Reconciling Adaptation and Fidelity: Implications for Scaling Up High Quality Youth Programs

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Graduate School of Social Work


In the field of prevention science, some consider fidelity to manualized protocols to be a hallmark of successful implementation. A growing number of scholars agree that high-quality implementation should also include some adaptations to local context, particularly as prevention programs are scaled up, in order to strengthen their relevance and increase participant engagement. From this perspective, fidelity and adaptation can both be seen as necessary, albeit mutually exclusive, dimensions of implementation quality. In this article, we propose that the relationship between these two constructs may be more complex, particularly when adaptations are consistent with the key principles underlying the program model. Our argument draws on examples from the implementation of a manualized youth voice program (YVP) in two different organizations serving six distinct communities. Through a series of retreats, implementers identified examples of modifications made and grouped them into themes. Results suggest that some adaptations were actually indicators of fidelity to the key principles of YVPs: power-sharing, youth ownership, and engagement in social change. We therefore offer suggestions for re-conceptualizing the fidelity-adaptation debate, highlight implications for measurement and assessment, and illustrate that the de facto treatment of adaptation and fidelity as opposing constructs may limit the diffusion or scaling up of these types of youth programs.

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