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.
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.