Developmental Appropriateness as Cultural Competence in Evaluation

Children and adults differ more than simply age; rather, they differ in culture as well.1 This recognition can be hard for evaluators: as we have all passed through childhood, it is easy to believe we have the same or greater knowledge of children’s culture than they do. Furthermore, our “spatial proximity to children may lead us to believe that we are closer to them than we really are—only different in that (adults claim) children are still growing up (‘developing’) and are often wrong (‘lack understanding’).”2

This points to a need for cultural competence, which the American Evaluation Association (AEA) describes as “critical for the profession and for the greater good of society.”3 Cultural competence practice in evaluation includes:

  • Acknowledging the complexity of cultural identity
  • Recognizing the dynamics of status and power (e.g., the differential power between adults and children)
  • Recognizing and eliminating bias in language
  • Employing culturally (i.e., developmentally) appropriate methods

In particular, culturally competent evaluations require inclusion of cultural expertise on the evaluation team.4 In the case of youth programs, this means inclusion of developmental expertise, which can involve developmental experts (i.e., psychologists, developmental scientists) but evaluators should also strive to include the youth themselves.

A youth participatory approach can reduce the harmful power imbalances between adult evaluators and youth participants,5, are more ethical for youth6, and offer many benefits for children and adolescents, including knowledge about the evaluation process and improvements in self-esteem, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.7

However, a youth participatory approach can vary by a range of levels.8 At the lowest level, participants are simply included as a data source, which can yet more vary by direct (i.e., surveys, interviews) and indirect (i.e., observations, archival data) data collection. Further up the participatory ladder is giving youth input on the evaluation process. The highest level of youth participation is youth actually leading the evaluation, much like they would in a traditional empowerment evaluation.

Inclusion of youth, or at least adult developmental experts, can improve the likelihood of a culturally competent evaluation for the first two bullet points mentioned above. However, evaluators still must make sure the evaluation design and methods are culturally, and therefore developmentally, appropriate. The next post will discuss how evaluators can promote cultural competence across the evaluation process in the context of youth programs.


  1. Davis, J. M. (1998). Understanding the meanings of children: A reflexive process. Children & Society, 12(5), 325–335.
  2. Fine, G. A., & Sandstrom, K. L. (1988, p. 34). Knowing children: Participant observation with minors. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  3. American Evaluation Association. (2011). American Evaluation Association public statement on cultural competence in evaluation. Fairhaven, MA: American Evaluation Association. Retrieved from
  4. Chouinard, J. A., & Cousins, J. B. (2009). A review and synthesis of current research on cross-cultural evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 30(4), 457-494.
  5. Christensen, P., & James, A. (2008). Research with children: Perspectives and practices. Routledge.;
    Morrow, V., & Richards, M. (1996). The ethics of social research with children: An overview. Children & Society, 10, 90–105.
  6. Gallagher, M. (2009). Data collection and methods. In E. K. M. Tisdall, J. M. Davis, & M. Gallagher, Researching with children and young people: Research design, methods, and analysis. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
  7. Kirby, P. (1999) Involving Young Researchers. York: York Publishing Services.
    Morrow, V., & Richards, M. (1996). The ethics of social research with children: An overview. Children & Society, 10, 90–105.
  8. Coad, J., & Evans, R. (2007). Reflections on practical approaches to involving children and young people in the data analysis process: Involving children in the data analysis process. Children & Society, 22(1), 41–52.
    Sabo Flores, K. (2008). Youth participatory evaluation: Strategies for engaging young people. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

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