How to review your programs in youth work


Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Youth workers should review their services and programs as part of a continual improvement process. But it can feel like a pointless exercise if you’re not doing it right.

Are you more of a thinker or a doer? Do you put a lot of planning into your work, or like to think on your feet?

Youth work needs a certain amount of both – planning and spontaneity. To develop great programs and services that earn the respect of your coworkers and meet the needs of young people, you need to make time for planning. And part of that process is reviewing what you’re already doing.

“Think ahead. Don’t let day-to-day operations drive out planning.”


A simple process to help you review your programs and plan to make them even better.

Why we should strive for continual improvement

As in most jobs these days, there’s a push for people to work more effectively and efficiently with resources.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing though. It can be the push we need to makes sure the programs and services we provide hone in on the needs of the young people that are knocking on our door right now.

Continual improvement isn’t just about changing things to make them look different. It’s meant to be purposeful. You want to be wise in using your time and resources, and those of other people too.

There are four steps in continual improvement, using what’s called the Deming Cycle:

  1. Plan. This is where you review what you’ve been doing and there’s some questions below to help you with this step.
  2. Do. This is a testing phase, where you try out some changes you’ve identified.
  3. Check. Another review step where you work out if the changes and ideas are worth keeping. If not, head back to the planning stage.
  4. Act. Implementing your new, tested programs and services.

This all fits in with the idea of best practice. It’s where you look at what others are doing that seems successful and incorporate those ideas into your own work. You can also look for theories and principles that support your plans. In youth work, that might be theories on the developmental stages, behaviour change or the brain maturing.

Best practice is about striving for better, rather than burning out to be the best. We can have an ideal and work towards it, so set realistic expectations when you’re working to improve your practice.

“Planning is about bringing the future into the present so you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

Using objectives to keep your work on track

If you run programs or services, it’s important to have a reason for doing them. Too many programs happen because someone thought it was a good idea or the materials were on the shelf gathering dust.

The starting point for what you do should be your purpose, and then the needs of the young people. If you don’t have a clear idea of your purpose, have a look at my article on working out your purpose and a vision for what you do.

Ask yourself, “What things do young people need to learn or change?”

Your answers to this question become the foundation of your program or service. Then work out a set of objectives. These should be signs of success and are more specific than a goal or aim.

Kerry’s story

Kerry runs a program with middle schoolers who lack confidence mixing with others. The need is for the young people to develop confidence in group settings. In planning her group, Kerry thought about how the kids would behave if her program was successful. She decided there would be four things people would notice about these kids:

  • They would look comfortable in groups with at least one friend
  • They would join in on group activities without having to be reminded or pushed
  • They would have fun when others are having fun in a group activity
  • They would offer their ideas and opinions in small groups

Throughout her program, Kerry’s checking how the kids are going in meeting these objectives.

This is how all youth workers should be measuring success, not how many kids complete a course or attend sessions.

Questions to ask when reviewing a program or service

Once a program is underway, see review as a natural part of the process. Both during the program and after it. For Kerry’s group with the middle schoolers, she might review how things are going every couple of sessions. She could ask others for feedback, like parents, teachers and the kids themselves.

Here’s six questions that can help you check what you’re doing:

  1. What needs am I trying to meet for young people with this program or service?
  2. How is what I’m doing meeting those needs?
  3. What needs aren’t being met?
  4. Am I creating new needs with my program or service?
  5. What resources would make a difference?
  6. What areas do I need to grow in to do this better?

Whatever review process you follow, it’s important to document it. Keep a log of how you’re improving your work and how your program fits the needs and objectives it’s designed for. This keeps you accountable, but also adds a professional depth to what you do.

Being able to review your programs and services is an important skill for youth workers. Many people hate doing it because it’s more of a paperwork task than a people one. But if you want to ensure that the young people you work with get the best service they can, you need to make time for it.

What steps do you follow when reviewing a program? I’d love you to share your thoughts!

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