“Program” shouldn’t be a dirty word

Once upon a time, I taught at a Technical College.  I focused mainly on program development and planning for the college’s Youth Care Worker program.  I was nervous beyond measure but excited to meet these brilliant young minds who would look to me for knowledge and leadership.

That Friday, given the last time slot of the day, I walked into my class and instead of eager, excited students ready to engage in their academic careers, I saw the tired, worn faces of my students, waiting for me to lecture them, hand out an assignment, make nice and then let them go so they could get out of there and get on with their lives.  That day, my excitement was a little rumpled.  (Don’t worry, I bounced back.)

The subject matter I was teaching them was neither the most gripping, nor the most demanding. The course itself was oft-pushed to the side by faculty and management at the college.  The last two instructors, I was told, rarely showed and when they did, had little to provide in the way of knowledge for their students. To me however, the materials we were learning is of incredible importance. Building appropriate programming for youth who are in the care of our various systems (be it Correctional, Social Services or Medical or all three) is a subtle art that requires patience, knowledge, and a plan.

Most of my students did very well as time progressed, but getting there was hard.  Instead of teaching them how to develop a program, I had to start at the bottom and help them understand the very basic and real value in programming.  In too many cases youth programs, though vital, have been slapped together or are used over and over until their innovation is well and truly dead.  Programs have a shelf-life, which means that we, as developers, must keep creating to build on what works and revise what doesn’t.  If we do not move at the same speed as the youth we are serving, we will sink to the point where we are of little use to the ones we wish to help.

Effective programs for young people must consist of a few critical elements.  Without these, you’re doomed to providing an under-performing program.

First, the program must be engaging.  There are countless definitions of engagement that exist (find one here, or here) but the heart of these are all very much the same.  When a young person is engaged, they want to participate; they want to contribute; they want to be heard, they want a space to belong.   Getting youth to the table is the easy part, getting them engaged is tough, particularly when there is a mandate for youth to participate in something.  A classic example of this is school (here’s an interesting article by researchers at UCLA on school engagement.) For some, a scholastic environment is incredibly engaging.  It is meaningful and challenging and supportive and fun.  For many others however, it is none of these things.

Second, the program must be relevant.  In some way, the youth has to find a point of reference that they can tie into their own lives.  Without this, there is no substantial, tangible connection for them.  Knowing the adolescent brain as we do (if you need a refresher, check here, or here) we know that abstract thoughts don’t always make sense to them.  Concrete connections about the “here” and ” now” work for youth.  Linking the relevance of a program to something happening in their lives is imperative.  Otherwise, they’re less likely to really invest themselves, which in turn leads to them getting less out of the program.  Relevant programming allows youth to better knit together their actions, feelings and beliefs; it allows them to carve a space where they begin to feel important and that they are doing something worthwhile.

Third, the program must contribute something.  Never underestimate the power of generosity. Proponents of the Circle of Courage (of which I admit unabashedly I am one) argue that Generosity is a core component of a person’s development.  Essential to our ability to develop and process empathy, generosity is an area that is oft-overlooked.  Admittedly, it can be difficult to develop a young person’s interests in something outside of themselves, but the pay-off for developing a taste for generosity is enormous.  Youth, when they are busy contributing and giving back, learn new skills, develop a greater sense of their identity and build palpable life and social skills and learn that they matter.  When youth are involved in generous acts, it can build their capacity for self-reflection and helps them understand their role in the world.  When you’re dealing with youth that have histories of trauma and neglect, these are powerful opportunities to help them move beyond simple survival to a place where they can truly thrive.

Next, programs must also be consistent. Consistency in approach, goals, timing…all of these things are important.  If the kid is getting whiplash because we are always all over the place with our objectives and timing and all of those things, they have no hope of benefitting as fully as they might.  Flexibility is important, don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes things need to change on the fly, but ultimately if you want order and high levels of structure, you should probably become an accountant. Youth work is messy and chaotic, but it doesn’t mean that it needs to be unstructured and inconsistent. Rather, it means that we need to be firmly rooted, but bendable when we need to be.  Dates and times should be routine for youth; many of the issues that these youth face require routines to help them learn and develop.  Life requires boundaries and consistency provides participants with the ability to develop and understand these processes. We can create the space for them to develop these.  Consistency in the objectives of the program is also important.  If your management or funder is wanting something entirely different than what the staff are providing, there might be a few hiccups (or a total derailment) along the way that are entirely unnecessary.  Likewise, if your staff have competing interests or are unfamiliar with the overall objectives, they will not approach the program or its participants in a consistent way.

Paramount to all of this is a staffing team that understands program delivery, can carry out the facilitation objectives, and is well versed in the desired outcomes.  Too often, I see agencies running programs with staff that are inexperienced and under-trained.  Unfortunately, this is a thing we have to deal with in this sector, but front-line staff are the key to executing a successful, engaging program.  Fortunately this is where Three Things can help (check out more of what we do here.) Front-line staff need training.  Lots of it.  They need mentorship and support.  They need check-ins and respectful challenges to how they are running the program.  They need to be a part of the team that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Running a successful program is an art form that takes both luck and skill.  I’ve always been told though, that you have to be good to be lucky.  Planning a program and remembering to address the essential components that are outlined above will help you go a long way in providing a positive, engaging experience for youth.

Now it’s your turn.  What works for you?