Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Working with Youth at Risk

Some time ago, I trained as a volunteer coach with a charity called Youth at Risk.

Youth at Risk is a groundbreaking charity, dedicated to making a positive and lasting change to the lives of disaffected and vulnerable young people.

To say that I found my training challenging, especially after years of working on my own as a freelance writer and journalist, would be an understatement. However, the experience of being taken so rigorously outside my comfort zone stood me in good stead when it came to working with the students on the charity's Coaching for Success programme. I knew exactly how they felt when being challenged in this new way! And it was really exciting to watch their "light bulb moments" as the issues that they were struggling with clarified, and they started to identify some of the habits and attitudes that were getting in the way of being able to make the most of their education.

These were bright, lively kids, but some of the choices they were making - always going into a reaction, rather than a response; adopting the sorts of "masks" and behaviours that prevented them making progress; constantly blaming others for their lack of success rather than taking responsibility for what they could do to make a difference; not allowing the possibility of engagement with anyone who might champion them and support their goals - it was riveting to watch the trainers open up areas of insight and self-awareness that created the possibility for some real, positive change.

Our job, as volunteer coaches, is to do the follow-up work. To make a commitment to regularly meet with the students to whom we are assigned, helping them identify their goals, and work out the steps necessary to make progress.

Small steps, big changes.

Sometimes it would mean working out homework schedules that would fit in with their domestic commitments. Sometimes it would be talking through handling anger, and the choices made in response to provocation - this was really important for some of the young men who could potentially make choices that might put their lives at risk. Sometimes it would mean helping to plan an approach to a not-very-interesting coursework assignment. Sometimes it would mean talking through a disciplinary incident at school, or a personality clash with a staff member or other pupil. Sometimes it was about the importance of eating breakfast - or, at least, a banana! Basically it was their agenda, but within the context of creating a more successful approach to reaching their goals.

There is no doubt, too, that all the students I have worked with have taught me a lot: never to make assumptions about what's behind their "mask"; never to assume that you know better than them about their lives; never to underestimate their ability to find a way in or out of a tricky situation! Or spontaneous acts of kindness, like offering me the last carton of fruit juice.

It's a two-way process, this learning thing, and that's what else we share.

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