1) Don’t stand over kids– you don’t always know their histories and some of them can be really sensitive to displays of power and you could accidentally trigger them. Kids have been exposed to traumas you’ll probably never know about and these kids often have higher hormone levels and are easily sent into fight or flight.
Instead, do watch your body language. Sit or kneel whenever
possible to be at eye level with your students. Different cultures have different definitions of ‘personal space’ so pay attention to your students’ comfort levels. Avoid crossing your arms and maintain a neutral stance as much as possible.
2) Don't talk about students while students are present. In fact, don’t even talk about students with other staff unless there is a good reason. When you talk about a student in front other students, you set the stage for a culture that approves and supports of gossiping, bullying, labeling, and power imbalances.
Do save your talk about students for staff meetings that are held away from the presence of students. Commit to using strengths-based language even among yourselves and work to find solutions for problem areas. Support and encourage your team in doing the same. Model a staff culture that is respectful, inclusive and empowering and your students will pick up on it.
3) Don’t label students. Young people are constantly forming their identities and they need to believe in their own potential. When they hear enough labels, its hard for them to imagine they have alternatives and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Do focus on students' strengths instead. A gifted youth worker can find something positive in even the most challenging students. When you point these strengths out to these challenging young people, you may be the only person to have done so in quite some time. Make a commitment to always focus on strengths and positives and you will become a much-needed, positive force in their lives.
4) Don’t let chaos rule. Without structure, routine and limits, safety, both emotional and physical, will be compromised.
Fuzzy, inconsistent limits are confusing for students and can feel unfair. And, when limits arereactionary rather than proactive, power is unequally in the hands of the limit-setter and can invite resentment and retaliatory behavior.
Do prioritize safety. Avoid being reactionary by setting expectations as early as possible and before behavior challenges arise. Develop rules and define what respect will look like in your program collaboratively with staff and students together. When students test boundaries, firmly, but calmly, remind them of the limits they helped create. Be available to listen to what might be causing them to act out as they are likely trying to solve another problem with what looks like acting out.
5) Finally, most importantly, don’t keep quiet if you suspect the abuse or neglect of a child.
Do immediately report any and all signs of neglect or abuse to a supervisor. This includes if a student discloses, or you suspect, they are being harmed in any way or may harm themselves or others. And this applies to volunteers as well as paid staff. Everyone is responsible for ensuring the safety of all children. For more information on the signs of child abuse, please check out the US DHHS website here.
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