How to see things from a young person's perspective: the diary room method
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
When you hear the term diary room, the first things that come to mind are probably a big comfy armchair and your favourite reality TV show…
The diary room method is actually something that we use to evaluate our MST4LifeTM programme. Before we talk about what exactly the diary room method is and why it can be useful, let’s first find out what led us to start using this method in the first place.
In the MST4LifeTM programme, young people are at the centre of what we do. One of our core principles is to adopt a strengths-based approach. This approach means we focus on helping young people to identify and develop key strengths in themselves. This is the opposite of a deficit-based approach, where there is a focus on problems or issues that need to be ‘fixed’.
One of the main ways we can help to support young people in a strengths-based way is by being person-centred. It’s really important that young people recognise that their voices are being heard and that their experiences and opinions matter. By listening to what matters to young people, we focus on learning about the types of support they need; as well as what they like and don’t like.
Another of our guiding principles is self-determination theory. This refers to the motivational principle that we all make choices and take responsibility for those choices, rather than having them determined by an external force.
We know that it’s important to give young people the time and space to reflect on their experiences and choices. A really useful way of reflecting can be through taking time out and talking. But are there any other benefits to reflection?
As well as hearing about what matters to young people, we rely on feedback from those who use our resources. This is to make sure that MST4LifeTM continues to benefit its users. Feedback helps us to evaluate the outcomes of the programme, by making sure it is relevant, accessible and effective.
One of the ways we track the outcomes of the MST4LifeTM programme is by collecting qualitative data. This type of data takes the form of hearing personal stories from the people at the centre of something. It’s different from quantitative data, which involves facts and figures.
We do collect quantitative information so that we know how many young people go on to engage with education, employment and training opportunities, as well as how many exit homelessness after completing MST4LifeTM.
However, it’s also important to gather qualitative data, too. Qualitative data can give us a detailed look into how MST4LifeTM has impacted a person, from their own unique perspective; and it allows you to uncover findings that you might otherwise not have considered. Gathering qualitative data means that our evaluation of the programme is a lot more robust. So, how can we capture this important qualitative data? One way is by using the diary room method.
The diary room method is a focussed way of hearing what young people have to say. It is our way of showing that young people’s experiences and opinions are important and meaningful.
This method is a kind of semi-structured interview. But we don’t mean it’s like a job interview. Instead, the diary room is a much more relaxed and informal way of engaging young people and exploring their feelings.
In this kind of set-up, young people have a lot more control over what they talk about. We just offer some general guidance to help start the conversation.
To use this method, we set up a room with a video camera and lay out a table and chair. On the table, we leave a selection of open-ended questions for young people to talk about. The young person is then left alone in the room and their answers are filmed.
Example open-ended questions begin with:
‘Tell us a bit about…’
‘What do you think about…’
Open-ended questions do not require a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. They are far more conversational and are a great way of encouraging young people to open up. The opposite would be closed-ended questions, which require yes/no answers and can be quite limiting.
So, when you are looking to create a diary room set-up, it’s important to have a loose structure that offers young people choice as well as some general guidance. But what else do you need to consider?
Creating a safe space
It’s important to build a relaxing atmosphere, so that young people feel comfortable and reassured that they are in a safe space. Anything that is said in the diary room is confidential and will not be shared with anyone other than staff members, without the young person’s permission.
It’s worth taking a moment to reassure young people that there will be a member of staff outside the room, who they can call on if they need to. When they have finished, they can leave the room and ask the staff member to turn off the camera. At this point, they are given the opportunity to debrief with staff, if they would like to talk about their experience.
The diary room method is a regular feature at our residential trips to the University of Birmingham’s Raymond Priestley Centre in Coniston, Lake District; marking the final stage of the MST4LifeTM programme. Feedback from young people who have used this method has been very positive. So, what exactly are the benefits of using a diary room to share your thoughts and feelings?
Benefits of the diary room method
Gives the opportunity to share personal stories that might not otherwise be captured
Helps young people to improve their reflection and communication skills
There is no-one else there, which can make opening up easier for those who experience challenges in talking to people
Gathering first-hand knowledge and experience from people who have taken part in the MST4LifeTM programme can benefit others who are starting the programme
By leaving a selection of open-ended questions on the table, young people are given a sense of ownership by choosing the things they would like to talk about
There is no such thing as a right or wrong answer to a question
You can choose to have one of your fellow MST4LifeTM members in the room with you, if you like
Young people are in control of how long they talk for: this can be from a couple of minutes to 20 minutes!
Now that we have gone over some of the many benefits of the diary room method, here is our selection of top tips for those who would like to start implementing this technique in their practice:
Create a safe, relaxed environment: Make sure that young people’s basic psychological needs are met by helping them to feel secure and valued
Create a sense of ownership over choice: Offer gentle guidance by leaving a range of open-ended questions or talking points on the table, that young people can choose from
Be open to trying new things: Consider implementing this method in your practice, to gain valuable insight into the lives and experiences of young people. You might be surprised by what you learn!
The SPRINT project’s Dr Sam Cooley wrote a paper on the diary room method, which you can read by clicking here. Check out this post on the diary room method to find out about more of its many benefits.
Interested in finding out more about mental skills training with young people experiencing homelessness? You can check out our free resources, download our Mental Skills Training Toolkit and Delivery Guide and explore our core principles.
Cooley, S.J., Holland, M., Cumming, J., Novakovic, E. & Burns, V. (2014). Introducing the use of a semi-structured video diary room to investigate students’ learning experiences during an outdoor adventure education groupwork skills course. Higher Education, 67(1), 105-121.
Justin Helmick, Lelia Milaya, Isaac, Josh Hutto & Jonathan Cant on Reshot