The three principles of successful youth work

Ryan Currie, Project Manager, Reeltime Music

Ryan Currie

Ryan Currie

Do you ever feel that you don’t know what you’re doing?

Do you ever sit through meetings with umpteen partner agencies around a table and think “This isn’t really helping anyone”?

Maybe no-one is involving young people because of the pressure to hit targets and meet outcomes?

Or how about this one, have you ever been in a situation where you see young people being asked to take on huge, unrealistic projects because it will look good at higher levels?

What I am about to talk about might be one of those things that everyone already knows and I’ve come late to the party (which happens a lot more than I would like). Maybe you all covered it in your first youth work course. In which case, sit back and have a chuckle at me teaching my granny to suck eggs.

A few years ago, in one of those aforementioned meetings I found in my hands a YouthLink Scotland leaflet titled “Statement on the nature and purpose of Youth Work”. I’d seen it before. I’d read it before. Now maybe it was just that skimming through leaflets is sometimes more interesting than big meetings but this time something clicked when I looked at the three definitive features of youth work.

1.        Young people choose to participate

Not to get all philosophical but this could be the most important skill we seek to build in young people. Call it what you wish: agency, response-ability, choice, locus of control. We all have increased wellbeing when we feel we have a choice.

The takeaway for me?

In my experience there are three main reasons why a young person chooses not to do something. First, they may have tried the activity before and simply don’t enjoy it. Second, they haven’t tried the activity but it scares them a little. Third, their intuition tells them they don’t have the skill or capability. A good worker will accept the first reason and work with the young person to do something about the other two. They won’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can. They also know that if you don’t try something you miss out on essential feedback on how it felt, what it was like and how to improve.

2.        The work must build from where young people are

This includes designing work around the interests of young people and their geographical location. But one of the most interesting aspects for me is skill.

One of the hard parts of building skills is matching the skill to the challenge. If you are high in skills but given an easy challenge, you’ll be bored. Conversely, if you are low in skill and are given a tough challenge, you’ll get anxious.

The takeaway for me?

Sometimes collaborating with young people can be tough. They’ll sometimes have ideas and don’t have the skills to match. You might say “But Ryan, how will they ever build the skills if no-one gives them the chance?” My answer would be to design work which demonstrates what they can do now (where they are). From here, build in small steps to where they would like to go. Make the game winnable. Everyone will thank you for that. Just maybe not straight away.

3.        Youth work recognises the young person and the youth worker as partners in a learning process.

We’ve all been involved in projects where no one asked the young people involved for their opinion. It would be trite to say it should never happen, because it does. With all the pressures of funding, organisations and politics sometimes we don’t realise until part way through or afterwards that we’ve done it.

The takeaway for me?

I’ve never been annoyed with anyone who reminded me that we need to involve young people in what is basically “their” work, and I’ve never annoyed a partner by reminding them that no one has asked a young person for their opinion. If you see me doing it, please give me a nudge.

So back to those questions at the start. Whenever I see a young person not participating through fear, partnership projects getting a bit messy, or when I see young people being faced with completely unrealistic projects (whether chosen by them or workers), I remind myself of these three things. In fact I write it at the top of every project plan I do. There are worse ways to begin.


One thought on “The three principles of successful youth work

  1. Thanks Ryan for such a practical reminder of how we should remind ourselves of what good youth work means. If anyone leaves these principles behind, they might be doing work with young people – but is it youth work?

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