Working with Disengaged Young People

Working with Disengaged Young People



Diana Whitmore



Why is it important?

This article is borne out of frustration – frustration that our troubled young people today are not receiving the quality of care, authentic attention, positive intervention and loving support that they both badly need and deserve. What do we aim for? Do we aim to control their behaviour with no concern for their ultimate well being? Do we aim to turn them into nice, unfulfilled people who don’t give society any trouble? In other words, do we just want them to behave themselves?

Or alternatively, can we shoot for the stars on their behalf? Can we value and respect their unique potential, no matter how difficult their behaviour? Can we support the unfoldment of that potential? Can we change consciousness rather than modify behaviour? Can we trust young people to make good life choices once they are able to self reflect and self manage? Can we recognize their need for meaning and purpose in life as no different as you or me?

A Vision for Young People

I believe that we can. Actually, having gathered enough evidence through the work of Ecologia Youth Trust, the Growing2gether Programme, I don’t believe, I know. Experience has unquestionably taught us that all young people long to:

  • feel that they belong
  • feel good about who they are
  • make a difference and feel they have something worthwhile to contribute
  • have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

I also think that it does not require highly sophisticated interventions done by experts with long years of training in youth development to fix damaged youth. Most importantly, the context that we bring to our work with young people has a dramatic impact on how they will experience themselves and consequently, behave. A context is that which illuminates and gives meaning to a particular set of circumstances or life experience. We can approach, relate to and perceive a young person as damaged, problematic, and difficult, expecting little of them. Even worse is when we expect them to always be a problem, never change, not amount to anything. By perceiving a young person this way, they will tend to conform to the perceptual box that we have labeled them with.

On the other hand, we can have an alternative context – one which sees this young person as a unique individual, rich with immense potential, who has a purpose in life and challenges to meet. This is not to say that we turn a blind eye to behaviour, but rather that we see the whole person, we give the gift of respecting that young person’s potential no matter how obscure it might be. We recognise that consciousness can change and that, through personal development, emotional intelligence can be fostered.

“I think that the Growing2gether programme should be extended to boys and girls in every
secondary school to enable them to broaden their knowledge about life and realize that if you
don’t have an education you don’t have anything.” (Female, 15 years)

“Doing Growing2gether helped me to get back into what is right for me and I know I have to
finish school If I want to make anything for myself” (Male, 15)

Principles of a Potential Orientated Way of Working with Young People

Trusting rather than controlling

When we work with young people, we are being a role model whether or not consciously and intentionally. The best role model we can be is one that demonstrates authentic humanness, rather than being some kind of unrealistic ideal. If as role models, we show how it is okay to be human, to make mistakes and then to deal with the mistakes we make in a positive way. If a young person sees us not being perfect, but having integrity around our mistakes, they will learn that it is both acceptable and human to make mistakes.

In our experience of working with deserving young people, we have seen again and again that, if armed with a realistic knowledge of outcomes and consequences, young people will most often make the best decision for their well being. In fact, we can trust them to. For example, on the Growng2gether project, when young people explore risky behaviour and become aware of not only the consequences of risky behaviours, but also the barriers to making the right choices they then become more responsible for their actions. Or when young people start the course, which involves mentoring small children in nursery settings, they believe that it is acceptable to have a baby when you are very young. However, after having a live hands on experience of the enormous amount of work, responsibility and indeed privilege it is to have a child, a large percentage change the acceptable age at which to have a child. None of us can be perfect. To make mistakes is human. It is how we deal with the mistakes, the empathic failures, the errors of judgment that really matters. If we take responsibility for our mistake, acknowledge it and make amends in some way to clean up the mess we make, we are demonstrating a transformative way of being. This is a tremendous gift to give young people. Young people facing tough realities often do not have adults in their lives who have modeled this positive way of dealing with our humanness.

‘I now have more patience. I know how to solve problems cooperatively. ‘I have learnt
to care more for other people’s feelings and not just mine.’ (Female, 15)

Growing2gether Scottish Youth Mentoring Children
nurturing potential and trust in community

Respecting rather than judging

Many a teen have told me that the reason they behave well on our programmes is because we respect them. At risk young people are labeled quite early on as the bad, the difficult, the problematic ones. This label is passed through the system from teacher to teacher, school to school. It should be no surprise to us when that label becomes real. To have compassion for the suffering of a young person’s background, to understand that they may have lacked any positive role models in their life, to have empathy for their need of recognition, to know that their negative behaviour is often a cry for help – is to give a gift that can plant the seeds of self empathy – to be a role model of how to be empathetic which can then be internalized.

Unconditional positive regard requires that we value young people for who they are, not what they do or how they behave. A youth facilitator can model this through their relationship with the teens, with each other, with colleagues. To have unconditional positive regard as a value for your work means taking a positive approach. This young person is valuable and worthwhile simply because they exist. This type of valuing is sorely lacking in deserving young people’s lives – whether they are the challenging ones or the quiet, shy ones lacking in self belief. This is not to say that we tolerate unacceptable behaviour or accept disrespectful attitudes. Hard love is an acceptable way of being and when it comes from a place that values the person and not the behaviour. Things can begin to change. Each young person has a unique path of development or unfoldment. Absolutely everything that a young person encounters on their path of development can be a stepping stone to their growth and learning. With good coaching and role models, whatever situation a young person finds themselves in, they can learn and evolve from

‘I have become more mature and find it easier to express my opinion.My mum said I’m more
confident because I am usually shy.’ (Female, 14)

‘My parents and friends have seen the changes that I have made during this project, the reason being is because I have a better knowledge.’(Male,15)

Relating to potential, rather than behaviour

The facilitator’s attitude here is, ‘I know that who you really are is so, so much more than the behaviour that you are demonstrating’. ‘I see more of you than your behaviour’. ‘I see who you really are’. From this perspective, a young person can receive challenge and hard love in a way which engages rather than alienates them. If we only relate to a young person’s behaviour, we will try to control that behaviour. The situation becomes a battle of wills, someone has to win and someone has to lose. However, if we come from a wider perspective of the whole young person, if we see their rich potential as well as their behaviour, we create a wider field for them to grow and develop within. Think for a moment about someone in your life who believed in you and saw your potential. Whether a parent, grandparent, teacher or mentor, to be truly seen in our potential has a dramatic impact on us which we don’t forget and, most likely, which we carry for many years inside ourselves. For a significant other to see our potential and believe in us, enables us to find self belief and an empathic inner awareness that does the same.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be before, but now I want to be a teacher. And my mum
helped me to look to see what you need, like what exams and stuff and so now I know I’ve
got to work harder to get my exams at school. So it’s definitely made me more focused, cos
before I didn’t have anything to work towards.” (Male, 15)

‘If people show me just a little bit of attention, I give my full’

‘I have learnt to care more for other people’s feelings and not just mine.’ (Female 15)

‘Growing2gether has improved my communication skills with family, friends and
toddlers and I have discovered potential in myself which is a nursery teacher or a
social worker.’

Empowering rather than minimizing/fixing

We can trust young people to make their own decisions if they first learn the skill of self reflection; to reflect on the choices that they are making and the consequences of those choices. Perhaps most importantly, from those choices, are they getting the outcomes they want? (Usually not) Young people can be coached to gain an increased awareness and understanding of the choices they are making in their lives and the consequences of those choices. Having a greater awareness leads to a greater capacity to self manage and to be empowered to take responsibility. For adolescents, this is a great developmental task, which once learned, can be applied to many areas of their lives. Is it not better to support young
people in learning the skills of self reflection and self management than to try to control their behaviour, because they are deemed to be lacking and in need of fixing? Is it not more effective at promoting change to trust that each young person is capable of finding their own answers, if we provide them with self awareness and self belief? We are then teaching a hungry person how to fish – rather than giving them food. The question is always what choice needs to be made to get the outcomes that the young person really wants?

The value this attitude contains is one of inner freedom. Rather than having a normative chart on the wall that tells us what a healthy, fully functioning adolescent should be like – we can value each teenager finding the inner freedom to do and be what they choose as valuable and worthwhile. If young people are less dictated to, more encouraged to develop the capacity to think through their goals and the best ways to create outcomes that work for them, the results can be astounding. We can give an adolescent an experience of ‘here and now choices and the power they have to create different outcomes for themselves. This dramatically increases their motivation to continue to choose differently in other areas of their lives. For example, changing the negative outcomes of angry reactions into positive outcomes from assertive communication is a major re-framing in a culture that usually promotes the necessity of ‘keeping face’ at all costs.

Enabling young people to develop reflective muscles will provide a more robust capacity to ‘think through’ challenges and choices in the future. Teaching them to use their minds in this capacity is something the current education system fails to address, and is one of the most important strengths to acquire. Through sharing at both peer group level and one-to-one time with adult role models, young people create new bonds beyond their immediate social life to develop a more clearly individuated sense of themselves. This process establishes personal responsibility as a keynote in their lives and attitudes, crucial to the creation of a life on large and small scales that they are motivated to aspire towards.

“I was talking to * [Facilitator] and we were saying I can try to use the interpersonal skills with
my teachers, like the ones who I always have problems with when I go to school. Cos I do
want to go to college, but I know I need to go to school more first and try to get along with
people better.” (Male,15)

‘Growing2gether made me understand that before making choices, you need to think. It has
made a great difference in my life because before I didn’t think twice, now I am aware of my

‘I have learned how to control my anger, how to express my feelings and thoughts without
hurting someone.” (Male, 14)

Understanding that young people are values driven

Young people are values driven – even when behaving negatively – beneath or behind the behaviour is a value that is driving that young person. For example, I have many times asked young men what they gained from being a part of a gang. Inevitably, the response has been, ‘because it makes me feel like I belong’. Take the example of a disadvantaged young person stealing expensive trainers. What value does that fulfill for them? It provides them with a sense of importance and recognition. It is our experience that teenagers are longing to express their values and opinions, to test them out in the world and see what the consequences are. Young people are at a stage in their lives when they are forming their identities, developing their capacity to think, searching for core values around which to orientate their behaviour and seeking future goals towards which they can aspire. Many of our young people are at risk of failing to meet these developmental needs in a positive way, instead forming identities around a negative sense of themselves, born from a sense of hopelessness in the world around them. As a result, the sum total of their aspirations in life is often to make as much money with as little effort as possible, and therefore to fall prey to criminal activities or to make money in ways that exploit them and continue to compound a sense of failure. At best they will tend towards a rather depressed and passive attitude to life in which they expect to be looked after by a parental state.

“The most important thing I have learned is that we must talk politely with elders and
youngsters… we must love our younger and respect our elders. And we should not fight with
others.” (Male, 15)

Providing young people with a new and positive experience of themselves,leads to increasing self empathy Life is relational. Young people are relational beings and learn best through each other and through positive role models. Research has shown that the most important factor in enabling a young person to make the transition into adulthood is having one positive role model in their lives. Giving young people a new and positive experience of themselves builds a new neural pathway to replace existing negative ones. To again and again experience that they have something to contribute to the world, that they can make a difference, that they can do a splendid job and that they fundamentally are a good person, builds self esteem and self belief. On the Growing2gether project, the combination of intensive adult and peer group interaction alongside the responsibility of bonding with, and being responsible for a small child, provides a multi-layered set of relationships that are all designed to give the teenagers a new experience of themselves and the world around them. The responsibility of having a child to be a role model for can call a young person into parts of themselves that allow them to feel vibrant and alive and which they also like and respect. The enthusiasm that they display at the end of toddler time usually reflects a fascination with the application of the material they are learning about child development interpersonal skills, as well as a sense of satisfaction in having been needed, wanted and responded to by staff and toddlers. This forms an attitude internally of ‘I can’ as they integrate the positive expectations of the toddlers, staff and facilitators.

Additionally, the project provides a strong sense of community for adolescents, often a strongly missing link in their lives, yet one that they desperately need. So much of their culture today teaches a myth of isolation and individualistic self at the expense of providing a sense of interconnection and belonging. The formation of their group within the nursery, the peer and facilitator relationships, and the sense of community within the nursery itself stresses the importance of being inter-dependant, and that therefore their behaviour has a strong impact on others. The de-sensitisation that comes through the breakdown of community allows young people to be anaesthetised to their surroundings and makes it acceptable to harm and exploit others. Bringing them in to relationship over a period of time sows seeds that enables them to bring a sense of pride to the caring, sense of belonging and positive impact they have on their community.

Providing young people with a new and positive experience of themselves gives them something worth towing the line for and therefore sufficient motivation to have a positive experience of engaging with respect and an ability to integrate other’s rules and expectations. On Growing2gether, mentoring small children, feeling listened to and engaged with in debate during classroom time, and experiencing a peer group outside of school and the usual social circles – in a more focused way that encourages honesty, listening, respect and intimacy – are all very strong motivating factors for the young people to behave and interact in new and more useful ways. Bonds to their peers and facilitators made here are often much deeper and provide a blueprint for possibilities of relating respectfully and productively beyond the project.

Increased self empathy is the outcome of all of the above factors. Gradually, little by little, an internal sense of identity is formed – a deeper identity and inner relationship with Self, a stable reference point and a continuity of being. Having experienced empathy from a positive role model and having developed empathy for others, the young person internalizes this experience and builds this inside, developing an inner centre, leading to the capacity for self empathy to evolve.

‘Because I always use interpersonal skills that I learned from this project and my uncle
said to me ‘you are very respecting in these days, from what you’ve learnt from the
project’. So, my family say I’m respecting them every time.’ (Female 15)

In summary

In summary then, what’s unique about a potential orientated approach?

  • It is a consciousness changing approach rather than a behaviour modification one.
  • It works to enable young people to grow and evolve rather than control their behaviour, so that they are empowered to make choices that are constructive and to their own benefit.
  • It perceives each young person in their totality as a highly unique individual, with many latent gifts, qualities and potentialities.
  • It promotes an exploration of values, which supports young people finding their own values, potential and place in the world.
  • It recognizes the need of all young people for meaning and purpose in their lives.
  • It provides young people with new and positive experiences of themselves which build self esteem and aspiration.
  • It develops emotional intelligence particularly in the areas of self awareness and self management.
  • It encourages educational attainment through building awareness of life goals and the choices and actions needed to make those goals real.
  • It builds a sense of community and an appreciation and respect for difference.

In conclusion, the challenge to those of us who work with young people is not a minor one, but one which requires that we too, are consciously evolving and engaged with our own personal development. Transforming young people rather than modifying their behaviour means that we must aspire to transform ourselves. We cannot do/be some of what this article is promoting unless we can walk our talk and embody what we teach. For in the end, it is who we are rather than what we do that will lead to empowerment rather than control.

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susie Kemp

Susie has 30+ experience as a creative copywriter, editor, and proofreader, starting out as a 20-year-old copywriter in the Mad Men world of early 1990s advertising in South Africa. Ever since, she’s had a love affair with creative conceptualisation, thinking outside of the box, writing to a deadline, and being thrown in the deep end!

She took an MSc in Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University as a mature student, in 2015, and continues to keep herself busy working as a copy-editor, proofreader and copywriter in book publishing, corporate communications, and publishing project management.

Apart from her love of working with independent authors, Susie has a fondness for working in the third sector and likes to use her corporate communications and marketing experience to support projects close to her heart. She has lived and worked in the Findhorn area for 25 years, and has been involved in a number of third sector projects and organisations, and family businesses.

Working at Ecologia Youth Trust helps Susie to live in integrity with her values of supporting the next generation to be the best that they can be, and she sees it as a way to give back to Mama Africa, the beloved continent on which she was born.

Ellen Shaw

Ellen joined the Ecologia team in June 2018 as Marketing and Communications Manager. Ellen has lived in Scotland for 6 years and has worked for non-profit and charitable organisations across varied fields. She currently shares her passion for helping young people through Ecologia Youth Trust and she works as a dancer and dance teacher in her spare time.

Robyn Cooper

Robyn is the Associate Director of International Projects, having previously worked within the team as a Project Development and Marketing Officer from April 2019 until May 2021. As Associate Director, Robyn is co-leading the International side of Ecologia with Founder and Director, Liza Hollingshead, bringing a new energy into Ecologia as they look towards the future of the charity.

Liza Hollingshead

Liza is the founder of Ecologia and Director of International Projects. She was born and educated in South Africa and worked there as a high school teacher. She moved to live in the Findhorn Community in 1974. She started Ecologia in 1995 after being introduced to Dmitry Morozov, the founder of Kitezh Children’s Community in Russia, and was inspired to support the community in its mission to rescue orphaned children from institutions and give them homes, families and education in a supportive environment.

This led to projects supporting disadvantaged youth and children in South East Asia and in East Africa. TRead more about Liza’s story here.