FOCUS ON: How Do We Know We Are Making a Difference for Children?

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Guest Contribution by: Rebecca Gokiert and Karen Edwards, Community-University Partnership (CUP) at the University of Alberta.



Every program manager has wondered “Are we really making a difference?” and “How do we prove it?” In the past decade, the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families (CUP), University of Alberta has worked collaboratively with managers of early childhood development (ECD) programs to develop evaluation plans to help them respond to these questions.

However, the reality is that as funding sources become more competitive, the demand for evaluation and program accountability grows and yet ECD programs struggle to find adequate resources and capacity to conduct evaluations. Program staff are working at maximum capacity, under time pressures, and may not understand why specific data is being collected. Funders may request that programs use specific evaluation methods that do not seem to match with the intended outcomes.

Ultimately, there is a disconnect in how we think, define and use evaluation depending on our role, sector and organization. This can lead to misunderstandings about the difference we are making.

What are some things we do know?

We know that strong well-rounded ECD programming provides healthy experiences and creates a foundation for a lifetime of healthy outcomes. We know that policies and programs that promote development during the first five years of life help reduce expensive interventions in later years. We know that funders who support initiatives that improve ECD outcomes are increasingly requiring evidence of program and service effectiveness. We know that community agencies struggle to support the capacity, knowledge and skills to collect the evidence needed to demonstrate their impacts and justify continued support. We know we need to talk more about this process. We know we need to talk more about evaluation.

What don’t we know and what are we going to do about it?

There is a lot we don’t know or yet understand… but our aim is to change this through collaboration and conversation. We have created a network of interested program managers, researchers, government partners and funders working in the field of ECD. We have created the Evaluation Capacity Network (ECN) to support conversations among the partners to shift the way people think about evaluation. Evaluation is not a once a year event but an ongoing process for program reflection and improvement. We also want to understand and address capacity barriers around evaluation for ECD programs.

To date, the Network has engaged 35 partners across provincial and territorial government departments, university departments, funding agencies and community organizations. In the coming months we will:

  • Distribute a survey to ECD stakeholders involved in evaluation for feedback on their practices, thinking and capacity in evaluation;
  • Complete a report outlining the nature of the evaluation capacity issues within the ECD sector; and
  • Host forums across the province to foster critical discussions among partners about the true evaluation capacity needs within the field of ECD.

If you are interested in learning more about the ECN or joining us, please visit our webpage at or email us at

Only by sharing your views, can you shift the conversation!

This article appeared in our March 2015 News Bulletin. Click here to read the rest of the bulletin!

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