What’s the point? Magical tools and resource rabbit holes
A worksheet is just a piece of a paper, a group is just a collection of people, an app is 0s and 1s and a DVD is a clear disc of plastic with a thin metallic covering. This we should never forget.
It is so easy to imbue all the above with some supernatural power to get the job done, to teach something, to change behaviour. If we use the tools, we're no fools. We're cutting edge, we're interesting and we're dynamic. If we use any of the above or the latest ‘thing’ we become a model of good practice, the worker that all managers point to as some practice genius.
But be warned, we can use all the tools and be real big fools. We can be left with a teen or group of teens who haven’t changed their thinking or actions one iota, who haven’t taken on board anything, or so it seems.
We can be left wondering, how did these tools go so wrong? How did these tools, these programs that looked so great, so interesting, lead to nothing? Why does it seem like we haven’t moved forward?
It’s because we missed the point. We picked up that resource with some dangerous assumptions in our minds, preconceived ideas as to how this was going to work:
We thought the tool was the answer, not a way of finding the answer.
Because it is so easy to assess that someone has a problem, anger management say, and to find a tool to 'fix it', we think our assessment of them is over. The reality is that seeing the generic problem is usually pretty easy. What we can forget is that we need to interrogate further to understand why this is an issue for them- the tools should be a means of helping us do this, not the answer in itself. They should also help us work out what new strategies and tools our teen can usefully employ to help them overcome their issue and the way it presents for them.
The key thing to remember is that in all of this we should always be thinking. We should always be clear in our own minds as to what piece of information we are looking for, what clarity we are needing when we use that workbook or watch that DVD. Other information beyond what we are looking for will probably emerge, but we should always have a purpose in mind when we start each task, each activity we embark on. We are not using the tool or resource because it happens to be there with the same title as the problem we have diagnosed in the teen, we are going deeper and using the tool to help us understand and to help us help them.
We used the tools blindly and surrendered our own judgement.
We always followed each page of that consequential thinking workbook, we always watched every section of that peer pressure DVD, we always used that iPad app with every kid because they loved using it and we always did group work with anti-social kids cos it would teach them social skills amongst other things. But we didn't question whether that was appropriate. We didn't consider whether all parts of the program, the DVD, the book were relevant to them. We bought into the resource or the tool, hook-line-and-sinker and inadvertently turned our brains, our thinking, our judgement off.
We forgot that every teen is different, even if they have the same problem.
The sources of issues will not be the same for all, the methods of unpacking the issue and 'solving' or 'coping' with it will not be the same either. So a one-size fits all anger management intervention, say, will not work for all. It might work for some, but certainly not all.
So whipping out the same tool will not always work. For some a totally different tool will be needed. Or it might just mean that we need to tailor our usual set of tools to work for the individual(s) sat in front of us. Using a resource with the expectation that not all of it will be used is a healthy mindset to start with. It keeps us awake to whether all of it is relevant to all our teens.
We forgot how disengaging irrelevancy is.
When engaging teens in the first place, and keeping them engaged can be an uphill struggle, spending time on irrelevancies is a dangerous thing. If they don't see the point of it, then there is actually little point. It has to be relevant to them or it and you become an irrelevance.
While many authors of resources would argue that you need to maintain a programme's integrity and not 'chop it up', I would argue that our practice integrity and our ability to keep them engaged is more important. We need to trust ourselves and our professional judgement, our ability to 'read' the teen in front of us and cater for them. We need to allow ourselves to think for ourselves and not to hand over the reigns to someone who has never met the teen and has no grasp of their particular issues like we do.
We blamed disengagement on the teen or the tools, rather than considering our role.
They don't see the point of what we are doing with them, it doesn't seem relevant, so they kick off and verbally and/or physically let us know what they think of our tools. Or they sit there with a look of imminent death plastered all over their faces; yes, 'tortured by boredom' is a certifiable cause of death for teens.
Most likely we’ll reflect and lay blame for non-engagement at their door- ‘they just weren’t ready’, ‘I won’t be able to achieve anything with them until their attitude changes’. This is particularly likely when we have had success using this tool with other young people already.
Occasionally we might question the tool, ‘maybe it’s not pitched quite right for them’.
There may be some truth in all of the above, but if at the core we haven’t been fully engaging with the tool as a tool (rather than as a solution), keeping our investigative brains switched on and keeping it relevant for them, then chances are they aren’t fully engaging with it either.
It might be that the problem is not the teen, and it's not the tool either. It just might be that we are trying to bang the nail in with the handle end of the hammer. It damages the handle and it most likely bends the nail so it won't go in. We have to consider our roles as carpenters and whether our use of the hammer is the problem and whether we need to wield it more effectively.
We thought that the completion of tasks meant engagement, pointed towards change.
Non-engagement doesn't have to look like a swearing or a furniture throwing competition. Non-engagement can seem far more compliant than we initially realise. Just as we can go through the motions, producing the tools without a second thought, so can teens. They can unthinkingly complete tasks, think 'what's the point?' and still get on with it and not really take the info, 'the lesson' on board.
This can be seen as progress in itself for a teen who never completes any task, but in terms of engagement with the particular subject of the intervention, this is not what progress looks like. The first we know about their disengagement is when we are dismayed to discover they have been out at the weekend and done exactly what they usually do, clearly not having taken on board any of the work you have been doing with them.
We confused engagement with the medium as engagement with the issue.
Give a kid an electronic device and it's like a bee round a honeypot. Give a kid who likes to hide from life a screen to hide in, television, ipad, mobile, whatever and he'll hide in it. So when we see them engrossed we have to ask ourselves what they are engrossed in and not just assume it's the issue/ subject matter.
Particularly for the most disengaged, using electronics of one sort or another can be a great way to get them to engage with the subject matter that they’d rather avoid. But we have to engage them with the content as well as the delivery method. I've said numerous times how useful watching DVDs can be to stimulate conversation about a topic, getting them to consider an issue in the context of other people before they are prepared to consider it in relation to themselves. But we have to move it on to consideration of themselves if any progress is going to be made.
We didn’t dump the tool when we really needed to and prevented ourselves from moving forward.
Everyone’s raving about it. It sits on the office shelf and seemingly glows, reflecting all the accolades it has received. Or it’s been ‘shown to work’, entered the shiny halls of being evidenced as best practice. Problem is we can end up thinking 'I just don't like it... it just doesn't work... but why does everyone else like it? Is there something wrong with me and the way I practise?'
I’m all for trying tools that have been shown to ‘work’. It’s important that these evaluations take place otherwise we can end up just shooting in the dark. But again, we have to be so careful to persist in paying attention to our own judgement and our ability to assess what works for an individual teen and what works for us.
We all have our own methods, our own approaches, our own voices. It is important that we constantly seek to evolve, to improve and that necessarily involves trying new 'proven' methods and tools out, even if it does seem awkward or different at first. But there has to come a point when we make our own assessment of whether a tool works ‘with’ us or not, whether it ultimately helps us to help a teen. And if we have ensured that we haven’t fallen foul of any of the assumptions or common mistakes above, and we have given it a good run, then sometimes we have to conclude for ourselves that it is not for us, even if that does go against what the majority thinks or the research says. That doesn’t mean that the resource is universally unhelpful, it’s just that it isn’t right for all people in all places.
The beauty of accepting this, is that it frees us up to move on, to look for something better that will work for us and our teens. Sometimes, as I discovered, it can often lead you down the road of designing your own program, your own resource, your own toolkit. Sometimes it’s entirely unique, sometimes it’s a mash-up of the other resources out there. Whatever it is, it frees us to be more helpful and that is the core of our work.
‘What works’ is great as a starting point, but we have to be careful not to let it be our endpoint. We have to be mindful that what it provides in consistency it can stifle in creativity, in independent forward thinking. Our independent thinking could be the next big ‘what works’, but it only can be if we allow ourselves to wander, where appropriate, from the beaten track. It doesn't mean we forget where the beaten track is, we just allow ourselves to see where other paths take us.
In all of this, in everything we do, we need to be clear about what we are doing, what the point of it is and assessing whether it is working. This needs to happen at the beginning, the middle and the end. If we do this, then it is less likely that we will be led astray by the mistaken assumptions about the tools that we use. It is far less likely that we will fall down the resource rabbit hole, leaving teens wondering where the hell we have gone and what the hell we are doing down there, before deciding that they are bored waiting and they carry on... as usual.
To be sure not to miss out on future posts, why not sign up to the Teenage Whisperer newsletter? Sign up and you will be notified by email of future posts and you will automatically receive a free peer pressure resource to use in your work with young people.