By Sam Piha
Being a youth worker is a very difficult job. They face a variety of challenges and dilemmas, as they work with a diverse group of young people. We collected a number of questions from youth workers and promised to engage experts and field leaders for their answers. Below are some of the questions we received and the answers that we sought out from field leaders, content experts and innovative practitioners. If you want to submit your own question, click here.
This blog is part 3 of our Q&A series. To read part 1, click here or part 2, click here. Stay tuned as we continue to explore questions from youth workers. (Note: we know that there are many answers to any question. Below, we offer some well-thought-out answers that we received. Because schools and agencies may have specific policies, we recommend that youth workers share their questions with their immediate supervisor. At the bottom we provide a brief bio about the respondents.)
Q: When an elementary student has different feelings about who they are sexually, how can we as a staff go about addressing the issue in a positive manner without being offensive toward the student? - Youth Worker, San Joaquin County, CA
A: “Most importantly, don’t intrude on the student if they do not want to talk about it. If they do want to talk about it, best strategy is to listen and then reflect positively about all the different ways people feel about who they are sexually. If you’ve observed their different feelings yourself but they haven’t expressed them, still take the opportunity, if available, to offer the same reflections with a number of students together, not connecting it directly to that specific student but as a learning moment for all students.”
- Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D.
Q: Regarding sexuality, how should you respond to a child (elementary school) "coming out" to you directly. What is appropriate and what should be avoided?
- Youth Worker, Kanawha County, WV
A: “If a student is sharing with you their sexual identity or attractions, it typically means that they trust you. What is appropriate is to first listen and also ensure confidentiality. Second, explore what support or help that student would like from you (e.g., helping them talk to their parents). Third, make sure the student is feeling safe and has not met up with any negativity. And most importantly, mirror back to them positive regard. What to avoid: negatively judging them for their feelings; offering support you’re not really able to provide.”
- Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D.
Q: I am new in a program but I do have one kid who is really bossy. I am still unsure how to manage that kind of behavior since she even wants to tell me what to do in each activity. I only spent a day with that group because I was new and then the school shut down but I am still thinking about that kind of behavior and how to manage it. She is only 7 years old.
- Youth Worker, Imperial County, CA
A: "So, kids' behavior always makes sense, if only we knew the rest of the story. This kid, and others like her, have a need behind their drive to control things. Sometimes it's because they are anxious about the unknown and if they take charge, then they can control the narrative which makes them feel less anxious. Another example would be kids who have trouble following direction or instructions (lots of kids with learning glitches have this issue) so they get "bossy" because they if are the deciders about how something is going to be, they don't have to be able to "follow" a set of instructions which is actually hard for them. This happens a lot when kids want to control the game and the rules when they are playing with peers---it's easier to lead on their own terms than to understand when someone else describes how it's supposed to work. And yet another example would be a kid who is given too much authority at home and is used to that role, thinks it's expected of them, so that's how she operates outside of home too.
The best approach to handling this is to have compassion for the child (as annoying and disruptive as their behavior might seem) and recognize that there is actually a vulnerability or confusion that kid is having that is prompting the "bossy" or controlling behavior. Rather than challenging the child or pushing back on the behavior, thank the child for his or her intentions to be helpful and clarify "how it works' (i.e, that actually YOU are going to be directing things. For example, "Thanks for your ideas and help, but I have a plan in mind and I'll be the one leading the activities today. If you have some ideas you'd like to share with me, you can let me know about them at the end of the day and I'll be glad to consider them for another time." Meanwhile, keep an eye on that child to see if he or she is struggling in the role of "follower" or even "equal" because it's either difficult for them to process the rule or because they don't have the social skills to manage until they feel on top. Help them learn."
- Sheri Glucoft Wong, LCSW, Berkeley, Ca
Q: I have a student (elementary school) who is always doing some type of motion out of the ordinary and makes noises. He himself doesn't catch what he's doing, the rest of my group notices and from time to time gets frustrated. How do I deal or go about this situation?
- Youth Worker, San Joanquin County, CA
A: "This sounds like a child with some neuro-physiological issues. Perhaps this student has tics, which can be single repetitive motions or "marching tics" which are a series of various "out-of-the-ordinary" movements. There are also vocal tics (throat clearing, yelping, sniffing, etc) which may explain the noises. It's sad for the child when other kids respond with frustration or alienation since more often than not, these behaviors are involuntary. That's why the student himself isn't aware of them.
I would share your observations with the adult(s) in this child's life by simply describing the motions and sounds you have seen, as well as describing that the child doesn't seem aware of them and that you are concerned because other children are having a negative response to behavior they don't understand. Ask the adult if they are aware of it as well. If they are, perhaps you can discuss ways to manage the situation that won't embarrass the kid with the tics (or whatever the issue might be)---for example "Sometimes his body or voice expresses itself in ways he didn't mean it to, and he is so used to that happening that he doesn't notice. His family has learned to work around the motions and sounds and we're going to learn to do that too." You can see it as an opportunity to support acceptance of differences with kindness and generosity. If the student's grown-ups weren't aware, you may be giving them info they didn't have and can let them know it would be helpful if they checked in with the pediatrician to understand what might be going on so you can work with them to better support the child in the social setting of your program."
- Sheri Glucoft Wong, LCSW, Berkeley, Ca
A: I agree with Sheri's answer above, with one additional thought: parents can be very touchy when learning of information about their child that they may view as "negative". These are very delicate conversations. It is best if you only share your observations and maybe concerns, while avoiding any medical terms or diagnosis.
-Sam Piha, MSW, Temescal Associates
Dr. Diane Ehrensaft is a developmental and clinical psychologist, Director of Mental Health at the Child and Adolescent Gender Center and Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco. She has been a frequent contributor to our LIAS blog and the How Kids Learn conference. You can review her blog responses here and view a video presentation here.
Sheri Glucoft Wong is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and family therapist. She’s known nationally for her parenting workshops and consultations with school leaders. In addition to her clinical practice, she has led workshops and seminars for childcare centers, medical centers, and private industry for over 30 years.
By Sam Piha
We first met Karina Epperlein years ago at a screening of her film, Finding the Gold Within. This documentary chronicled the transition of young black men from high school to college, the issues of racism they encountered, and the role of Alchemy Inc., an afterschool program in supporting this transition. We were so taken by the film, that we sponsored several screenings in the San Francisco Bay Area. (To watch or stream Karina's documentary, Finding the Gold Within, click here.)
We also invited some of the young men to talk about their experiences. Later, we featured Karina, a drummer from Alchemy Inc., Kwami Williams, and Darius Simpson (a young poet featured in the documentary) at our How Kids Learn Conferences.
Karina was recently in the news about a Black Lives Matter mural that she is painting on her garage in Berkeley, Ca. To view the news report on this, click here. We caught up with Karina to ask her a few questions as issues of race are back in the news. Below are Karina’s responses to our interview questions.
Q: Why did you choose the topic of race and racial identity as a theme in your film, Finding the Gold Within?
A: In the fall of 2010, almost 10 years ago, my first visions for Finding the Gold Within took hold of me. Of course I knew that the film would unavoidably have to deal with racism in America, even though Alchemy is not overtly addressing those issues in their highly sophisticated, astonishingly effective and unique work. The theme of racial injustice weaves itself throughout the film because that has been and is the everyday reality for African Americans. Not just now, but for 400 years. Racism is America’s biggest "story."
Once I witnessed in person Alchemy’s work, it became clear to me that it was unavoidably highlighting a wound in American society. Getting close to the “Alchemy family” and my six chosen protagonists for the film (and their families), we constantly discussed things “invisible” to many white Americans – like the Black man, feared and reviled, and the long history of that. Trust was built in part because I was German, with an accent, had not grown up in this country, and I naturally possess enthusiasm and passion for deep inquiry, authentic expression, and justice. I knew African American history and literature. The bloody history of slavery, oppression, criminalization – and so much denial and whitewashing. I knew about the ongoing murdering of Black people by state violence and hate. I had studied Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s work. So, I saw Kwame Shrugg’s (ED, Alchemy Inc.) work in the context of mythology, racism, injustice, and history. And in my interviews over the years, the protagonists kept confiding with stories about their ongoing struggle with racism, their confusion and fury.
Coming to this country in 1981, my background allowed me to see America’s racism early on. In the early nineties, I taught creative expression for five years as a volunteer in prison and three years in drug rehabs. This community work and critical reading, taught me about American society, culture, history, and its “two worlds or realities.” I knew that a country not dealing with its genocidal history is a dangerous country. Racism kills people’s ability to find the ‘gold within’ themselves and others. This is true for victim and perpetrator (and bystander) alike, whose hearts must whither.
Throughout the film, words quoting Ralph Elison and Langston Hughes fading in slowly turn to gold. Toward the end it says: “Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed – I, too, am America.”
Q: In what way did the experience of growing up in Germany effect your own views of race, racial identity and the need to confront America's issues of slavery?
A: Maybe this question I should have answered first because my background and upbringing has been crucial in my life and work. It is the red thread in my art. It has highly sensitized me to injustice anywhere. Everything I am and stand for, I owe to my parents’ incredible resilience, integrity, and goodness.
As a post-war German, I was born into moral and literal rubble, and into poverty. I grew up in an unusual family and a devastated culture where it was important to make sure that "never again" was a serious way of life – understanding and fighting fascism, anti-Semitism, racism and authoritarianism. Everyone was guilty. Shame and denial were pervasive, as well as great sorrow. In order to redeem ourselves many of us critically looked into our country’s history, society, institutions, and our inner selves so as not to repeat the horrors of the past. (Not all, but enough did this work.) This marked me for life. As a young person, I was rebellious and impatient, but 50 - 60 years later, Germany's society and culture finally had started to change palpably, almost unrecognizably so. The lessons are still alive. They are actively kept alive.
Now, six years since the world premiere of Finding the Gold Within, I would say a revolution is underway. Thanks to years of work by the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement there is growing awareness, reckoning and awakening is in progress. Eloquent truth telling is happening, old and new demands are being made. The voices of Black people are increasingly televised, seen, heard, printed, and listened to. But there is hope. White America’s innocence has been pierced, and denial exposed. Nevertheless, it will be a long road to bring about the needed change and true transformation.
Q: Can you provide an update on the protagonists in your documentary? Where are they now?
A: To read the full update and see where they are now, click here.
(Note: In a future post we will interview Alchemy Inc.'s, Executive Director, Kwame Scruggs).
Karina Epperlein is an independent filmmaker with over 45 years of experience as a theater artist, teacher and filmmaker. Her films have consistently looked into society’s dark corners, finding the light, and addressing themes of justice, transformation and healing. Her award-winning documentary work of twenty-two years spans themes from women in prison (Voices from Inside, 1996), the Armenian genocide, to dance and disability. Her short film Phoenix Dance (2006) screened in more than 120 festivals and theatres all over the world. It was “short-listed” for the 2006 Oscar Nomination for Short Documentary, and won numerous awards internationally, including a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco Int’l Film Festival.
Finding the Gold Within, her tenth film, had its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2014. The feature length documentary has been and is screening at numerous film festivals, theatres, conferences, think tanks, colleges, Black Male Summit, hospitals, public school districts, etc. – often with the film’s protagonists present for Q&A’s and/or workshops.
By Sam Piha
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting stay-at-home orders, and school and youth program closures or distance learning, have been very difficult for young people. This is the perfect time to promote social emotional learning in response to the negative impacts of these events.
Visits by or the presence of a comfort dog would ease these impacts for young people, both in school and afterschool programs. However, COVID-19 restrictions make it impossible to schedule visits by a comfort dog. Thus, we are working to create videos with a virtual talking comfort dog that young people can access online.
My Pal, Luke is designed for youth program leaders, educators and parents. It addresses many social emotional elements through Luke's words and questions, including a check-in with kids. Luke also reads his favorite books with kids and educates them on how they make sense of current events.
Is there anything more comforting than the reassuring touch of a dog? Scientists have discovered that interacting with animals boosts levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin in our brains, and can even improve our immune system. These findings prove that dogs bring comfort to the people they interact with. - American Kennel Club
Please help youth access My Pal, Luke. You can do this by including this in your in-person program or embedding this resource into your distance learning. You can also help by sharing this with educators, parents and parent groups. Follow the My Pal, Luke instagram here or to watch episode 1 on YouTube, click here.
By Sam Piha
The last few months have been very challenging for afterschool program providers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for distance learning and national reflection on racial equity. To assist afterschool program leaders, we have sponsored several webinars on these topics. We have linked these resources below, which can be accessed online for free.
"Check-In" With Youth Remotely? There's An App For That- This Speaker's Forum webinar (90 mins) features HelloYello, which is a web-based app that students use to "check- in" with their teachers to express their thoughts and feelings and share their daily experiences. Teachers, educators, counselors, and afterschool staff can use HelloYello to understand all of their students from a "whole child" perspective, monitor their students' emotional wellness, and sustain trusting relationships.
COVID-19 Era- Afterschool's Whole Child Approach- This Speaker's Forum webinar (56 mins) features Katie Brackenridge (Turnaround for Children) and Dr. Deborah Moroney (AIR) presenting on the topic of Afterschool's Whole Child Approach. This webinar covers many strategies including exploring the science of learning and development, and the practices that are most essential in this COVID-19 era.
Not Business as Usual: The Needs of Low-Income Youth of Color in the Era of COVID-19- In this Speaker's Forum Webinar (55 mins) Dr. Pedro Noguera (USC) presents on the topic of the needs of low-income youth of color during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communities of color have been hit particularly hard in terms of number of cases and deaths, as well as the negative impacts on youth due to school and program closures and poor internet access.
The Art of Distance Learning in Afterschool- In this Speaker's Forum webinar (66 mins) Autrilla Gillis of ISANA Academies and EduCare Foundation staff share their distance learning models and discuss how they prepared/ supported staff, recruited participants and their lessons learned navigating this new model.
Healing the Impact of Racial Injustice and Inequity: The Role of Afterschool- In this Speaker's Forum webinar (80 mins) Dr. Shawn Ginwright (SFSU) examines how the COVID-19 pandemic and the long list of African Americans killed by police has laid bare the racial injustice and inequity in our society. Should we urge/ support youth to engage in civic action? And, is there a way to do some of this work remotely, as programs may not re-open in the Fall? Dr. Ginwright addresses some of these questions in his presentation and later answers participants' questions.
Pause: Cultivate Grace for Yourself and Your Community- In this Speaker's Forum webinar (56 mins) Stacey Daraio (Temescal Associates) and Laurie Grossman (Inner Explorer) lead a webinar on Mindfulness in afterschool. Grace is most easily found in the present moment. Journey with them to learn mindfulness practices that you can share with your community to live in the present. You will leave calmer and with resources to use and share.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.