“This program changed my life, to put it most simply. And I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t take part in this program when I did.”
“This program has changed my life for the better. I am so much more confident and happier! It’s amazing.”
“Without this program I wouldn’t be who I am today. There is a strong trust and confidentiality in the group and it’s amazing.”
– Participants in a teen healthy relationships program

These comments from participants in a teen healthy relationships program represent the kind of feedback all program providers would be thrilled to hear. To know that the work you are doing with young people to prevent harms and to promote their wellbeing is having such a positive impact is intensely satisfying and rewarding.

But how to know that your youth prevention program will have this kind of positive impact? There are no guarantees, but there is an increasing amount of evidence available about what successful programming for youth looks like.

The literature on prevention programming for youth, for instance, includes a number of publications that identify core principles for effective program design and delivery. One of the most helpful of these, in my opinion, is Principles for Effective Family and Youth Prevention Programs by Stephen Small (2011). This seven-page digest distills principles for effective youth prevention programs (based on an extensive review of the available research and practice evidence), offers considerations for integrating the principles into programming, and suggests a process for evidence-informed program improvement. It’s an accessible read and very relevant to program funders and evaluators, as well as to frontline service providers.

Small’s article deserves reading carefully in full. Here – as a taster – I outline a number of the principles he identifies that are related to program design and content, and program relevance. InsideOut is currently conducting an evaluation of a national teen healthy relationships program in which we are explicitly incorporating these principles into the design of the evaluation questions and indicators.

Program design and content:

  • Effective programs are theory-driven, e. they are based on empirically supported theoretical models, and their design and implementation are guided by a logical program theory of change.
  • Effective programs are of sufficient dosage and intensity, i.e. participants need to be exposed to enough of a program for it to have an effect. Generally speaking, the more severe and entrenched the problem being addressed, the greater the dosage and intensity required to achieve the desired impact.
  • Effective programs are comprehensive, i.e. they address the multiple factors and settings that influence teen development and wellbeing (e.g. school, the family, the local community). To do this, they may partner with other programs that reach the same audience in different settings.
  • Effective programs use active learning techniques, i.e. they engage young people by building in the use of active and varied learning techniques, and they focus on skill acquisition and development. Students are given opportunities to model and to practise skills (the “Learn, practise and apply” pedagogy).

Program relevance:

  • Effective programs are developmentally appropriate, i.e. the design and content are specifically tailored to particular developmental stages. In the context of prevention, it’s also crucial that the content is delivered neither too early nor too late.
  • Effective programs reach participants when they are ready to change, i.e. the greatest impact happens when individuals are receptive to change. This may be when individuals are going through a transition or when a problem first becomes apparent.
  • Effective programs are socially and culturally relevant, i.e. they are tailored to meet the specific socio-cultural context and needs of participants, including race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, religious/spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions, etc.