Lessons for developing effective program curricula that serve youth

BlogHealthJul 30 2019

The curriculum of a youth-serving program is a critical component of its success, especially for programs that seek to increase participants’ knowledge and influence their attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. Child Trends learned a great deal about what’s involved in developing an effective curriculum through the development and testing of one of our hallmark programs: El Camino, a goal-setting and teen pregnancy prevention curriculum designed to fill the need for curricula developed for Latino youth in the United States.

To prepare for the development of El Camino, Child Trends sought to understand why Latino youth have high teen birth rates. We conducted reviews of research literature and analyses of nationally representative datasets, as well as interviews and focus groups with Latino parents and youth, and with program developers and implementers. Based on this formative research, we set out to develop and pilot a program that is culturally sensitive and incorporates the experiences of Latino teens.

Below, we present key takeaways that we believe can be applied to other youth-serving programs.

Collaborate with experts in the field whose input can bring unique perspectives and knowledge from previous experiences. Child Trends worked with curriculum developers to finalize a Theory of Change and Logic Model, develop activities, and determine curriculum arcs to align with desired behavioral changes for El Camino participants. These developer partners were willing to create a variety of activities and to adapt or eliminate activities that were not well-received in our pilot testing with youth. Also consider consulting with an expert advisory group for additional review and feedback as you develop a curriculum or other program materials.

Engage your target population as you create and test your curriculum or other materials, as they can provide valuable information about how to revise and adapt your curriculum. We tested various iterations of El Camino in seven implementation sites across the country and revised the curriculum multiple times before it was finalized. During this process, we obtained feedback from facilitators and students, observed classes, gathered program fidelity data, and administered pre- and post-test surveys to analyze student outcomes. We revised El Camino based on the following input:

  • Facilitators had difficulty completing the lesson content in the time available. Most facilitators had difficulty implementing our curriculum within the original time allotted, so we had to make tough decisions about which activities to keep and which to cut.
  • Students preferred interactive activities. The El Camino curriculum includes interactive activities, along with role playing exercises to practice different skills. Students thoroughly enjoyed “walk with your feet” activities that involved answering questions by moving to different parts of the classroom. Their preference helped us understand which activities worked best and should be kept within the curriculum.
  • Realistic stories kept students’ interest. While El Camino consistently follows the story of two identifiable teens, we used feedback from students to adapt story details to better engage students and reflect situations that are common in their lives.

Approach goals with persistence and flexibility. It may be challenging to achieve every goal of a curriculum on the first, second, or even the third try. For example, while we faced substantial barriers to engaging adult caregivers of El Camino participants, we did not want to eliminate this program component. We reevaluated our approach and tried new strategies, eventually developing two activities in which students send a text message with discussion questions to their caregivers. We found that caregivers were responsive (sometimes providing a response during class), and that these activities fostered discussions between teens and caregivers.

Ensure that facilitators’ training fits their needs. El Camino facilitators came from diverse professional backgrounds, including teachers, counselors, AmeriCorps volunteers, staff at community-based organizations, Communities in Schools employees, and local government employees. Child Trends developed an interactive training in English and Spanish that includes teach-backs, demonstrations, and walk-throughs. To address some facilitators’ hesitation around teaching reproductive health content, we provided knowledge-building activities, developed FAQs with sample answers, and provided the option to invite a reproductive health expert to teach this content.


NOTE: Child Trends is searching for new partners to implement El Camino and to participate in a rigorous evaluation of the curriculum. For more information, see our El Camino web page and contact ElCamino@childtrends.org.