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Youth Listening: Why, Where, and How to Start

By Caroline Geithner, CEI Intern

When it comes to tackling youth problems, we tend to design and deliver programs without directly seeking youth input. It is far too common to see children and teens as mere recipients of our work, failing to consider how they might be instrumental in the very process of program design.

But who has clearer insight into understanding and meeting youth needs than youth themselves? For example, say you want to implement an anti-bullying campaign in one middle school. You could spend hours researching the psychology behind bullying and even conduct observations in the school to better understand the nature of bullying. But, if you’re not actively engaging with the students in this school to ask them directly how they are affected and even what solutions they think might help, your program will fall short in helping its target population.

A Viable Solution: Youth Listening

A growing body of research (O’Mara-Eves et al., 2015) suggests that involving the target group in both the content development and delivery of an intervention can increase the likelihood of program success. For youth-oriented programs, the idea is that by treating youth as equal partners with decision-making power, there is an opportunity to leverage real youth experiences and voices in the design of corresponding interventions.

Motivated by such research, the Office of Population Affairs (OPA), housed within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), designed the Youth Listening Session (YLS) Special Project between 2017 and 2019 (Office of Population Affairs, 2020). In collaboration with 13 Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program grantees, OPA’s goal was to test the effectiveness of different youth engagement strategies, specifically in programs addressing health disparities.

One exciting result from these listening sessions is an extensive toolkit with case studies, lessons learned, and even ready-to-use templates for any group interested in improving youth engagement (Office of Population Affairs, 2020).

A YSL Case Study: Project Ntarupt

At a juvenile detention center (JDC) in Dallas, Texas program grantees wanted to use focus groups to understand the sexual health needs of youth within their juvenile justice system (Office of Population Affairs, 2020). However, they faced several implementation struggles due to the JDC's rules – including mandates to separate kids by sex, have security officers in the room during sessions, and pull youth in and out of sessions for other commitments.

Because youth were reluctant to share sensitive information in the presence of adults like the security officers, the grantees had to rethink their original understanding of focus groups. Instead of moderating conversations, they used drawing exercises and distributed index cards for especially personal questions. This restructuring paved the way for valuable youth insights. One teen expressed how rushed she felt in the center's health clinic: she couldn’t help but feel like no one was listening or engaging in meaningful conversation with her other than to prescribe medicine. In discussing viable solutions, some kids suggested free birth control, guaranteed confidentiality from doctors, and free scheduled check-ups. All of this feedback was then presented in its authentic form to JDC staff to inform future initiatives.

Strategies for Youth Listening Exercises

The key takeaways from OPA’s YLS Special Project can and should be applied to classroom interventions. In fact, as in-person school returns in the fall, OPA’s toolkit is a valuable resource for creatively collaborating with youth to address the mental health ramifications associated with this transition.

Here are some of OPA’s recommendations:

  • Focus group

    • With one or two facilitators and a small group of youth, conduct focus groups where participants are invited to share their experiences in different programs and communities freely.

  • Interview

    • Consider organizing informal interviews youth-to-youth, facilitator-to-youth, or youth-to-facilitator. Or try them all and see what everyone likes the best!

  • Writing Workshop & Performance

    • Provide writing prompts to elicit thoughtful, open-ended responses from youth participants.

    • Provide the opportunity to share stories in front of a safe audience and receive constructive feedback.

  • Sketch-your-answer

    • Sometimes it can help ease anxiety about verbally sharing stories by offering the option to sketch a response to a prompt. This is also a great way to boost creativity.

  • Theater/ Audience Engagement

    • Youth can create and perform their stories through productions or skits.

  • “Design your own__”

    • For older youth, split into small groups and invite them to draw out their own ideal program for meeting their greatest needs (i.e. in the domains of mental health, sexual health, academics, social pressure, financial literacy).

CEI’s Work: Coalition for the Future of Education

Listening to and empowering young people is embedded into the very fabric of the Center for Educational Improvet’s (CEI) structure. And it’s why we launched our Coalition for the Future of Education. The Coalition represents a diverse group of individuals dedicated to improving education through safe and equitable schools both inside and outside of the US.

One of our key action steps, representing our commitment to elevating the voices and leadership of youth, is to conduct youth listening tours in 2021. Here, we begin our journey of ensuring every classroom is designed to meet the complex needs -- emotional, social, and academic -- of every individual student, from early childhood to higher education.

We encourage you to read our brochure for more information, and help us expand our network by inviting young people to join our Coalition as a Youth Member.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Population Affairs, (2020, September). Listen up! Youth listening session toolkit. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

O’Mara-Eves, A., Brunton, G., Oliver, S., Kavanagh, J., Jamal, F., and Thomas J. (2015). The effectiveness of community engagement in public health interventions for disadvantaged groups: A meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 15 (1), 1-23.


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