Facilitating youth: challenges and approaches for overcoming them

The process of facilitation comes with some potential challenges. This article recognizes three challenges facilitators might face when working with youth and gives practical steps to mitigate those obstacles.

Adults can give value to youth voice by recognizing their potential and providing opportunities to contribute to group processes at an equal level as the adults at the table. To help adults begin to think in this fashion, the Michigan State University Extension article Facilitating: verbal tools for working with youth provides five tools that can be a starting point for shifting your interactions with youth from teacher to facilitator.

While this can be a challenging idea for adults, it can be especially difficult for youth to wrap their heads around. The current systems for youth-adult interactions in our social structure haven’t historically supported the concept that youth bring value to the table. By including youth as equals, you as an adult facilitator are acknowledging the importance of youth voice in your community and are increasing the representation of perspectives at the group table.

Because youth may not be accustomed to such inclusion and having value put on their perspectives, you may run into some challenges. It is important to note these challenges are just as prevalent with adult populations, so the approaches below can be used to overcome challenges with any group.

Common facilitator problems:

  • Silence. Many facilitators admit the potential for silence is one of the things that is most intimidating when beginning a facilitation. That being said, there are many things you can do when facing silence. For starters, use an interactive icebreaker at the beginning of the meeting so group members get to know each other’s names and points of view. A great next step is to collaboratively make a list of ground rules for the group’s interactions. These ground rules can help create a safe space for sharing and develop participant investment in the guiding principles of the group. Allowing group members to write their ideas for ground rules on sticky notes and sticking the notes on the wall creates an opportunity for all group members to contribute confidentially. Note: not all silence is bad. Allowing the group to think about an idea without your interjection can spark a more natural dialogue in the long run.
  • Talkativeness. Having missed lot of missed opportunities to voice their opinions in the past, some youth may feel like making up for lost time and dominate the dialogue with over or frequent sharing. This is another great place to reference the group’s ground rules. You don’t have to pointedly reprimand someone, but gentle reminders to the entire group about agreed upon expectations can be highly valuable. Other approaches are to build in silence, asking the group to quietly write ideas, contemplate decisions or identify themes in conversation. You can also limit the time participants have to talk during their turn or ask that participants raise their hands before speaking.
  • Getting off track. Dialogue can naturally digress to topics that aren’t entirely relevant to the ideas or decisions at hand. When this occurs, you can write those ideas/topics in a “parking lot;” a space to hold ideas to address at a different time. This acknowledges that those topics are important though not related to the issue at hand and can help reinforce to participants that their voices are being heard. Another approach is to create a sub-committee for dialogue on the newly introduced topics or offering the opportunity for the contributing participants to share their thoughts with you after the conclusion of the meeting.

Facilitation takes intently engaging a group to build trust and ensure all participants feel their voices are being heard and valued. This is an approach that can take some extra time and requires skills you can continue to develop as a facilitator. That being said, the end result is often much more powerful than that of a teacher-learner approach.