A little learning

For most of the years I've been volunteering with after-school youth programming at an immigrants agency, I've attended the volunteer orientation at the beginning of the year. There are generally moments when I wonder why I'm wasting my time there (clearly, most of the volunteers don't show), but by the end of the evening, I've usually come away with some insights that stick with me.

Last year, I was reminded not to be negative about math to the kids, but also to not call any given assignment "easy." These children may or may not be literate in their mother tongue, may or may not have had development-stunting undernutrition in their childhood, etc.; it may shame or frustrate a youth to have work he or she finds "impossible" dismissed as "simple." So, I resolved to urge all my young charges that their assignments are always "do-able!"

This year, two facilitators who work with at-risk youth regaled us with stories from their experiences while forcing us into (uncomfortable) partner work, and ultimately, despite the grating "leadership" language, teaching some helpful perspectives on becoming adult mentors to youth. I resolved to take home three insights:

1) Bids: any attempt at interaction from a child or youth is a "bid" for relationship. In-kind reciprocation is "catching" the bid. If you accept the bid, you're at the beginning of a possibility to build trust. If you reject it, the child will move on to someone else. Endeavour to catch all bids.

2) Tit for tat: children and youth with a history of negative experiences have come to expect hostility/disdain/dismissal from adults and will attempt to provoke exactly that. Expected behaviour, however negative, is preferable to surprises. The answer: don't push back.
The facilitators told a story that thrilled my heart as a beautiful example of nonviolence: an angry girl lashed out in a stream of invective and insults at the two adult mentors who sat there smiling and nodding until the girl, confused by their unexpectedly gentle behaviour, had exhausted her rage and was ready to be reasonable.
This one is tricky; it'll take plenty of intention, combating my instincts, and creative thinking to find a way around responding to "tit" with "tat."

Finally, 3) Children and youth can't get enough of affirmation. They aren't looking for adult mentors who exhort them about what to do -- that's what parents are for -- they want people to believe in them. The classic feedback sandwich (bury a criticism between two positive comments) has grown "many-sliced" in the past decades of research. Over the past 15 years, the number has grown from 4 positive comments to a young person for every correction to 16! Working with youth, the facilitators said, praise absolutely every thing the kids do right, no matter how trivial, from the first moment, so when the inevitable correction is needed, a buffer of affirmation has already been established.
The facilitators also encouraged us to listen for affirmation. We did an exercise where one partner spoke and the other listened, and was only allowed to speak if the words were praise or affirmation.When youth tell an adult about something they've decided, they're not actually looking for advice. They've decided on their course of action: they're looking for someone to respond. No matter how bad the idea, the facilitators urged, find something to affirm, because criticism will only throw up walls, whereas encouragement builds relationship.

It all sounded so inspiring the way the facilitators told it, but I know it'll take a lot of work, not only with the kids who I coach along in their homework, but also my peaches who are quickly growing up.


Fascinating. And things I'll store in my heart for the monkey.
kar0ling said…
The "say only positive things" bit feels really unintuitive, and the facilitators did give parents an exception on that -- this was advice for mentors to be friends to kids since they already have parents to do the chiding.
I guess tit-for-tat is unintuitive as well, but theologically I'm totally down with that; the challenge is just figuring out how to practice it.

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