Everyone Can Vote

In true democracies, everyone is able to vote. EVEYONE. Regardless of any personal characteristics. There would be ways of understanding and knowing everyone’s political preferences in order to form a stable and well performing political organization. Some individuals may require more advanced methods of expressing their preferences. Those methods must be provided equitably by the political process and institutions.

Canadian Evaluation Conference 2015: Proposals Accepted!

I’ve recently had two presentation proposals accepted for the upcoming Canadian Evaluation Conference in Montreal in May. I’m very excited to be presenting on the following topics:

Involving Youth in a Participatory and Developmental Evaluation


Programs and services designed for youth have traditionally excluded the participation and voice of its main stakeholders and beneficiaries. This often results in poorly designed interventions that further exclude youth and misses opportunities for empowerment.

A youth participatory and developmental evaluation was conducted for a youth mentorship program designed for young community leaders that have started their own social enterprises in downtown Toronto. Youth in the program were encouraged to participate in the evaluation through various methods including obtaining youth assent, reflective discussions, creating accountability systems, and assuring confidentiality and appropriate use of youth voices. This paper presents the lessons learned using various strategies and approaches to working with youth, as well as, the systematic and ethical strategies of maximizing participation and appropriate use of evaluation findings.


Youth participatory evaluation is quickly growing as a new field of inquiry that promises to strengthen and enhance programs and services designed for youth. Involving youth in the design, implementation and reporting of evaluation activities can substantial increase the relevance, accuracy and impact of the evaluation findings by ensuring that the main stakeholders have a meaningful and authentic role in the design and continual improvement of programs and services designed for them. In addition to creating and disseminating more relevant and accurate evaluation findings, youth participatory evaluation can be more ethical than the many traditional research methods used in program evaluation.
A youth participatory and developmental evaluation was conducted for a youth mentorship program designed for young community leaders that have started their own social enterprises in downtown Toronto. To properly evaluate and instil a ‘culture of innovation’ within the program, a comprehensive evaluation framework was designed with the first cohort of the mentorship program. To build a solid base from which the evaluation can evolve with maximal youth participation, a Theory of Change workshop was conducted with the program participants, including youth-mentees, adult mentors, program staff and other interested community members. From this base, youth were encouraged to participate in the evaluation through various, intentionally designed participatory methods, including obtaining youth assent, frequent reflective discussions, creating accountability systems, and assuring confidentiality and appropriate use of youth voices.

Considering that many of the youth in the program lead their own social enterprises that focus on the creative arts, it was decided that evaluation findings would be presented through various formats in addition to the traditional report to funders, including story-telling, spoken word, and theatrical presentations. These creative formats of disseminating evaluation findings was meant to empower youth to be able to share their experiences and opinions in ways that built on their strengths of creative performance and artistic endeavours.
In addition to a participatory evaluation approach, a developmental evaluation (DE) approach was also followed. Due to the rapidly changing nature of youth culture, as well as, government policies, programs and services for youth, a developmental approach to program evaluation ensured that the program can remain relevant and useful to the program participants. DE was particularly well suited for this program because of the highly complex and constantly changing nature of youth programming in the creative arts and social enterprise sector.

This presentation will include a demonstration of the various strategies and approaches to working with youth in the creative arts sector, as well as, the systematic and ethical strategies of maximizing participation and appropriate use of evaluation findings. The presentation will engage the audience in discussion around the following questions: How can evaluators meaningfully enter a youth culture that may be different than typical research settings? How do you empower youth to use evaluation findings for program improvements, as well as, personal improvement? As an adult researcher, what are the strategies to remain ethical and responsive to the needs of the youth in the evaluation?


Obtaining young children’s assent to participate in research


The methodology of research is critical in determining any truth claim that a research study posits. In researching childhood, a critical methodological concern is the power dynamics that occur between adults (who are typically the researcher) and children (who are typically the subject). In order to make any truth claims based on the scientific process, careful consideration must be given to the ethics of involving children in research so that power dynamics can become more equalized. This process begins with obtaining children’s assent to participate in the research process. As an adult researcher, the process of obtaining children’s assent rests on the recognition that children are competent social actors who are capable of making sense of and affecting their societies. From this recognition, adult and child researchers can begin the design and sense-making activities of research that will enhance any discoveries made about childhood.


All research involves at least two main participants, the researcher and the subject. The relationship between researcher and subject is defined by the methodology of the research. The methodology of research is critical in determining any truth claim that a research study posits.

In researching childhood, a critical methodological concern is the power dynamics that occur between adults and children. In order to make any truth claims based on the scientific process, careful consideration must be given to the ethics of involving children in research so that power dynamics can become more equalized. Ethical considerations include: how an adult researcher’s attitude and ideas about children influence the scientific process and truth statements; how a child’s attitude and ideas about adult researchers influence the scientific process and truth statements; the social environment in which the research is taking place; and the use of research discoveries. These considerations take into account the sociology of childhood which is also a well established academic discipline.

The evaluation of programs and services for children can learn a lot from the sociology of childhood in order to design and implement effective and ethical interventions in the lives of children. This presentation will highlight some of the ethical considerations that adults need to take when working with young children and will inspire some creative, fun and engaging ways to obtain children’s assent to participate in evaluation activities.

Thoughts while reading: Children and the Feminist Ethic of Care by Tom Cockburn

I have an idealized vision of liberating children from subtle and overt oppressive social norms in society. The process of liberation that I envision looks similar to other historic social movements, such as those involving slaves, women and ethnic minorities. These movements follow (in an overly simplistic way) as such: oppressed groups in society understand the ways in which they are oppressed by reflecting on their situation compared to ‘others’; a liberation discourse takes hold and the oppressed group demands for equal rights and opportunities; then, equal rights and opportunities are granted (or obtained) and are legally codified.

In the article on the feminist’s ethic of care, Cockburn (2005) states, “…children can become aware that they are disadvantaged only if they are able to make evaluative judgements based on the practices occurring ‘out there’ in the wider world beyond the dyadic caring relationship.” (p. 84). In the context of the article and in my own words, it seems that the author is saying that one path to liberation for children is for them to become aware of the differences of care (between relationships and between the carer and cared for) that occur outside their own personal relationships. Additionally, these differences of care are characterized by various levels and forms of power, justice and equality which become increasingly apparent.

As a children’s advocate, the moral and ethical reasoning that has dominated my actions and beliefs has largely been based on a rights-based discourse that emphasizes the uniformity and abstractness of the human condition. I’ve been guided by an idealized notion that children are deserving of respect and autonomy because they are fundamentally similar to adults in their capacity to evaluate their social condition and express that condition. The article on the Ethics of Care has inspired me to consider more the context (both historical and situational) in which care (and thus dependence) occurs, and how it defines and structures a relationship that either perpetuates or abolishes dominant oppressive attitudes.

Cockburn, T. (2005). Children and the Feminist Ethic of Care. Childhood 12(71). 71-89.

Participatory research with children with disabilities in the global south

A recently published article in the academic journal, Childhood, explores how disabled children and young people in the global south can meaningfully participate in research activities that seek to understand their lives.

I am particularly interested in stretching my self-awareness of power and privilege as a social researcher interested in the lives of some of the most marginalized voices on the planet—children with disabilities. How can I empower children with disabilities to feel comfortable and able to express their ideas, opinions and perspectives to those in power and have an influence on their decision-making processes?

Title: Ask us too! Doing participatory research with disabled children in the global south

Abstract: This article considers how disabled children and young people living in the global south can be included actively in research that explores their lives. While acknowledging the complex, theoretical dilemmas in the overlapping arenas of childhood, disability and international development, the focus here is on methodology. Many researchers argue that children in diverse contexts can be active participants in research and this is increasingly occurring globally. However, this trend towards consulting children themselves is rarely extended to those with disabilities. Arguably, they are accidentally forgotten, assumed to have nothing to say or perceived to be methodologically difficult to include. Thus, disabled children and young people’s perspectives are overlooked, particularly in the global south. We describe two participatory research projects with disabled children and young people in India and Sri Lanka, and focus particularly on practical issues that arose including recruitment, information and consent processes and data collection methods. We argue that considering these issues and making the necessary adaptations to enable children with a variety of impairments to participate meaningfully contributes to enacting both the relevant United Nations conventions, the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Advocating their participation without making appropriate provisions is potentially tokenistic and unethical. It is necessary and possible to include them both in ‘mainstream’ child- focussed research, and specific disability-orientated projects. Involving disabled children in research has dual purposes: inclusion of their perspectives alongside those of other children and highlighting their disability-specific views where relevant. What they say may be surprising to some and challenge assumptions about them. Importantly, this will contribute to reducing their marginalisation from mainstream society.

Link to article: http://chd.sagepub.com/content/21/3/400.abstract

PhD-able research topic

I am thinking of some research topics that I would like to pursue in a PhD program.

Here is one such topic: A rights-based approach to children’s participation in public-private partnerships in international development

A major reason why I am interested in this topic is I believe that it can help reduce the over-commercialization of childhood, which in turn, can reduce consumption of limited natural resources. The logic follows that if children are responsible (and act responsibly as they grow) they will de-value material wealth and commercial activity, and value interactions with the natural environment. It all starts with adults (power holders in today’s society) creating the conditions for children’s genuine participation in all matters that affect them.

Some questions:

  • why a rights-based approach?
  • why children’s participation?
  • why public-private partnerships?
  • why international development?

I choose the above topics because my ecology of evidence indicates that this is how I will have the largest impact in the world. What is my ecology of evidence? For starters, check out my website at www.nickpetten.com for some of my writings, then come talk with me.

Adultism defined

I came across a good, quick definition of the term, adultism. In the past, I used the term ‘childism’ to describe the same thing. After reading more into it, I am discovering that ‘adultism’ is a preferred term by academics and is more established in the literature on the subject.

Here it is:

“Adultism is understood as the oppression experienced by children and young people at the hands of adults and adult-produced/adult-tailored systems. It relates to the socio-political status differentials and power relations endemic to adult-child relations. Adultism may include experiences of individual prejudice, discrimination, violence and abuse as well as social control and systemic oppression. At an individual level, it is characterized by adult authoritarianism toward children and adult-centric perspectives in interacting with children and in understanding children’s experiences. Systemic adultism is characterized by adult-centric legislation, policies, rules and practices that are embedded within social structures and institutions which impact negatively on children’s daily lives and result in disadvantaged and oppressive social relations.”

LeFrancois, B. A. (2013). Adultism. In T. Teo (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Fragile Freedoms: Podcast

I began my morning by listening to a podcast interview from the CBC with Helena Kennedy, a British scholar and broadcaster, who explores human rights challenges emerging in the 21st century. The interview was part of a series called, Fragile Freedoms: the Global Struggle for Human Rights on CBC’s Ideas.
Much of her insights in the podcast came from a legal perspective. She is a lawyer that takes on cases that focus heavily on human rights and international relations. Her insights were particularly interesting to me when she mentioned how countries set a legal precedence when constructing laws that are meant to prevent terrorism. Her argument was that when countries erode the fundamental human rights of suspected terrorists—in the name of protecting the state—it sets a precedence for other countries to further erode the rights of their own citizens. She gave the example of when the US government passed laws after the collapse of the twin towers in New York in September 2001. These laws allowed the US to hold a suspected terrorist indefinitely which, in part, gave countries like Syria the opportunity to rationalize their aggression against their own people in the name of fighting terrorism.
Hear more from the podcast by following this link:http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/ideas_20140402_45481.mp3

Roots of Empathy Evaluation Reflections

This short post summarizes the evaluation work of the Roots of Empathy program up to 2012. I was not involved in the evaluation. Regardless, I suggest some recommendations for future evaluations in different cultural contexts considering the emerging international scope of the program. You can view publications of the Roots of Empathy program here.

The Program

The Roots of Empathy (ROE) program is an evidence-based classroom program that is meant to foster the development of social and emotional learning and understanding while decreasing aggressive and other anti-social behaviors in children (Roots of Empathy, 2012). The emotion of empathy is considered to be a core developmental competency that supports and enhances other prosocial behaviors that last a lifetime (Roots of Empathy, 2012). ROE began in 1996 in Toronto, Canada with the support of the Toronto District School Board. Since then, the program has expanded and implemented in rural, urban and Aboriginal communities across Canada, internationally in the United States, New Zealand, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, and Scotland with pilot projects elsewhere (Roots of Empathy, 2012).

The three primary goals of the program are to (1) develop children’s social and emotional understanding, (2) promote children’s prosocial behaviors and decrease their aggressive behaviors, and (3) increase children’s knowledge about infant development and effective parenting practices (Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait, Hertzman, 2011).


Program Activities

The cornerstone of the program is monthly visits of a parent and their infant child. These visits serve to springboard discussions, lessons and activities within the classroom that are facilitated by ROE program instructors and classroom teachers. One of the core material inputs of the ROE program is a 639-page curriculum with lesson plans and activities which are divided into affective and cognitive components (Roots of Empathy, 2012; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). The affective component of the program is meant to address the short-term goal of developing children’s social and emotional understanding, empathy and problem-solving skills (Schonert- Reichl et al., 2011). The cognitive component of the program is meant to increase children’s knowledge about infant development and promote effective parenting practice (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). The ultimate goals of the program are the development of prosocial behaviors and decrease of aggressive behaviors that last a lifetime (Roots of Empathy, 2012).


Why It Should Work?

The ROE program operates on the well-researched understanding that emotional processes and social understandings play a critical role in the development of prosocial and aggressive behaviors, and interpersonal relationships in children (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). Furthermore, empathy is understood to be a core component in the genesis and enactment of prosocial behaviors (Schonert-Reichl, 2011). The lesson plans and activities that address the affective component of the ROE program create an ecology in the classroom environment which emphasizes caring, collaboration and understanding of others (Cohen, 2011; Noddings, 1993). This environment is also conducive to the general classroom curriculum as children use math skills to determine an infant’s height and weight, build literacy skills through books on emotions, and develop artistic skills as children express their inner emotions through paintings, drawings and song (Roots of Empathy, 2012). The program should work as an effective preventative initiative to guide children onto successful development paths by emphasizing prosocial behaviors and decreasing aggressive behaviors. Furthermore, the sustainability of the program is addressed by emphasizing its role in the state-mandated, general education curriculum (Roots of Empathy, 2012).

Previous Evaluations

A previous program evaluations was conducted by Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman- Zait and Hertzman in 2011 in order to evaluate the impact of the ROE program on the social and emotional competence of school-aged children. Their study used a quasi-experimental control- group pretest-posttest, multi-informant design with 585 4th – to 7th grade children from 28 classrooms in two Canadian cities. They found significant improvements across several domains including understandings of infant distress, empathy, perspective taking, prosocial behaviors and a reduction in aggressive behaviors.

Since then, 7 other program evaluations have been conducted across Canada with different grades and populations (Roots of Empathy Research Report, 2009). Most early evaluations of the program used selected control groups that matched with respect to grade, gender, and race/ethnicity composition. Two other evaluations were conducted using randomized controlled studies, which represent ‘gold standards’ in program evaluations because it ensures both known and unknown confounding factors are evenly distributed between the groups (Roots of Empathy Research Report, 2009).

Future Evaluations

Considering that the program is currently operating in multiple countries with varying social and cultural characteristics, I would propose a program evaluation that carefully considers the assumptions and external factors that lead to the program outcomes. The assumptions made by Schonert-Reichl et al. (2011) were based on the typical developmental paths by children in a Canadian, urban context where stories of marginalization, aggression and bullying are prevalent (Roots of Empathy, 2012). Other contexts in which the program is operating, for example, in Northern Ireland where conflict is underpinned by historical, religious, political, economic, and psychological elements (Cairns & Darby, 1998), the assumptions and external factors that lead to improvements in prosocial behavior and decreases in aggressive behaviors may be radically different than the Canadian context.

A key challenge for many schools involve serving culturally diverse students with varied abilities and motivations for learning (Learning First Alliance, 2001). As such, I recommend a mixed quantitative-qualitative program evaluation of the ROE program using randomized controlled groups from various schools that represent radically different ethnographic populations. The evaluation measurements of the outcomes would be based on the unique needs and characteristics of the children. For example, to assess participant’s empathy related response, Schonert-Reichl et al. (2011) used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983), a self- report that measures different dimensions of empathy. In another study on empathy, Cliffordson (2001) used the IRI in combination with a global measure to examine the agreement of empathy between parents and students. The use of the parents’ judgement in children’s empathy development may provide extra context and validation to the child’s empathic development within the ROE program that reflects their unique social and cultural context.



Cairns, E. and Darby, J. (1998). The conflict in Northern Ireland: Causes, consequences, and controls. American Psychologist 53(7). 754-760.

Cohen, J. (Ed.). (2001). Caring classrooms/intelligent schools: The social emotional education of young children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cliffordson, C. (2001) ‘Parents’ judgments and students’ self-judgments of empathy’. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17(1), pp. 36 – 47.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113–126.

Learning First Alliance. (2001). Every child learning: Safe and supportive schools. Washington, DC.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Roots of Empathy (2012). Roots of Empathy: From Research to Recognition. Retrieved June 13, 2012, from http://www.rootsofempathy.org/en/

Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011). Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviors in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children. School Mental Health, 4(1), 1-21.

Research with Children

I am often asked how one can conduct research with children in order to truly represent their voice in the findings, whether its for public consultations, academic research or program evaluations. My first task is to probe with questions about the underlying purpose of involving children in the research. Unfortunately, I’ve had some conversations where the involvement of children is only surface-level deep–a tokenistic inclusion of children’s voices. Usually, this only serves to weaken and undermine the true purpose of research: to uncover truths about our world through scientific methods including representative samples. It can also harm and misrepresent children that are involved in the research.

If you are starting to think about how to genuinely involve children’s participation in research, you better be ready to read A LOT! By reading some of the great material on research with children you can begin to understand children’s position in research–and even in our adult-centric world. Meaningfully and authentically involving children’s participation in research can contribute immensely to the truths that you are trying to uncover in your research. Not only will your program be better off with a good understanding of your stakeholders, but you will be actively supporting and advocating for the realization of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child–one of the most important and widely accepted international conventions. Doesn’t that sound great?!

Here is some material to get your started on you reading adventure:

Also, these organizations publish material that relates to involving children in research, monitoring and evaluations:


Presentation: Children’s Online Privacy and Rights

Petten MaRS presentation 2014

On March 19th, 2014 at the MaRS Discover District in Toronto, Ontario, I presented to a group of educators, technologists, entrepreneurs and nonprofits on the topic of Children’s Online Privacy and Rights. In light of a rapidly changing legislative environment in which child-oriented businesses operate, the presentation focused on how businesses and the private economic sector affect children and childhood. Discussions focused on ethical and pedagogical issues that businesses faced, which were highlighted through various case studies (included below in the links). The topic of vulnerabilitiesand, specifically, children’s vulnerabilities to the marketplace–was discussed and highlighted through examples. The presentation ended with providing multiple, practical ways of becoming more child-friendly through the adoption of specific policies and processes that respect, protect and remedy children’s online privacy and rights.

Main Takeaways:

  • Trends and Legislation
    • There is a big difference between ages. Children are not a homogenous group and are as diverse as adults
    • There is a growing market with younger children going online and using apps
    • Considering the upward trends in children’s media use, a number of advocacy groups and law makers have introduced legislation aimed to regulate how commercial enterprises collect, distribute and use personal information of children.
    • While COPPA is a much welcomed piece of legislation in the wild west of the app marketplace, there is a large emphasis on parental rights, rather than children’s rights. I would be very excited to see some legislation around children’s informed consent. For example, requiring that companies develop policies that are directly accessible to children.
    • I’ve only presented three different pieces of legislation that apply to children’s online privacy. If you want to access the broad North American market, you’ll have to look at individual state and provincial legislation. If that seems like a massive undertaking for a small start-up, then a simple solution is just not to collect children’s personal information and/or advertise to them.
  • Ethical and Pedagogical Issues
    • The children’s market (whether it includes food, clothing, toys, video games, and education technology) is a massive industry with a growing base of consumers. This makes it a very appealing and exciting market for new ventures.
    • There are many strong voices that criticize the role of commercial activity in childhood. They are worried, and rightfully so, that this commercial activity threatens to harm children’s healthy development and socialization.
    • Businesses are increasingly creating and influencing the experiences of childhood. This is problematic if the sole purpose of a business is to maximize profit without ethical regard for children’s well-being and learning objectives.
    • Children represent a vulnerable group in society. Therefore, as a business you have an ethical responsibility to respect their unique vulnerabilities and design a business that does not exploit them.
    • In general, for all the ethical issues that I talked about, you should always ask yourself: Does it truly benefit children or is it about the bottom line of the company?
    • Creating a pedagogically sound product or service for children means to respect them as learners and individuals. If your company is solely focused on making untested claims, using information for marketing and advertising, and profit maximization, you run a great risk of alienating your customers.


 Download the PDF.

* Disclaimer: I do not necessarily endorse these organizations. I am attempting to represent the broad perspectives on the issue.

People and organizations to follow:

Children’s Rights and Business:

US Gov’t websites:

News Stories referenced in presentation: