Strengthening the Implementation and Evaluation of Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Programs for Youth: Considerations from Four Recent Impact Studies
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation
- Determine the right dose to deliver. To increase the chances for favorable impacts in future evaluations, HMRE providers should try to maximize program dose by offering at least 18 to 20 hours of programming. When determining the right dose, providers must strike a balance between maximizing the amount of programming delivered and maintaining strong attendance. Offering booster sessions or other opportunities for supplemental programming present additional ways to increase program dose.
- Make content relevant to youth. Because providers are often limited in the dose they can offer, the choice of when to offer programming and what content to deliver is another key decision. To increase the chances for programs to show evidence of favorable impacts on their intended outcomes, providers must deliver content that is relevant to youth and resonates with them by aligning the program’s content and expected outcomes with participants’ age or grade level. In addition, part of making content relevant to youth is ensuring that it is culturally sensitive and properly tailored to the intended population.
- Build relationships between facilitators and youth. Employing strategies to build relationships between facilitators and participants can promote learning and increase the chances a program will have its intended effects. Possible strategies include selecting a curriculum that gives facilitators time to engage with participants, providing training on facilitation techniques, and encouraging facilitators to share appropriate personal anecdotes as a way to connect with participants. HMRE providers should also considering facilitator-participant relationships in program staffing decisions, since youth might find HMRE content more relatable if facilitators have experiences and upbringings similar to their own.
- Pick the right outcomes to study. When conducting a program impact study, it is important think carefully and be realistic about which outcomes are most likely to change relative to baseline values and given the strength of the intervention. Measuring youth’s relationship skills, attitudes, and knowledge at the end of programming is a good way to test if youth absorbed the program content. If providers want to study longer-term outcomes, they should have a clear rationale for why their program might have sustained impacts.
- Consider program service contrast. Other things being equal, the bigger the contrast between the program and other available information and services, the greater the chance an impact study will find evidence of program impacts. When possible, HMRE providers and evaluators should make the contrast in program services as big as possible. They should also describe the contrast in services between the program and the control groups when describing the results of a program impact study.
Healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs for youth provide young people with information on the social and emotional aspects of romantic relationships through structured, classroom-based curricula. Programs are typically offered as part of a school class, such as health or family and consumer sciences, or as a voluntary afterschool or community-based program.
Four recent studies of youth HMRE programs funded through grants administered by the Office of Family Assistance within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services used random assigned evaluation designs to measure program impacts on outcomes such as knowledge of the characteristics of healthy relationships and perceived relationship skills. Although the four studies were well implemented and carried out as planned, they found limited evidence of programs leading to intended outcomes.
This brief discusses possible ways to strengthen the implementation and evaluation of HMRE programs for youth. Specifically, it presents several practical considerations to inform future evaluations and increase the chances for programs to show evidence of favorable impacts on their intended outcomes. The considerations address program design and implementation as well as evaluation issues. Mathematica wrote this brief as part of the Strengthening Relationship Education and Marriage Services (STREAMS) evaluation for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF).