Are youth participating enough to experience the benefits of the program?

Surveys / Assessments


It is important to track how much individual youth participate in your program to determine if: (1) they are participating as much as you expected, (2) they are participating enough to experience the benefits of the program, and (3) there is anything you can do to boost youth participation that is low.  When measuring the amount of participation, it is important to look at it through four different dimensions: breadth, intensity, duration, and engagement:

  • Breadth refers to the different types of activities in which a youth is involved.
  • Intensity looks at time in terms of numbers of hours per week. 
  • Duration looks at commitment to the program over a number of weeks or years (or a sufficiently long view dependent on your program model). 
  • Engagement refers to the extent to which the youth demonstrate or indicate intentionality and internal motivation in the way they participate in the program (they are doing it because they want to and think it is important vs. being simply required to do so).

Your theory of change or program model should be your guide on how much participation you are expecting, and whether youth are participating enough to experience the benefits of the program.  In terms of breadth or variety of activities, your program model might indicate that youth should be participating in many activities for a short amount of time or just a few activities for a large amount of time. 

Measuring and Tracking Breadth: Numbers of Activities

Few studies have examined breadth of activities within a single program.  Young adolescents particularly benefit from a wide variety of activities because it helps them explore their identities in multiple ways.  When different activities expose participants to different groups of individuals, the activities have the benefit of helping youth form broader social networks.  Finally, investing time in multiple activities makes it easier for youth to cope with stressful situations that may occur in any particular activity because they have not invested all of their efforts in one place.  On the other hand, high risk youth benefit more from intensive, focused activities directed toward linked goals.

In your program, you need to start by defining your activities, and how your activities help youth benefit from the program.  You need to think about what the “right” amount of activities is for your program. Once you have a list, you can use it in performance management software or make a table in a word processing document or spreadsheet to track the numbers of activities each youth is participating in.  You could put the name of each youth as the row name, and the name of each activity as the column name.  Each month, you might review how many and which activities youth participated in. 

Reviewing this information monthly will provide you with an opportunity to do at least three things that can help in your program management.  First, you can identify if particular youth are participating in too many or too few activities on a regular basis.  For example, if you just look at one point in time, you cannot tell how often they participate too little or too much.  When you look at it over several months, you will be able to see patterns of participation.  The patterns tell you more about how the youth are participating.

Second, when you look at the numbers of activities youth are engaging in over time, you will be able to detect a change in the pattern of participation.  A change in the pattern may indicate that a staff member should follow up with the youth to see what occurred to cause the change.  It may be that the youth has experienced some kind of significant life shift that needs more attention.

Third, you can examine the patterns of participation adding across all youth to determine which particular activities are less-utilized or more-utilized.  Either way, you will want to examine if you should increase the availability of more-utilized activities and decrease offering less-utilized activities.  It may be, however, that the less-utilized activities are really important for achieving your program goals.  In that case, you need to investigate further why fewer youth than expected are participating in those activities.

Measuring and Tracking Intensity: Hours per Week

Spending more time (higher intensity) in activities tends to produce better outcomes for youth.

In some places intensity of participation is talked about as “dosage.”  It refers to how much time a youth spends doing a particular activity.  This amount is typically tracked regularly over short periods of time such as a week or day.  Thus, you might track attendance either in your program overall or in particular activities.  When you are tracking the attendance, you track the number of hours the youth participated rather than simply whether or not they attended. 

You could build on the tracking form described under Numbers of Activities to track this measure.  Instead of simply marking activities that youth participate in, you could indicate the number of hours they participated for that week.  In a program where it is not feasible to take attendance formally, it may work better for youth to sign in and out on a form that indicates their arrival and departure times.  Staff would then use that information to fill in the spreadsheet.

When examining your intensity data, you should be looking at the same three things indicated under Number of Activities.

Measuring and Tracking Duration: Longer Term Commitment 

Few studies have been conducted examining how the duration of participation affects outcomes for youth.  It is important to note, however, that many of the outcomes that civic engagement programs seek to achieve will require a longer term commitment.  Building trust, forming social connections, learning skills, and making a difference in a community all take time.  Therefore, tracking the length of time that youth participate in a program is important.  From a management perspective, determining how long youth stick with certain activities within a program can be even more important.  Using the three assessment criteria provided under Number of Activities could be helpful here too.

By Urban Institute


Sources Cited

Bonhert, A., Fredricks, J., Randall, E. (2010). Capturing unique dimensions of youth organized activity involvement: Theoretical and methodological considerations. Review of Educational Research (80)(4), 576-610.

Tiffany, J.S., Exner-Cortens, D., & Eckenrode, J. (2012). A new measure for assessing youth program participation. Journal of Community Psychology (40)(3), 277-291. TEPPS


Additional Resources

Lippman, L. & Rivers, A. (October 2008). Assessing school engagement: A guide for out-of-school time program practitioners. Research-to-Results Brief. Child Trends.