Program Outcomes for Children


Introduction and Conceptual Overview 

Most adults want the children they care about to enjoy the benefits of supportive social relationships throughout their lives, and to acquire the necessary competencies to do so.  Social competence, like social adjustment, is often used as an umbrella term to include various aspects of a child's performance in social contexts.  Those who design and provide programs for preschoolers and school-aged children in group settings often seek to enhance aspects of personal and social adjustment, either as a primary outcome or as a valued by-product of other program activities (Hauser-Cram & Shonkoff, 1988; Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993). 

Link to NCEO Personal and Social Adjustment Model

If social competence is defined broadly as the ability to engage peers and adults in a friendly and cooperative manner and to be resourceful and achievement oriented (Siantz de Leon, 1997), then well developed social abilities affect virtually all areas of a child's life.  In combination, the qualities that make up social competence strengthen children at risk and help them to become more resilient.  Children who have achieved these qualities are more adequately prepared to excel personally, socially, and academically (Gresham & Reschly, 1987).  Yet, children who are at risk are often socially unskilled and have difficulty understanding how their actions affect the reactions they receive from others (Rathjen, 1984). 

Despite the almost universal desire to enhance these social capacities in children, measurement and evaluation of gains in this area has often been elusive.  Results of evaluations often fail to be consistent, clear-cut, or statistically significant, even when subjective judgements of staff and parents suggest positive outcomes.  One reason may be that social competence is less a set of well defined, measurable skills (although learned skills are clearly part of the picture), and more an underlying quality that subtly enhances functioning in a variety of areas.  Researchers in social development increasingly recognize that social competence has both emotional and cognitive elements (Hughes & Sullivan, 1988; Collins & Gunnar, 1990; Crick & Dodge, 1994), and that it may be context-specific (Gresham & Elliott, 1984).  A number of researchers are looking to the emotional and cognitive learning that takes place in the earliest attachment relationships for help in understanding later social competence in family, peer, and school settings (Cohn, 1990; Zahn-Waxler & Radke-Yarrow, 1990). 

Assessment Issues

Experienced evaluators of community-based programs offer a number of suggestions and cautions.  In light of the growing complexity of our understanding of personal and social adjustment, any measurement should be multidimensional, assessed in the context of the child's total functioning, and adapted to the child's developmental level.  In comparison to the intellectual development domain, there are fewer well-validated standardized measures that seem to tap into the qualities that make up social competence in children, and perhaps less agreement about what those qualities are.  Some methodologies that are well-established for basic research in social and emotional development (such as Ainsworth's Strange Situation and the Q-Sort, both used in attachment research) do not lend themselves as well to evaluation in community settings because they require extensive training and sometimes special laboratory conditions to administer.  Measures developed for classroom use in school settings may or may not be relevant to community-based programs for children.  Others measures which were designed for screening or diagnostic use in clinical settings may not be suitable as outcome measures in program evaluations.  Some otherwise valid and reliable assessments may not be well-accepted by program staff because they seem intrusive, overly subjective, or poorly matched to actual program activities and goals. 

When relevant standardized measures do exist, they often require special  training to administer.  The skills and logistics involved in interviewing and testing children are not necessarily the same as those required for adults.  The performance of young children in testing situations is known to be quite sensitive to factors like the familiarity of the setting and the examiner (Hauser-Cram & Shonkoff, 1988).  For ethnic minority children, language and cultural expectations about testing situations may be particularly relevant.  Although observational scales (directly observing and coding children's behavior during specific time intervals) may seem attractive because they are based on behavior in naturalistic settings, evaluators often find that these methods are extremely expensive and time-consuming, and may not be effective in assessing infrequent behaviors.  Teacher and parent questionnaires can sometimes be highly subjective.  Self-report measures by children themselves are often limited by children's language and reading skills. 


While many standardized measures and techniques do not lend themselves easily to evaluation of community-based programs for children, there are assessment tools that are appropriate and available for measuring children's outcomes.  Increasingly, the instruments of choice for evaluation of personal and social adjustment in intervention and prevention programs seem to be objective behavior rating checklists.  These are based on specific behaviors, can be completed quickly by teachers or staff based on their knowledge of their children, and can include a broad spectrum of child behaviors.  A number of newer instruments have been developed which attempt to take these issues into account, and several of these will be reviewed in the appropriate sections below. 

Many evaluators of programs for children recommend using multiple methods, usually a combination of standardized measures and more qualitative or program-specific outcome data, to achieve a more balanced picture of outcomes for children.  Simple and readily-available indicators can include existing program records such as attendance and participation data, school grades, and rates of referrals, as well as program satisfaction questionnaires for older children or their parents.  Program-specific indicators appropriate to particular kinds of programs will be suggested in later sections.  As always, the ages and characteristics of the children served by a particular program, and the goals of that program,  will influence the appropriateness of any given outcome measure.

Outcome Components:

Personal and social adjustment in children is a multi-faceted concept.  In choosing outcomes for evaluation of community-based programs for preschool and school-aged children (such as 4-H and State Strengthening projects), it is helpful to distinguish among the following elements of social competence outcomes (Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993).  Some specific indicators for these outcomes components are suggested in separate sections of this website.

  • Copes effectively with personal challenges, frustrations, and stressors
  • Has a good self-image
  • Gets along with other people (adults & peers)
  • Respects cultural and individual differences

Although the emotional foundations of healthy personal and social adjustment may lie in early family relationships, it is important for children to have opportunities to learn and practice social skills through various community-based programs, and to experience nurturing relationships outside of the family context.  These opportunities to interact with peers and caring non-parental adults take on particular significance for children who have not enjoyed nurturing relationships or learned appropriate relationship skills within their families, and therefore may be at risk for poor social adjustment.  As children begin school, learned social skills also have an effect on academic achievements, since almost every learning experience involves a social context. 

Traditional 4-H projects and group activities through Cooperative Extension have long provided opportunities for school-aged children to practice developing skills with peers and non-parental adults, and to engage in prosocial activities.  State Strengthening projects provide an additional means for communities to extend these opportunities to reach and benefit more children who are at risk.  Even very young children can gain social skills through interaction with parents and other caregivers in the context of State Strengthening sponsored programs in local communities. 

Although the elements of personal and social adjustment can be elusive to measure, these are often critical outcomes for community-based programs for at-risk children.  Good assessment in this area may require some imagination, including combination of standardized measures with more qualitative or program-specific assessments.  Multiple assessments that cover several dimensions of social development are most likely to provide a rich picture that effectively captures ways that programs benefit children. 


 Cohn, D. A. (1990). Child-mother attachment of six-year-olds and social competence at school. Child Development, 61(1), 152-162.

 Collins, W. A., & Gunnar, M. R. (1990). Social and personality development. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 387-416.

 Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1994). A review and reformulation of social information-processing mechanisms in children's social adjustment. Psychological Bulletin, 115(1), 74-101.

 Gresham, F. M., & Elliot, S. N. (1984). Assessment and classification of children's social skills: A review of methods and issues. School Psychology Review, 13(3), 292-301.

 Gresham, F. M., & Reschly, D. J. (1987).  Dimensions of social competence: Method factors in the assessment of adaptive behavior, social skills, and peer acceptance. Journal of School Psychology, 25, 367-381.

  Hauser-Cram, P., & Shonkoff, J. P. (1988). Rethinking the assessment of child-focused outcomes. In H. B. Weiss & F. H. Jacobs (Eds.), Evaluating family programs (73-94). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

 Hughes, J. N., & Sullivan, K. A. (1988). Outcome assessment in social skills training with children. Journal of School Psychology, 26, 167-183.

 Rathjen, D. P. (1984).  Social skills training for children: Innovations and consumer guidelines. School Psychology Review, 13(3), 302-310.

 Siantz de Leon, M. L. (1997). Factors that impact developmental outcomes of immigrant children.  In A. Booth, A. C. Crouter, & N. Landale (Eds.), Immigration and the family: Research and policy on U.S. immigrants. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

 Ysseldyke, J. E., & Thurlow, M. (1993, October). Developing a model of educational outcomes (NCEO Report No. 1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, College of Education, National Center on Educational Outcomes.

 Zahn-Waxler, C., & Radke-Yarrow, M. (1990).  The origins of empathic concern. Motivation and Emotion, 14(2), 107-130.

Outcome Components:


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