Reflection in Nine Easy Pieces

Andrew Hahn
October 1, 2001

Day in day out, youth program managers put out fires. Staffing emergencies, proposal development, repair of that lingering Management Information System (MIS) problem, the sad meeting scheduled with Hector’s parents. Smoke and mirrors, fear and frantic energy – these are the hallmarks of an under-capitalized field.

In such an environment, who on the frontlines can muster the energy and time to reflect on the future? Who can take a moment to reflect not only on tomorrow’s schedule but on how the field is changing in the next five years?

Professors can play a useful role by suggesting frameworks to help busy managers understand the dynamic nature of seemingly intractable youth issues and our programmatic responses. Here are nine easy steps we have found useful at Brandeis University to assist the reflective managers who force themselves to find the time to think, read, network and explore.

1. Begin by thinking broadly about the changes in the economy, changes in family life, and changes in the values and images we hold about poor people and the young people in our programs. What do these changes imply for current practices, sources of support and target groups? (For example: the U.S. Census Bureau reports that co-habitation is up in American households. What does this mean for our agency’s communication strategies or annual parents’ night?)

2. Move on to think about the scale of problems in your target group. What is the extent and nature of the most severe problems in your population? Are there concentration effects – perhaps 90 percent of the really challenging population issues in your agency are located in only three neighborhoods or among 10 percent of your caseload?

3. Now consider how scholars from academic disciplines approach your issues. How do economists view these issues and what do the concepts of efficiency, equity and effectiveness mean for you? Are you prepared to promote deeper targeting (equity) but maybe trade-off effectiveness or efficiency? What are the role of incentives in changing behaviors? What role does “choice” play? What do political scientists add in terms of voting behaviors, insights into building public will, coalitions, power, etc.?

4. Maybe now you could go on to ask what theories structure the public’s response? Has there been a change in theory that you should think more about? One example of a popular theory: Generous public assistance backfires by creating dependency and eroding individual initiative.

Yow, that one crept up on us!

5. Now might be a good time to consider the state of “knowledge” in your field. Do we know enough for action? Do we use evaluation well for advocacy? Do we know how to scale up from pilots? How to replicate and institutionalize? What can I do as a manager to get the research I truly need, now?

6. Next, you might consider how things hang together locally. Do we enjoy anything close to a system? Is it consumer friendly? Are programs fragmented, disconnected, single-service, compared to comprehensive?

7. If you aren’t too tired, you might want to assess how various sectors approach these issues: feds, states, municipal/county, neighborhoods and of course the private sectors. Are we in synch with these sectoral perspectives? If not, is that a conscious choice and one we are content with?

8. After a nap, consider the role of “place” in all this and how various “silos” should but rarely come together to build healthy communities and strong families.

9. Now put on your program design hat. How does all of the above come together in choices concerning program designs? Has anything you discovered from this reflective exercise led to fresh ideas about: payment and funding issues; eligibility; outreach; service planning and delivery; linkages and case management; how and when people leave your program; and follow-up procedures?

Truly reflective managers somehow rise above the hectic atmosphere of contemporary youth programming. They use these nine factors or other variations to reform current practices and develop new designs. Finding the time to improve understanding of highly dynamic fields isn’t easy but will pay dividends – maybe even starting as early as tomorrow.

Andrew Hahn is a professor and director of the Heller School’s master’s degree programs in children, youth and family studies, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. Contact:

Hahn, Andrew. "Reflection in Nine Easy Pieces."Youth Today, October 2001, p. 54.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.