent, uplift their narratives and honor the many roles and responsibilities they fulfill in evaluative work. 

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: The Importance of Empathy in Youth Focused Evaluations by Monica Coleman, Shannon Sharp and Moira Ragan”

  1. It makes me so happy to see the inclusion and consideration of adolescents’ emotions and contributions in another field of study. As an educator, this is at the forefront of all the work we do and didn’t even cross my mind that the field of evaluation theory would also identify this as a priority. As I am just learning about the evaluation field, I assumed that this was an adult-dominated field where the evaluation of programs directly affecting youth would be more of a collection of data and statistics identified by the adults in charge of the youth to determine if the outcomes were being met. I almost feel foolish that the thought of including youth in the evaluation process never crossed my mind.

    Of course, it made sense to survey students on their experiences with a particular program as a means of data collection, but why not include them in the process right from the beginning as well? I recently read an article by Wiess that echoes your idea to “engage youth as early as possible in the evaluation process.” Weiss makes the case for collaboration between evaluators and the program organization throughout the entire process to ensure the findings will be used by the organization.

    If that organization includes and serves youth, then obviously they should be part of that collaboration as well. As a teacher, I know that youth are often more creative, more open-minded, and experts on themselves than the adults who support them and thus they would be a great asset to an evaluation. Our role as adults, as you identify in this article, is to encourage and support their emotions, help them clarify their values, and create a safe space for them to share – exactly what we try to do in the field of education!

    Thank you for sharing these important insights with your colleagues!

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