What is the developmental context? and why is it important to evaluation?

In a paper presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association1, Tiffany Berry, Susan Menkes, and Katherine Bono discussed how evaluators could improve their practice through the developmental context. They argue that evaluators have spent years discussing how the program context (e.g., age of program, accessibility, size of program, timeline, political nature) and evaluation context (e.g., stakeholder involvement, method proclivity, measurement tools, purpose, use of results) affect the practice of evaluation. However, there has been little discussion on how the participants of a program, and particularly the age of participants, also affect the practice of evaluation.2 Thus, they describe what they call the Developmental Context and the three core developmental facets that define the development context.

1. Principles of Development

The first component of the developmental context involves knowledge of principles and theories of development. These principles and theories explain how the environment, the individual, and the interaction between the environment and individual explain development over time. There have been many broadly accepted theories of such development. Two of my personal favorite, and two that emphasize the interaction between the environment and individual, include Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) and Lerner’s (2006) developmental systems theory.

Relevance of Principles of Development to Evaluation

People are a product of their individual attributes and the contexts they live in over time. Thus, when conducting evaluations, it is important to examine participant, program, and other contextual characteristics in tandem. A systems perspective to evaluation can be a useful endeavor to achieve this. This type of approach also helps in answering the “For whom does this program work?” question in evaluation.

2. Developmental Domains

Developmental domains refer to cognitive, socioemotional, physical, and other domains of development. For instance, the cognitive domain refers to intellectual or mental development, such as thinking, memory, reasoning, problem-solving, language, and perception. The socioemotional domain refers to relationship skills, social awareness, self-management, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making3. The physical domain refers to development of body structure, including sensory/motor development and coordination of perception and movement.

Relevance of Developmental Domains to Evaluation

Developmental domains primarily seem to affect the appropriate methods for participants. For example, knowledge of the cognitive stage of participants can help evaluators accommodate the reading level ability for construction of a paper survey. Knowledge of the socioemotional stage of participants can determine whether focus groups or interviews would be better suited for participants. Also, knowledge of the physical stage of participants can determine whether computer surveys, which require the use of fine motor skills for using a mouse and keyboard, are appropriate.

3. Age of Participants

The age of participants is perhaps most salient to evaluators. We typically group young participants into a variety of categories (e.g., infants, toddlers, young children, older children, adolescents, teenagers, young adults, youth) but these categories often overlap and are not clearly defined in the literature. For example, are youth comprised of children as well as adolescents?

Relevance of Age of Participants to Evaluation

While age is typically used as a determinant of whether a data collection method is developmentally appropriate, the issue becomes complicated when considering children and adolescents from diverse populations (e.g., low-income, cultural and ethnic minorities, those with mental, emotional, or physical challenges).4 Disadvantaged youth may not be at the same developmental stages as their more advantaged counterparts.5 While age is a simple factor to consider when designing and conducting evaluations, consideration of age alone may not be sufficient to ensure a developmentally appropriate evaluation.


  1. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tiffany Berry at tiffany.berry@cgu.edu
  2. While not discussed in the article, notable exceptions include feminist evaluation, gender analysis, and, broadly speaking, culturally competent evaluation.
  3. See http://www.casel.org/ for more information.
  4. Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). Promoting healthy development through intervention. In From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development, (pp. 337-380). Washington D.C.: Academy Press.
  5. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000)

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