Post 2: Engagement: Moving a Young Person from Defensive to Open
A young person’s first contact with us – and every contact afterwards – is crucial. Engagement and the foundations for change start at the first meeting, as detailed here in this post. Building further engagement and foundations will be developed in future posts, along with inspirational stories of these hard-working teenagers.
It is helpful to try to step into their world and walk around with them in it. Today we will walk a little with ‘Sarah’ and ‘Ned’.
Sarah’s lack of confidence and extreme shyness is impacting her learning, making her withdrawn in lessons: she is at risk of jeopardising her chances of passing her course. Sarah knows this and it terrifies her. Sarah has an appointment with a member of the Student Support team – ‘Pete’ – to discuss possible help.
Ned has been referred to Colette for ‘anger management’, following a fight with a student and being verbally abusive to a member of staff. He knows his anger is out of control but he is furious that he is being ‘punished’ and is being ‘forced’ to see someone about it.
Just waiting for her appointment is pushing Sarah into panic mode – heart racing, thoughts whirling, – ‘Pete will think I’m stupid; I don’t know what to say; I’m terrified of even walking into his room….what is he like? Where is the room? What’s the room like? I can’t think straight; my stomach hurts; How long will I be in there? I just want to run away…’
Sarah glances up to see a man walking towards her, smiling gently. He quietly says ‘Sarah? Hello. I’m Pete’ and gestures to an open door and says ‘we’re going to use this room here.’ Half an hour later, Sarah leaves Pete’s room feeling like a weight has been lifted.
Ned waits for his appointment with Colette, burning with resentment. Leg twitching, he thinks (in colourful language): ‘this Colette person is just another do-gooder; she won’t be able to help me; no one has helped me in the past; I hate this place; everyone’s against me…’ His heart is pounding, fists clenched, revealing what is left of his battered knuckles.
Eventually, the person sitting behind the ‘Student Support’ desk tells Ned that he can ‘go in now’ and gestures towards room 101. Fuming, Ned strides into the room. A woman whom he assumes is ‘Colette’ is sitting, frowning at her computer, typing and muttering. She says ‘hello’ and slightly turns her body to him, her hand resting on the keyboard. She tells Ned to sit down in a chair opposite her and starts to ask him questions about the fight and about his anger. Ned has heard it all before and he hates questions. ‘All anyone ever does is ask me questions’ he says. He watches Colette glance at her Inbox. Ten minutes later, there’s a fresh hole in the wall of room 101 and Ned exits, rubbing his knuckles. He is actually amazed that he made it to ten minutes. But he feels like crying.
Okay, so the above paragraph is fiction – it didn’t happen between myself and Ned, but it does happen. My approach is more that of the lovely ‘Pete’.
When we meet a young person, we have just a few minutes (well, seconds in some cases) to enable them to engage with us. Some are already in ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ mode before they have even met us.
I have often witnessed the magical moment when a young person switches from: ‘defensive-scared-oppositional-anxious’ to ‘hmmmmmm…..okaaaay-this feels safe-she’s actually alright-I think I’ll hang around’. They visibly relax, sit back in their chair, often make eye contact and even smile!
Spot Check – Tips for Initial Engagement
These tips are about those crucial first minutes, when they haven’t met you properly before, but each point is valuable for ANY meeting with a young person, no matter how well you know them.
I’m going to use ‘YP’ for ‘young person’ here:
- Be in the Here and Now with them. If you can, a few minutes before they arrive, remove distractions (both physical and mental), take some slow, deep breaths and just think about them and why they are coming to you. Be calm and reassuring and respect how they are feeling right now.
- The power of a smile. Discreetly greet the YP with a smile and by their name, outside of the meeting room. Thank them for being on time, tell them ‘it’s good/lovely to meet you.’ (If they are late, don’t mention it this time!) Show them the room you are going to and walk with them to it. If they are coming to see you in a room they are already familiar with, and the procedure is that they just walk straight in, then obviously skip some (not all) of this!
- Set them at ease with a little ‘small talk’: what music are they listening to on their headphones? Admire the motif on their bag or jacket etc… But avoid trying to look like you are getting ‘down with the kids’! Be naturally, low-key curious, not ‘cool’.
- Seating (Ideally beforehand), think about the location of seats in the room. Do you both have easy access to the door? If you are blocking their path to the door, some YP may feel trapped or uneasy. If possible, try to sit them so that they can’t be seen by others from outside the room.
- Allow for pauses, tears (them, not you), emotions. Try not to bombard them with questions – it could increase anxiety and push them back into Fight, Flight or Freeze!
- Come away from the computer! Lock the screen. Don’t look at it. Turn off notification noises. Put your phone on silent. Be in the moment with the YP. Show them that you are focusing solely on them. Some of our YP don’t need much to confirm their belief that they don’t matter. Ask them to put their phone away/off/on silent – because this is ‘their time’, uninterrupted by others.
- Sit next to the YP, with the chairs angled towards each other, or side by side at a table, rather than directly opposite. Young people (especially males, apparently) can feel threatened by the latter.
- Be ‘Adult’ and professional, no matter what behaviour has preceded the meeting. Treat them as you would if you were in a meeting with another adult, in respect of: ‘so, the purpose of our chat today is….. How long have we got? By the end of this chat we will have decided….We will finish at…’ I have seen teenage shoulders drop significantly at this small dialogue!
Our body language and our words are continually giving messages (subconscious and conscious), and YP are watching us like hawks! Many will be looking for confirmation that they ‘don’t matter’ and that they can’t be helped. If we are glancing at our computer, hovering a hand over the keyboard, crossing our arms and legs, we may be inadvertently feeding this belief and the YP may mentally check out.
Show them that they matter and make sure that you believe it. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong job.
I asked Ned: ‘what do young people need to help them to change for the better?’ he replied: ‘someone who actually listens and understands what is going on in my head.’
How DO we do this in practice? How do we lay the crucial foundations for an exciting and purposeful relationship between adult and teenager that facilitates change for the better, enabling a teenager to thrive? Follow this Blog and find out….
Next time: Engagement and Beyond. Once they have turned up and relaxed a little – practical tips on how to achieve productive time that allows them to feel confident in you and ready to move forward.
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