Teaching adult volunteers to work with youth in non-directive ways

Coaching volunteers and staff in your programs towards working with youth in experiential, non-directive ways can be rewarding for the volunteer and youth.

Is there a volunteer you work with who is the epitome of perfectionism? When you need a storage room organized, an event planned, or files organized, they are your go-to person. The challenge for a skilled volunteer manager is when that “check-list all-star” wants to start working with young people. They come to the first meeting with a perfectly planned project and are at a loss when the youth just aren’t engaged.

In positive youth development organizations like Michigan 4-H, youth are encouraged to explore projects and activities in inquiry-based, creative and sometimes hectic ways. Often, it takes some work to help youth move away from instruction-based education and embrace this approach. It’s important to remember that adults might need similar support.

Training. Much of our daily lives is structured and systematic. Although education and workplaces are moving towards more creative approaches, most of us, especially adults, are conditioned to instruction-based ways of working. Initial training around experiential learning models can be very beneficial for adults with an important framing of project objectives being skill-building rather than a product. Michigan State University Extension offers numerous training resources for adults working with youth.

Coaching. The second component of this support is coaching from you, the volunteer manager. Take opportunities to debrief experiences with the volunteer, modeling that component of the experiential learning model and emphasizing youth progress in skill development over the technical quality of the project created.

Learning from others. The “choose-your-own-adventure” approach can often be overwhelming at first. New volunteers can benefit from visiting other groups in order to observe the array of delivery methods that can be successful with youth. As a manager, your role is often to connect new members of your team to the seasoned ones you can trust.

Embracing failure. Failure can be a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. It is also more likely when you are exploring topics in an inquiry-based way; sometimes ambitious ideas don’t pan out exactly the way we expect the first time. Help volunteers with this by reframing failure and creating an environment where trying multiple times is just as good or better than getting the right answer the first time.

If your volunteers are comfortable embracing failure, making mistakes and throwing instruction books to the side, the youth they work with will have an essential element to becoming creative thinkers – having an outgoing leader and example!

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