Applying systems thinking in youth-centred participatory action research for health promotion in an underserved neighbourhood

Front Public Health. 2024 Jun 3:12:1272663. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2024.1272663. eCollection 2024.


Purpose: Childhood overweight is considered a complex problem influenced by a range of factors, including energy balance-related behaviours (EBRBs) and interacting drivers of these behaviours. There is growing support that applying a systems approach is required to tackle complex problems resulting in actions that attempt to change the system's dynamics. Additionally, a participatory approach is advocated to include the lived experience of the population of interest both in the understanding of the system as well as the development, implementation and evaluation of relevant actions. We therefore combined Intervention Mapping, Participatory Action Research (PAR) and system dynamics in the development, implementation and evaluation of actions contributing to healthy EBRBs together with adolescents.

Methods: Four PAR groups comprising of 6-8 adolescent co-researchers (10-14 years) and 1-2 adult facilitators met weekly during 3-4 years. The structured Intervention Mapping protocol guided the process of the systematic development, implementation and evaluation of actions. System dynamics tools were included for the creation of Causal Loop Diagrams and development of systemic actions.

Results: Our approach comprised six steps that were executed by the PAR groups: (1) build Causal Loop Diagrams for each EBRB through peer research and identify overarching mechanisms, (2) determine leverage points using the Intervention Level Framework, (3) develop action ideas, (4) develop detailed actions including an implementation plan, (5) implement and, (6) evaluate the actions. PAR ensured that the actions fitted the lived experience of the adolescents, whilst system dynamics promoted actions at different levels of the system. The Intervention Mapping protocol ensured that the actions were theory-based. The main challenge involved integrating system dynamics within our practise in cooperation with adolescent co-researchers.

Conclusion: We experienced that combining Intervention Mapping, PAR and system dynamics worked well in developing, implementing and evaluating actions that target different levels of the system that drive adolescents' EBRBs. This study serves as an example to other studies aimed at developing, implementing and evaluating actions using a participatory and systems approach.

Keywords: adolescents; obesity; overweight; participatory action research; systems thinking.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Community-Based Participatory Research*
  • Female
  • Health Promotion* / methods
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pediatric Obesity / prevention & control
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Systems Analysis

Grants and funding

The author(s) declare that financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. This work was supported by a grant from the Netherlands Cardiovascular Research Initiative: An initiative with support of the Dutch Heart Foundation, ZonMw, CVON2016-07 LIKE.