What Might Happen With a New Youth Group?

Youth Engagement: Preparation, Part 5/10

Wisdom is nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life. Herman Hesse

Having the right ingredients requires preparation. And to “make ready beforehand” requires cultivating what those ingredients are, and in the right amounts.

While an educator or facilitator cannot anticipate everything that might happen in a session with young adults, minimizing key challenges or threats can be achieved through key preparation tactics.

Being prepared as a professional and as a human is important when engaging with youth. Adults often, much like youth among their peers, do not want to appear unknowledgeable, or taken to task for a shortcoming. Adults do everything to avoid, project, redirect or react inappropriately to embarrassment or disrespect. Yet the one thing youth need to see is for adults to model the behaviour expected of them, to admit their mistakes, to dialogue instead of avoiding, and to see adults transform conflict into something productive or even humorous. Being prepared means anticipating embarrassment or shame and being able to address it as someone who is open to a growth-mindset, while expecting it of participants.

Arriving late, not having the print-outs, forgetting what you wanted to say, or not being able to answer a very specific question — are only a few of the hundreds of ways that one might get flustered, angered, annoyed or embarrassed about how the session might unravel. How can an adult eloquently address lack of preparation? Know thyself.

Knowing yourself, your strengths, your purpose, your triggers, your shortcomings and most of all youth culture and the many layers of challenges that come with youth and education, will help in easing the ability to be comfortable and honest with how a session might flow. If you arrived into a diverse group both intellectually and physically, and all you had was one PowerPoint, cartoon graphics from 1999, and references to culture from your generation— that is not being prepared. If your examples are not taking into consideration multiple learning modalities, diverse experiences, respect and dignity for all of the human rights — someone might feel alienated, tokenized and disengaged, or perhaps many participants might.

Being prepared means knowing what not to say. Sometimes adults want to make it a point that they are the experts, are PC (politically correct) and down with the hip stuff, but sometimes that can come off as forced, disingenuous or tokenizing. Other times, adults do not understand that neurological developments in the adolescent brain differ tremendously among peers in the same age group, but this cannot be just simply “solved” through generic practice alone and then graded in school. How does one modify their message accordingly? An educator must break down the development and session into physical, cognitive, social, emotional, communication and adaptive behaviours, here is a primer.

Being prepared is to anticipate not just who you will be working with, but also the situation that creates the dynamics for a given group such as demographics, English level, interests, group size, space, materials, as well as knowledge about any sociopolitical effects that group might be facing, except not necessarily having to point it out. Each person is the expert of their own experiences and stories.

Being prepared is also taking the time to ask honest questions of the organization, such as what the group enjoys, the diversity or in general, tips and tricks unique to the group. Have candid conversations beforehand.

Being prepared is also providing the curricula or outline to the agency beforehand for feedback. There have been too many times where we hire an external facilitator and they provide a lack lustre workshop and hardly any youth return the following week. (Refer to my original piece in this series about youth engagement). Imagine sitting in the workshop — how inspired, engaged or excited would you be? Imagine if you are delivering a workshop after a youth was in class for 6–8 hours — how likely is it they will they sit still and actively listen for more than 15 minutes?

Fundamental preparation is always effective. Work on those parts of your game that are fundamentally weak.
-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Work

Sometimes, being prepared is anticipating having to work with a completely new participants — this includes values, social norms or ways of expressing oneself. Preparing your session with organizational input is necessary. Too often, educators and facilitators use a one-size-fits all model for their curricula. An experienced facilitator is able to modify on a whim to adjust according to the abilities and energy of the group, or individuals. They have a toolbox of experiences or activities needed to switch gears as needed.

Being prepared is anticipating that you might have to deliver something somewhere you did not necessarily want to, but that is part of your job. Some people are not necessarily engaging or charming speakers, however that does not mean that you can not utilize content, visuals, activities, or prizes to entice participation. You prepare yourself by over-delivering on elements youth will engage with, by admitting your challenge areas that need improving.

Being prepared encompasses both workshop elements, and also what you do before, during and after the session. Defining your goals and creating relevant activities, knowing the location and space (perhaps even selecting it to meet the accessibility needs of the group), having all the materials you need (including working AV equipment), extra activities, and follow-up as needed (perhaps a formal or informal evaluation). If it is a full day initiative, provide opportunities for breaks and snacks (vegan or Halal for e.g.). Provide a proper opening and closing to set the tone and expectation of the workshop while gauging the needs and outcomes of the participants.

Preparing should be as focused and consistent in the same manner an athlete approaches their sport. Youth engagement, while it should include fun and humour, must also not be mindless fun every single week — discovering what goals youth have and want out of a session is an important dialogue to have. No matter how experienced an educator is — it is always important to inquire and include young adults in the process.

Preparing is a lot of work that will span a period of time, in tandem with your personal growth, refining your biases and noticing your blind spots. As well, incorporating best practices of student development theories, or cognitive theories or a social justice lens to the work you take on is important in approaching the work from a fundamentally powerful way. For some youth every conversation matters because you might not interact with them again. Applying theory into practice or your values into action are vital. Those must resonate with young adults.

Being prepared is being authentic. You cannot be fake because youth will sense it from a mile away. While there is a huge academic gap from what one learns in a textbook about adolescent development and how it translates into the everyday — laying the groundwork for this strengthens youth engagement. This can be done by seeking professional development, reading diverse opinions on diverse topics different from your own, speaking with youth about what they are curious about, seeking training on anti-oppression, diversity and equity, creative facilitation, among others.

The efforts of preparation will catalyze an opportunity for everyone to get the most value and feel valued out of a well-prepared session. Do not leave it unplanned — there is no short road to youth engagement.

One last thing…

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