Scientific Papers

Development of the Strengths, Skills, and Goals Matrix: a tool for facilitating strengths-based adolescent and young adult engagement in research | Research Involvement and Engagement

The graduate student and the YARP learned useful lessons as they co-developed and implemented the SSGM within the partnership. We’ve summarized these learnings based on our experiences in Fig. 2. Key reflections included the importance of developing trust and rapport prior to completion, empowering young adults to determine how they would like to use the tool, and connecting AYAs’ current (and desired) skills to specific tasks within the research project and resulting outputs. In addition, approaching the adoption of this tool with a clear set of guiding values as agreed upon by the group, including openness to learning, authenticity, and reciprocity, was an important takeaway from our partnership. In this section, we describe these learnings with reference to how the SSGM was applied within the YARP, as well as strengths and challenges to implementation of the tool.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Implementing the Strengths, Skills, & Goals Matrix

Build trust and connection within the group

Trust and authenticity were paramount to establishing a meaningful AYA-researcher partnership in this project. Efforts were made to create connections between members (at and in between meetings) by allowing time for informal conversations about life outside of the research study, goals for the future, motivations for becoming involved in research, and icebreaker questions. These activities were incorporated into every team meeting throughout the partnership which helped to establish rapport and a sense of comfort in sharing strengths and hopes for future skill development using the SSGM.

Be intentional and collaborative

Once the format of the SSGM tool was solidified within our project, members determined its completion would be optional, supporting the autonomy of each YARP member and the graduate student. Group members, including the graduate student, completed the SSGM outside of scheduled meetings via a collaborative document on the shared drive. Information that was entered into the SSGM was visible to all members immediately which provided an unforeseen benefit of additional ideas about what to include in one’s current or desired skills sections. Without the option of seeing other members’ input on the SSGM, members may not have considered including certain skills and strengths in their own sections. This collaborative process revealed “hidden” skills that were not immediately evident as relevant to the research project but were ultimately intentionally utilized (e.g., social media management). Furthermore, this process uncovered YARP members’ interests outside of the research project, further strengthening personal relationships among members. All information provided in the SSGM was self-reported, and YARP members were not expected to be experts in the subject matter or provide evidence of competency of their knowledge or skills.

Be open-minded and flexible

Though the SSGM was optional, it was utilized by all group members (including the graduate student) and reported to be highly beneficial by the YARP. Given the YARP were involved in the graduate-level research project over an 18-month period, the tool was revisited and each member’s progress was discussed on an annual basis. The described growth in knowledge and skills was not limited to YARP members but was also described by the graduate student. The tool itself was a living document which could be modified by any member of the team throughout the partnership. For example, additional columns were included in year two of the project based on YARP members’ hopes for more intentionally tracking their progress and contributions to the study.

Empower youth to lead

While the graduate student completed the SSGM, she was not directly involved in facilitating peer-to-peer connections between YARP members based on their responses on the SSGM. During the development of the SSGM, the YARP expressed an interest in taking ownership of connecting with peers based on their individual needs and preferences. If a task presented itself during the research project (e.g., conference co-presentation) involving a skill that a YARP member did not possess (e.g., confidence in public speaking), the YARP could refer to the SSGM themselves and connect with a member who identified that skill (e.g., public speaking) as being a strength. This self-directed process was beneficial, as it allowed the connections to be timely, authentic, informal, and comfortable for YARP members to discuss areas of growth without fear of judgment. Of note, YARP members had choice over whether they wanted to mentor or be mentored by another AYA based on their interests, availability, and motivations and this was not a requirement of the research partnership. If there were skills YARP members hoped to develop that did not align with other YARPs’ strengths, the graduate student sought out opportunities to provide education/support to enhance specific skills where possible (e.g., in mixed methods research or qualitative analysis).

The peer-to-peer mentorship often occurred in one-on-one meetings outside of regularly scheduled YARP meetings using a preferred method of communication including online messaging platforms or via video-conference. For instance, two YARP members met via Zoom to discuss strategies for managing stress during public speaking engagements and to practice reviewing slides in preparation for conference co-presentations related to the project. In this example, the mentor was able to provide tips and tricks that aided in their confidence with public speaking. The two YARP members held mock presentations to practice these skills in a low-pressure environment before implementing them in academic co-presentations.

During these peer-initiated meetings, the YARP member offering mentorship was not required to be an expert in the skill or strength; rather they offered knowledge based on their experience with that particular skill. This mutual understanding made the meetings less formal and prescriptive, which led to positive outcomes for both parties. The mentor gained experience and confidence offering their expertise, and the mentee made progress towards a skill they were looking to develop in a safe and encouraging environment. This dynamic was also beneficial because the advice was delivered by a peer, making it relatable to the mentee given their closeness in age and life stage. The learning could be reciprocal, with the roles of mentor and mentee being switched based on the skill or the strength being developed. In addition, the YARP noted the style of leadership and interaction with the graduate student to be particularly productive since they were of similar age. If applicable, members would upload resources to the shared drive to aid in mentoring other YARP.

Connect specific skills with project outputs

YARP members reflected on how the SSGM assisted them in organizing and tracking the acquisition of specific competencies related to research, professional development, and social skills. YARPs’ reflections on the tool, and the partnership more broadly, were obtained through annual team discussions and optional memos. At the request of the YARP, the graduate student facilitated informal group discussions on an annual basis about key learnings, perceptions of engagement strategies (including tools used), meeting structure, and hopes for future directions. Guiding questions were sent to YARP members in advance of these annual discussions to allow them to prepare. In addition, the graduate student developed a memo template for YARP members which included prompts and headings that could be used to document their experiences of the partnership. Memos were optional and could be completed anonymously at any point during the partnership. YARP members who were interested in sharing their reflections on the tool and engagement process sent their memos to the graduate student for review. The memos and group discussions contained striking examples of members getting to practice and apply specific skills outlined in the SSGM (e.g., delivering oral presentations) and the subsequent outcomes (e.g., improved confidence in public speaking skills, greater comfort expressing thoughts in team meetings).

The ability to articulate their hopes and goals for engagement in research and subsequently monitor their progress over time were described as key benefits of the SSGM by the YARP. The YARP felt that having autonomy over their involvement also supported sustained interest in the project. The skills all members, including the graduate student, acquired through the project are transferable to a variety of other contexts, both personally and professionally. The YARP members shared that the relationships, knowledge, and skills gained as a result of the SSGM extended beyond the graduate student’s thesis, including lasting relationships with each other, understanding of mixed methods research, stronger writing skills, confidence in peer mentorship, and presentation skills. For example, one YARP who prioritized public speaking skill development shared that through this project, they noticeably increased their ability to deliver presentations at school. An outcome they shared with the group after receiving peer mentorship and delivering several co-presentations was a high mark on an assigned presentation with excellent feedback relating to their ability to seamlessly speak to the class. This YARP had previously found class presentations to be very challenging, resulting in low marks and significant feedback. Another YARP member who is involved in several research initiatives now advocates for using the SSGM at the outset of all projects to support group-based and individual goal setting.

Strengths and challenges to implementation

The co-designed SSGM offered solutions to common barriers in AYA engagement in our partnership. Although researchers possess a variety of skills relevant to patient-engaged research, time with leadership is often a limited resource. Researchers may lack adequate time to build capacity with AYA research partners. This tool provided a platform to acknowledge the unique skills and strengths that every AYA brought to the research team, including specific competencies that researchers may not possess. As such, it utilized a strengths-based approach [16] to AYA engagement underpinned by the theory of positive youth development [15], wherein the capacities of AYAs are honoured and acknowledged. The decreased power dynamic between peers allowed AYAs to be more comfortable while making progress towards desired skills (e.g., qualitative data analysis, social media management, public speaking), while creating strong relationships with each other.

While implementation of the SSGM within this project was quite seamless, likely due to the high levels of motivation and cohesion among the YARP, the process of developing and utilizing the tool was not without its challenges. In the initial stages of the research partnership, group guidelines regarding communication processes and timelines for task completion were still being solidified. This meant that some members contributed their responses to the tool as soon as it was co-developed, while others required prompting and reminders to do so. To address this challenge, the graduate student added “discussion of the SSGM” to the monthly meeting agenda once its format was agreed upon by the group and set deadlines for completion. The YARP and the graduate student were invited to share their own rows of the SSGM with the group at meetings which aided in creating a sense of accountability to the group and connection to other members. The opportunity for sharing and discussion also assisted YARP members in considering alignments between their existing strengths and those their peers hoped to develop. In addition, YARP who engaged in peer-to-peer mentorship outside of monthly meetings elected to share their progress with skill development and their processes of supporting each other with other members. These updates from YARP members were added to monthly meeting agendas (when requested) and served to encourage other members to consider engaging in sideways mentorship with their peers. Transparent discussions about the purpose of the tool, timelines for completion, the roles of group members, and expectations surrounding sharing progress with peers were held in order to mitigate challenges with implementation.

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