Why would staff in a small school or program do a needs and assets assessment? A counselor already feels like they know their young people better than any survey or database. They are probably right. Here’s why we should do it anyway:
Prioritizing Resources and Advocating: In a program that has 160 students on four caseloads, each counselor may have a few students with mental health needs. They are addressing the needs (or not) on an individual basis. However, if an assessment reveals that a few kids on each caseload is actually 10% of the program, there is now motivation to identify partners, train staff, talk to funders, etc. One alternative school I worked with administered a survey that revealed ONE THIRD of students reported being sexually assaulted. While I may not recommend giving a survey that asks such intimate questions, WOW does that give some insight into what supports students need.
Programming to Build Upon Strengths and Interests: A key piece of any youth development program is getting students to learn more about themselves. As they share these revelations with us, where does it go? Despite the lack of advanced degrees, young people are most qualified to design programs that work for them. And we should collect data on their dreams, learning goals, desired experiences, strengths and growth areas, hobbies, etc. to inform program design. Don’t forget the assets, even if they seem less urgent. The assets give us the best clues as to how we can engage students.
I’m still trying to figure out needs and assets assessments, but here’s what I’m learning:
They can be ongoing. You don’t need to know all the needs and assets from a survey administered on Day 1. And sometimes, we must build relationships first to understand what questions to ask. If you are planning trips or resource fairs do it collaboratively with youth who can best identify their interests and needs. Photo voice is a great activity for this. Focus groups can be excellent. Community schools in NYC also have family forums each spring where they incorporate activities designed to get feedback into fun barbecues or carnivals. Assessments should be important, cyclical moments where we collect data on the bigger picture, but the assessment mindset can be applied daily.
They can be separate. In one school, we had counselors fill out a basic spreadsheet with each student listed and 12 columns of “Needs” because we realized we didn’t have a high-level view of many needs we had identified at the student-level (substance abuse, work conflicts, family responsibilities, etc.). With a “Yes”, “No”, or “Unknown” response, we got to see that over 20% of students (as identified by their counselor) have a mental health issue. By looking at the needs along with academic data, we found that our attendance problem was also a WORK CONFLICT problem. All 18 students with a work conflict were severely chronically absent. How can the attendance team address THAT?
They can be irresponsible. If we ask students and families what they need, and they tell us, we have a responsibility to respond to the best of our ability. And, we should be cognizant of how someone might feel when answering questions about his or her home, family, or trauma. I work with a program where we’ve heard anecdotally about youth experiencing trauma, and we considered administering the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Questionnaire to learn more and help advocate for resources. However, without mental health specialists on site and a comprehensive plan to avoid triggering young people, we decided to hold off.
Overall, just because staff are empathetic, curious, active listeners, does not necessarily translate to program design. The better we know our young people, at every level of an organization, the better they are served.
A few resources: