Encourages youth programs to integrate developmental assets into their current strategies.
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About the Author
Yvonne Pearson is the author of The Way Home. Kristin Johnstad is a senior consultant at Search Institute. James Conway has provided training, presentations, workshops, keynote addresses, and consultation to hundreds of youth serving professionals for ove
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More Than Just a Place to Go
How Developmental Assets Can Strengthen Your Youth Program
By Yvonne Pearson, Kristin Johnstad, James Conway, Kathryn (Kay) L. Hong, Mary Byers, Rebecca Aldridge
Search Institute PublicationCopyright © 2004 Search Institute
All rights reserved.
We see it [relationship building] benefiting our kids when they're treated better in other places, too. Schools need to see it, churches need to see it. It not only makes our job easier, it sends a more powerful message when other adults treat youth with respect as well.
NEIGHBORHOOD SERVICES COORDINATOR:
NEIGHBORHOOD CENTERS, NORMAN, OKLAHOMA
Supportive relationships are the conduit through which all other developmental assets flow. Support is the "minimum daily requirement" for fostering healthy, thriving, productive young people. In fact, a caring and supportive relationship with an adult is "the most critical variable" predicting health and resiliency throughout childhood and adolescence. Most young people may expect to receive this kind of love from their parents and extended family, but youth workers can be intentional champions of young people and play an important role in strengthening the relationship between a young person, her or his parents, and other supportive adults.
How Programs Build Support Assets through Practices, Environment, and Relationships
Creating support can be accomplished through planned programmatic efforts. Start each program session with a way to check in with participants, either as a group or individually. Use games and activities to build communication skills. Reinforce the importance of listening to others and create opportunities to be listened to.
Set pickup times for parents so that staff can share information with them about their child's day. Be sure to talk about the positive. Send parents a note or e-mail highlighting something wonderful you have noticed about their child.
The setting itself also can enhance participants' feeling welcomed and wanted. Post positive images and clear messages on the walls. Use a bulletin board for up-to-date resources and referrals for special interests. Ensure good traffic flow so that program participants and others can easily move through the space and find informal places to stop and chat, sit and read, eat a snack, or just daydream. Have you set aside places where people can gather and have different types of conversations (smaller, more intimate places for quiet talks, as well as busy, more public areas with people and activities to watch or participate in as you talk)?
Building support assets can be as simple as making eye contact, smiling, being friendly, and making sure participants feel not only visible but also known. Introduce yourself. Learn and use their names. Extend yourself to personalize a "hello" or invite them into what you are doing, Make them feel welcome. Be involved and nurturing every day, everywhere — when you walk into the teen center and when you pass by teens in the parking lot.
Invite informal conversations, listen to what young people tell you, and ask clarifying questions to ensure that you understand what they are saying. Then show that you have understood by the way you respond.
Here are some stories and successful strategies from programs that are building the support assets with and for young people.
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Beginning the Day with Connection: Little Rock, Arkansas
Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids (P.A.R.K.) is a long-term intensive program that becomes like a family for participants.
Creating a positive atmosphere and support system is foundational at P.A.R.K. This Christian faith-based program is designed for young people who need additional support to achieve academically. The 8th to 12th graders come four days a week after school for five years and daily for six weeks during the summer. P.A.R.K. wraps the youth in a safe and structured environment for many of their growing-up years, and building and maintaining relationships are at the very heart of the program.
What are the opportunities for your program to address the support assets?
[?] How can I truly connect with program participants?
[?] Do they experience me as caring? Do they experience the program environment as welcoming?
[?] How do program staff model caring about other people (youth and adults) who are not in their specific programs?
[?] In what ways do I make time for individual and spontaneous conversations so the message is that young people, not the activities, are the priority?
[?] Do I share positive stories featuring program participants' talents or accomplishments?
[?] Do I provide parents with enough information about what is happening during the program so that they can continue the conversation at home or initiate activities that build on their child's interests?
[?] In what ways do I strengthen family communication? What can I do to improve the connection between the young person, family members, neighbors, school staff?
[?] Do I encourage program participants to care about their school and neighborhood?
[?] How assertively do I advocate to other adults the importance of our community being youth-friendly and the daily actions they can take to convey that message?
Young people are nominated for participation by school counselors or teachers and must have a GPA between 1.5 and 2.5. They are expected to raise their GPAs above 3.0. Each day the youth receive homework assistance, and when homework is complete, they may join recreational activities such as cosmetology, basketball, theater arts, or reading for pleasure. Service-learning and leadership clubs are also part of the curriculum.
The program is intentional about making sure young people have relationships with adults and with other youth. Each day begins with a connecting time for the whole P.A.R.K. community. After snacks and sign-in, students "circle up" in an area set off architecturally by an oval-shaped ceiling that is echoed in the pattern of the carpet. The young people and staff hold hands, say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, make announcements, and offer words of encouragement. At circle time, a few participants and staff each day also share a "pot of gold" — something good that has happened. A student might talk about passing a test, getting his college acceptance letter, having a satisfying talk with a teacher she has been having trouble with, or making a friend he is proud of. Staff might tell of "catching" a student doing something good, such as helping to stop a fight.
Long-Term Relationships with Adults
To provide consistent relationships over time with 250 program participants, P.A.R.K. relies on 12 full-time and 17 part-time staff. Student-life managers, group leaders, and tutors are supported by volunteers. "We found out quickly that the most important thing for the kids was the consistency of relationship," Cathy Collins, former executive director of P.A.R.K., says. "It is really about creating an environment that is encouraging and supportive of the young people living into their full potential."
Collins tells the story of a young man who had a GPA of .8 when he entered the program. (This was before P.A.R.K. established a minimum GPA of 1.5 for admission.) The boy lost his parents and has lived in three or four foster homes in the years since attending P.A.R.K. His GPA has been rising over the years, and for the most recent nine -week period, this young man earned a 4.0. "It is because of the stability of the P.A.R.K. program for him, the caring relationships he finds here, the kind of container of safety for him to grow," says Collins. "It's not to say short-term interventions don't help, but going from .8 to 4.0 is because of the long-term relationships. It's hard to develop deeper relationships in short times."
The program has formal relationships structured between student-life managers and program participants. There are four student-life managers, each responsible for about 50 young people. They help design individual learning plans for the students, meet with each student every nine weeks, consult with their teachers, and monitor their academic performance and school behavior. They stop for quick conversations with the young people in school hallways, have lunch with them, and know whether a test is coming up or a student is not turning in homework. "The student-life managers know everything that's going on with the students," says Collins. "The students are very connected to them. They're kind of like the counselor."
Cultivating Relationships with Teachers
The student-life managers also build relationships between each participant's school and P.A.R.K. Collins says every year the relationship with the schools "gets better and better." The teachers are asked to provide biweekly forms with feedback on the students' academic performance. The student-life managers creatively (and courteously) seek teachers out and show their appreciation for the time teachers take out of their busy schedules by bringing them treats, notes of appreciation, and so on. As school teachers see P.A.R.K. make a difference in their students' lives, and consequently in their classrooms, their appreciation and willingness to engage with P.A.R.K. grow. P.A.R.K.'s founder, former NFL player Keith Jackson, also laid groundwork for the relationship with the schools, doing a lot of initial work with school board members and administrators.
Invisible Staff Supports
Informal relationships have also been made more intentional since P.A.R.K. started using the asset framework. Program Director Kareem Moody initiated an invisible network of five program staff for each program participant. These are staff who do not have formal responsibilities to relate to the youth. The young people are not aware of this assignment but do find particular adults seeking them out for conversations.
Moody describes the job as twofold: First, find a way every week to give each of your young people a pat or two on the back. Find ways to highlight something good they are doing and tell them how special they are. Second, make sure you engage the young person in meaningful conversation. Moody shares some immediate payoffs. One example concerns a staff member who found a particular participant irritating. She needed to connect with him because she was his invisible mentor, and in talking to him she realized the common interests through which they could connect. "She never would have found those common things and turned the situation into a positive one if we hadn't had this process in place. She wasn't required or naturally drawn to the kid so she did need to get to know him," says Moody. He also notes that discipline referrals have been much lower this year. He attributes this growth to the increased feeling of connectedness the invisible support networks have fostered.
* * *
All Children Feel Known: Norman, Oklahoma
The Neighborhood Centers focuses on building a caring neighborhood and engages everyone to make that happen. The mission of the program, which began in 1998, is "Residents coming together to create strong neighborhoods, happy kids, and healthy families."
Part of the United Way agency Center for Children and Families, Inc. (CCFI), Neighborhood Centers operates four sites, with two in different schools, one in a recreation center, and one in a faith-based building. The idea was to use institutions that were already established in neighborhoods where there was little or nothing for young people to do, with the goal of "keeping the lights on" in the nonschool or low-use times and shifting the pattern from single-use to multi-use buildings. The expectation was that such places would start being seen as community centers where residents could gather.
Young people now do just that after school and in the evenings. Through Neighborhood Centers they participate in structured activities or just have conversations in a safe and caring setting. Between the four locations, youth have somewhere to go during 10 hours of the week, six days a week. The young people may be involved at any or all of the sites. For instance, at the Wilson Elementary School and Trinity Baptist Church sites, the participants, who range in age from 4 to 18 years, come on Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:00. The younger children meet at the school, and students in grades 6 through 12 meet across the street at the church. They sign in and then may choose from a variety of activities such as sports, arts and crafts, cards, board games, and community service opportunities. They help clean up at the end of the evening and get a snack. The same young people may attend other sites on other days if they choose.
Serving Intersecting Needs
Neighborhood Centers is designed to serve the needs of community families in a broad fashion. Tina Burdett, development director for CCFI, points out that Neighborhood Centers operates "outside the box" of traditional programs. She notes that traditional youth programs are often geared to serve child-care needs, enhance educational achievement, or engage young people through prevention or intervention approaches. "Part of our strength is that we don't live completely in any one of these paradigms. We try instead to integrate approaches and strategies of all these areas.
"Young people don't function in only one arena," says Burdett. "It's not unusual for our program participants who are vulnerable to criminal activity to also be struggling in school. It is less effective to provide services that address only one of the three areas mentioned earlier. We try and understand all the elements that influence the lives of these young people and blend approaches — appreciating that their lives are complex. It works for the young people, and parents love this holistic approach. At the intersection of these three circles is where Neighborhood Centers lives." she says.
A high priority of professional staff and volunteers alike is to make certain every child feels known at Neighborhood Centers. The simple imperative is to greet all children by name and to pay attention to their behavior and emotional states. When "Jimmy" walks in the door on Thursday evening, there is an adult who is happy to see him. The adult observes whether he's in a good mood or bad, whether he's excited or withdrawn, or whether he seems down. The adult will ask him how he's doing. Daily debriefings with staff and volunteers, plus ongoing contact with school counselors and family, ensure that everyone will know of any special issues or needs Jimmy may have. If he is struggling in school, or his parents are divorcing, or his grandma is in the hospital, the adults at the center will know about it and be aware of it when he arrives.
Director Amy Fleske of Neighborhood Centers says, "Everything is geared toward relationship building. That's the key to the whole program. It's an exciting and inspiring place." The activities, from sports to arts to games, are the means to an end, not the end itself. It is within and between the activities that the real work, relationship building, takes place. Neighborhood Services Coordinator Angela Mahlock agrees: "It is much more important at the craft table to talk with the youngsters than to finish the craft. It is much more important to know each child's name and to talk about their day while they are gluing and pasting than to complete the collage."
As relationships develop, youth learn to trust that the center's staff and volunteers will listen respectfully to their concerns, from gossip and hurt feelings to bullying situations to difficult family conflict. The young people are given a safe opportunity to talk about all aspects of their lives. So if, for instance, "Louise's" big brother got in a fistfight earlier in the week and a youngster brings it up, Louise is able to talk about it. A staff member or volunteer might ask what it was like for her. "We use plenty of open-ended questions, freeing the youth to talk about what's on their minds," Mahlock explains. "Kids are begging for situations where they can be heard."
Mahlock says they train staff and volunteers in active listening (see sidebar). "It's okay for kids to ask questions about tough issues. We have the opportunity to point youth in a helpful direction for seeking out their own answers. We can correct misinformation and prevent them from being flooded with too much information."
ACTIVE LISTENING STEPS
1. Pay attention to the speaker. Suspend other things you are doing.
2. Make good eye contact.
3. Listen not only to the words but also to the emotional messages.
4. Paraphrase what the person said.
5. Ask clarifying questions when necessary.
6. Be on the lookout for nonverbal signals that contradict the speaker's words. If verbal and nonverbal messages do not match, check it out with the speaker.
7. Give feedback only after you have listened.
Training in Group Dynamics and Developmental Needs
Neighborhood Centers staff are thoroughly trained in group dynamics and youth development, and in understanding how environments affect young people. Although such training is significant in the everyday relationship building that takes place at the four sites, the clinical input has proved valuable in some extraordinary circumstances as well. In a tragic domestic dispute, a man killed his wife and their son in the family's front yard, only a few streets away from the Neighborhood Centers' summer program and doors down from several participants' homes. The boy who died was a best friend to two center youngsters. CCFI worked hard to coordinate a supportive response for the children, holding discussions with the school district and the police department. CCFI clinical staff also met with Neighborhood Centers staff to coach them in handling the discussions. As a result, the center gathered everybody first thing the next day to give them an opportunity for dialogue on the incident. During the discussion young people freely drew pictures and painted as they voiced their concerns in small groups facilitated by trained staff. "The kids had many questions about this tragic event and violence in general," Angela Mahlock recalls. "We tried to create a feeling of openness and safety. Many youth saw the discussion as an open door to share situations in their own families."
Excerpted from More Than Just a Place to Go by Yvonne Pearson, Kristin Johnstad, James Conway, Kathryn (Kay) L. Hong, Mary Byers, Rebecca Aldridge. Copyright © 2004 Search Institute. Excerpted by permission of Search Institute Publication.
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Table of Contents
Introduction - The Framework of Developmental Assets: A Powerful Tool for Shaping High-Quality Programs,
PART ONE: External Assets,
1 - Support,
2 - Empowerment,
3 - Boundaries and Expectations,
4 - Constructive Use of Time,
PART TWO: Internal Assets,
5 - Commitment to Learning,
6 - Positive Values,
7 - Social Competencies,
8 - Positive Identity,
PART THREE: Infusion,
9 - Infusing Developmental Assets into Your Program,