Supporting Quality in Virtual Youth Programs

With youth development programs suddenly shifting to virtual delivery, there is a need to consider what program elements and staff practices are critical to foster relationships and create experiences that support the development of young people in these spaces.

Supports for quality improvement grow in importance the longer that virtual offerings remain a fixture of youth programs. Virtual programming seems likely to be with us into the next school year due to uncertainty around COVID-19-related public health guidelines, and already programs are seeing potential benefits of continuing virtual programs to support their mission. At the same time, there are many new questions to grapple with:

  • What stays the same as—and what differs from—traditional, in-person programming? 
  • How do staff build high-quality practices into virtual programming, for both online sessions and the self-paced work between them? 
  • What needs to be changed or added to standards of quality programming delivered virtually? 
  • What does youth engagement look like in distance programs?
  • How do we translate continuous quality improvement to support staff delivering virtual programs?

Virtual program delivery is an opportunity to extend the reach of youth programs to support learning and development for young people. The experiences and relationships that young people need to learn and thrive apply to virtual programs as much as live, in-person programs, and must remain foundational. Staff practices that facilitate youth development might look different online or in distance-learning arrangements. Management practices, including assessment as part of continuous quality improvement (CQI) efforts, must be experienced as supportive and low-stakes in order to engage staff in strengthening their own skills for supporting youth development in virtual program settings.

Youth Development Still Matters

While virtual program delivery is a programmatic change for many, child and youth development has not fundamentally changed. The science of learning and development tells us that young people still need strong relationships with caring adults that foster a sense of belonging and mattering. They still need opportunities to practice new skills and learn from their mistakes. They still need support in taking on responsibility and navigating social roles with their peers. They still need to experience empathy and coaching to understand and express their emotions. They still benefit from opportunities to make plans, accomplish goals, and reflect on their learning. Standards for virtual program delivery must continue to draw on the knowledge base of what young people need to grow and develop.

Family engagement is also recognized as an important, though often overlooked, component of youth program quality. It takes on new importance with sustained virtual engagement, elevating a range of questions about how youth programs partner effectively with families to support young people:

  • How do we provide programs that are supportive of all children, youth, and families?
  • How much screen time is appropriate for young people of different ages?
  • How do you balance the request for young people to be plugged in when other family members may also need to be online?
  • How do program staff support parents/guardians to monitor and support hands-on activities at home?
  • When collective trauma is impacting all of us, how do we support young people and their families who are experiencing long-standing traumas due to systemic racism and other vulnerabilities, made more apparent in recent months?

The David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality (Weikart Center, a technical assistance unit of the Forum for Youth Investment) offers Program Quality Assessment (PQA) tools that clearly define a set of program and staff practices that support youth development in many of these ways. As we focus on applying these standards of practice to virtual program settings, we must think about what these practices look like in new contexts:

  • What does warm welcome look like in a virtual program setting?
  • Which practices are most important at a time when social connection is strained by social distancing?
  • How do staff use features of online platforms to support teamwork and collaboration?
  • What additional adult supports are needed to scaffold youth-led projects over time, at a distance?

While the importance of practices has not changed, the tools and techniques staff may need to use to implement them in new contexts may have to.

Staff Development Still Matters

As with key experiences and staff practices that support youth development, the need has not changed for intentional practices and structures that support managers and staff to implement them. The shift to virtual programming is not only a pivot for youth participants, but may also be a dramatic change for staff who deliver these programs. This context needs to be understood and accounted for in any effort to assess virtual program quality, so that staff do not experience an assessment as high-stakes while they are rising to the challenge of shifting to high-quality practices in virtual settings.

There are four ingredients of continuous quality improvement: 1) standards of practice – discussed above; 2) meaningful performance data, typically based on an observational assessment like the PQA; 3) a routine cycle of assessment, planning, and improvement, including aligned training opportunities and coaching supports; and 4) an approach to ensure engagement and sustainability – beginning with a low- stakes approach that builds buy-in among staff for learning and improvement efforts.

In times of stress and uncertainty, the nature of the ingredients may need to change in order to support the goal of continuous quality improvement. For example, assess-plan-improve cycles may need to happen more rapidly and focus on fewer areas of practice – emphasizing reflective learning. Practice may need to be more responsive, with performance measures tailored to more closely align to current priorities and goals. Overall, an orientation toward CQI can help weather changing and challenging circumstances by supporting a process of reflecting on practice, identifying challenges, setting goals for improvement, and offering supportive opportunities for staff to build skills and improve their practice.

Continuing the Conversation

The Weikart Center is working with partners to pilot-test efforts to support program quality improvement in virtual learning environments. We are curating examples and developing guidance and additional supports based on what we’re learning. We are hopeful that a continued focus on youth development and staff development will help to guide the field to responsive approaches for supporting high-quality learning experiences in the range of settings where young people are now spending their time.

Written by Dave Martineau, director of product design & innovation, with contributions from Kim Robinson, executive vice president of the Forum for Youth Investment and managing director of the Weikart Center, and Adrienne Bard, portfolio manager.