Disrupting Our Narratives About Young People

By Shannon M. Varga, Ph.D., Associate Director of Research and Evaluation for the CERES Institute for Children and Youth

I want to disrupt the dominant narrative we have around adolescence in this country. Adults too often view adolescence as a time of “risky behaviors” and deliver education and support based on the idea that adolescents are lazy or going through “storm and stress.” 

Youth are not passive, overwhelmed, receivers of development and education. History and research have shown us we need to view and engage youth as partners in any work meant to serve them. Unfortunately, bringing youth and those who directly support them into research and decision making happens too infrequently, too inauthentically, and often at the wrong level of power. 

Young people are future leaders of society and it’s time policy, practice, and research do a better job treating them as such. I believe we can help shift this way of viewing and working with youth and those who support them, practically, with the way we choose to do our research at CERES.

I’m excited about the orientation of our work, centering young people and the people who support them. Too often research ends up looking like participants, such as youth practitioners, and parents, spending a lot of time giving researchers their lived experiences and data, and the researchers write great reports based on that data, but those reports come out too late for the participants to see any real benefits for their work. 

At CERES, we want to be a different example of how to do research with youth, practitioners, and families. The most helpful frameworks we work with often come from practice and we want to honor that in our relationships with participants by working with them as partners to create more practical tools that will be helpful in the moment and long term.

A good example of our current work building authentic research and community partnerships is with the Boston Debate League. We’re trying to figure out how to codify their debate-inspired pedagogy. 

Normally an evaluation firm would observe the teachers in their classrooms, examine existing data and tools, and send a final report and toolkit to them. Instead, we had a six-month runway of talking to the teachers and their coaches- getting to know them, and interviewing them. We are now in the process of building observation, assessment, and teacher training tools using their words and practical insights. Specifically we are able to build tools that more accurately reflect what their pedagogy should look like, feel like, and sound like in the classroom in general, when it’s done well, and when it can be improved. We’re trying to demonstrate that we’re really here to support them and their students, and not just build tools that might be used to punish them in the future.

That’s the essence of how I want to do this work.

—Shannon M. Varga, Ph.D. is a Research Assistant Professor in the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development at Boston University and is Associate Director of Research and Evaluation for the CERES Institute for Children and Youth.


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