When it comes to understanding the experiences of young people in schools and programs it’s important to give youth a voice. By asking young people about their experiences within your school or program, you not only gain insights on how to create the type of relationship-rich environments that help young people thrive but also an opportunity for shared meaning-making in which you are actively listening and responding to the feedback and experiences that young people are sharing.

Driving Impact

Youth-serving organizations and schools are grappling with defining what they need to measure, from whom, and for what purpose. This is often in service of specific evaluation questions, but many are taking this further by asking critical questions about how this information will be used to improve their practice and how others will be engaged in that meaning-making process. 

Much of Search Institute’s measurement work emphasizes areas that are more subjective than a standardized test score. We create reliable and valid measures to help elevate and understand how young people and practitioners feel about the organizational climate, their relationships with each other, and their perceptions of their skills, strengths, and web of relationships. As believers of the concept that “we are experts of our own experiences,” we place great emphasis on subsequent meaning-making activities to provide the context that underlies the numbers and the direction for moving forward.

What Can Surveys Capture?

Youth surveys can provide a greater understanding of what young people experience when they engage with adults in the classroom and youth-serving spaces. When collecting data, it’s important to ensure the purpose is communicated and that the data is used in a way that respects the time and honors the perspectives of those who participated. Collecting data with no plan to fully understand how it can be used can result in questionable data quality now and in the future. The value of surveys and data collection comes from meaning-making activities and responsiveness to the insights provided. 

Understanding young people’s experiences with Developmental Relationships, Developmental Assets, social capital, and other critical areas, can help map an organization’s journey to improve its relational climate and advance equity.

A Guided Approach to Improvement

An improvement mindset to drive impact requires gathering information about the experiences of young people and staff, reflecting, and then acting on the knowledge. This means addressing challenges by making small, measurable, and feasible changes to your approach and practice. This won’t be an easy task, but it will be rewarding! False starts, misunderstandings, and bumps in the road may occur along the way because improvement is not a linear process. To ease the work and support the potential mindset shifts, we recommend a guided approach to how organizations focus on impact with an improvement mindset, which is grounded in data and supported by a series of key activities approaching each stage as a journey. 

The guided approach has four stages.

  • Prepare is when the purpose and intent are defined, and stakeholders learn and identify ways to elevate youth and staff voices with an improvement mindset approach to the work. This should include building an understanding of what you’re measuring, cultivating an improvement mindset in your organization, understanding how a survey can be a powerful tool for elevating youth voice, and exploring the survey itself.
  • Implement is when we work together with organizations to help them see the work they are already doing, the work they want to be doing, and the types of measurements that can support that work. This stage is when organizations build out their measurement strategy and begin to implement it. This includes planning and building out your survey based on what you need to measure, communicating and building support for the survey within your organization, and conducting your survey – essentially discovering what actions to take to successfully administer the survey.
  • Reflect is when organizations, and individuals within organizations, take what they are learning from the data and have conversations about what it means in that context. When organizations work with Search Institute, we lead them through focused conversations where we examine data using the ORID process: going through data from an Objective level, Reflective level, Interpretive level, and Decisional level. During this stage, it is critical to involve other stakeholders. For example, how do we bring families or parenting adults into these conversations? How do we share data with them? 
  • Act is the final stage in the journey. This is when organizations have gathered insights, had meetings and conversations, and have made meaning of the data. Then it’s time to turn the data into action plans. What are the goals we’re setting? What do we want to do differently to meet those goals? However, this isn’t the end of the journey. There are more destinations to be discovered. To continue seeing improvements, you should continue to repeat these steps to see continual growth within your organization and among the young people you serve.

Unpacking the ‘Why’

Too often organizations collect data but don’t use it to effect change. By being intentional throughout the entire process, from preparation through acting, we find that organizations are far more likely to use the data in meaningful ways — to use the data to support the “why.” Why are we doing the things we do? What can we do differently? 

Acting on data has two basic components. One is determining how to bring the data and insights into a structured process that is grounded in continuous improvement principles. We hope that organizations will drill deep into the data and identify why they are seeing the results they see. What is the problem of practice? What are young people experiencing that you want to address? These types of questions help map out change ideas they are willing to try. 

Another aspect of this action is the reassessment. Once you implement a change plan, you’ll need to understand if you achieved the growth you were hoping for. If not, maybe the approach needs to be adjusted or reconsidered. 

Applying an Equity Lens

Equity figures into every phase of data use, from designing the instrument to collecting the data, to how you share and use the data. Once data are available, it involves looking at the general experiences of young people and identifying where those experiences have outliers. Where are these factors being experienced differently—in terms of cultural responsiveness of the environment and the relational quality between youth and adults? 

For example, if Black girls in 9th grade are expressing concerns about their relationships with their educators, we need to think about why. Why is their experience different from their peers? We know that 9th grade is a critical transition year for most, and can influence their engagement beyond that single year, so it’s of utmost importance to understand these experiences, and what’s driving them. Of course, any time we discuss equity, we need to engage those young people in the solution and identify what is driving those responses on the survey. Young people can provide valuable context that is missing from survey data so it is imperative that the survey is used to inform direction, but that it is not the end of the process. Meaning-making conversations in the form of interviews or focus groups, specifically to help us understand what’s happening in this transitional year and why. What can staff do differently? How can the organization create space for you to get to know educators and practitioners better?

Bringing the Journey to Life: Social Capital

Social capital are the resources that arise from a web of relationships that young people can use as they pursue their life goals. The entire web of relationships– including peers, family members, teachers, and others–matters. Different relationships within the web can offer different types of resources and opportunities that may be valuable to a young person during different stages of their life or as they work towards different goals.

Supporting youth in building and strengthening their social capital requires an intentional and inclusive focus on relationships that is fully integrated into what an organization or school already does. Schools and youth-serving organizations that do this work well are social capital-promoting organizations.

The Youth Opportunity Toolkit outlines the guided approach, including tools and additional resources to make meaning and drive impact. 

Empowering Change Makers Through Actionable Insights

Data collection tools like Search Institute’s surveys provide an equitable way to bring all voices into the conversation. Clear purpose and goals, valid and reliable measures, elevating the voices of both young people and staff, and a proven approach are all key elements (or building blocks) needed to focus on improvement to drive impact and help all youth thrive.

Moving data into action means listening to those voices and using those insights to embark on a guided approach that can lead to more equitable and thriving youth. 

Resources for Your Journey

The following resources are helpful for connecting useful data with action in classrooms and programs.

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