YFE TIG Week: You(th) Matter: A Collaborative, Youth-focused, Community-Involved Inquiry about Mental Health and Well-being by Christina Koumoutsidis and Charlotte Schwass

Hello Evaluators! Hello Evaluators! Our names are Christina Koumoutsidis and Charlotte Schwass and we are two research assistants part of a group of educational evaluators. We are writing to share our experiences collaborating with youth on a school-community mental health and well-being (MHWB) inquiry.

For the past three years, we have been involved in an evolving inquiry focused on MHWB program planning and evaluation. As a provincially funded program, school districts hired mental health professionals to increase MHWB support in schools and MHWB connectedness to the community. Data revealed that youth wanted to be more involved, therefore, the inquiry expanded to include youth leadership. The most recent year involved a core group of youth leaders working with school mental health professionals and an evaluation team to plan, champion, and evaluate a MHWB inquiry. The focus was on increasing and distributing capacity across the district, with each school hosting a youth-led MHWB team. Teams attended MHWB learning sessions, established goals, and planned initiatives. In this post, we reflect on the successes, challenges, and offer some hot tips for those seeking to engage with youth.

Successes:

  • Youth leadership opportunities included both district and school roles, which created accessible, growth focused opportunities.
  • Learning is reciprocal because students serve as leaders, facilitators, and liaisons with their peers and with us. Students offered voice and experience to further understand how and what students are interested in learning while building connections and activating learning for themselves and others. 
  • Technological fluidity was demonstrated by student leaders and embraced by the inquiry team.  Selected platforms were supported by the team (e.g. Zoom, Jamboard) and students suggested platforms to fit their goals (e.g. Microsoft Forms, Instagram). The technological fluidity meant that youth were able to communicate about the MHWB inquiry with ease and frequency.
  • The multi-faceted nature of our team was imperative to the success of our inquiry. The team was composed of students, mental health professionals, educational leaders, community members, and external evaluators – who possessed different experiences and skills that allowed for learning, difficult conversations, and growth. 

Challenges: 

  • Scheduling and inconsistent schooling due to COVID-19 played a complicating role. A priority was always the youth, ensuring they could participate but would not miss class time and could meet their other commitments.
  • Motivation, in a multi-year project which spanned COVID-19, also presented a barrier, making it paramount to sustain motivation. We required flexibility and creativity throughout the project, as well as a sense of purpose to sustain the MHWB inquiry with many external challenges. 
  • Balancing the need for strategic planning with responsiveness to the inquiry was another challenge. Ultimately, youth involved spoke effusively about the supportive nature of the collaboration and the importance of flexibility.  

 Hot Tips:

  • A shared vision is essential. Having explicit conversations about why people were participating in the inquiry and what they are hoping to gain allowed us to orient our work together.
  • Relationships are key. Ensure that youth have mentors as they move along in planning and implementation. These mentors can listen, provide guidance, remove barriers, and ask questions to support the youth and the inquiry. 
  • Prioritize opportunities for connection. Youth need to be able to work with one another and communicate with others. We used small group conversations to encourage connectedness.

Recognize and build on strengths within the group. Every person involved in our inquiry brought talents and perspectives that enabled our MHWB inquiry. For instance, student knowledge on social media was far more advanced, allowing for growth within the project.

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.

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