There is no magic bullet when it comes to communicating with young people, particularly adolescents. The most important thing is to understand that this age period is one of much volatility and change, and young people at this time go through many dramatic changes which are often the source of their moodiness, confusion, and others.
When I worked with the Center for Youth Development in Washington, D.C. several years ago I used to work on a project with a man named Mark Krueger who ran a center for troubled children and youth in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Mark was not only a highly skilled youth worker but was a scholar in the area of youth development and published many articles and books about his work.
He used to say, when working with youth, that often times communicating with them was not always direct. He used to use the term ‘presence’ a lot, to signify the importance of simply being with young people and ‘sharing space’ with them. This also included being there for them when they come to us with their problems and concerns. In one of his books (Themes and Stories), he writes:
“Youth work is like a modern dance. We bring ourselves to the moment and try to interact in synch with youths’ rhythms for trusting and growing. As we interact, we are in a sense, in—and passing through—youth. The challenge is to know ourselves so that we can know each other, and this comes about in part through a constant exploration of our stories. It also comes about when we are in youth work with youth, learning how to dance.”
In order for young people to come to us with sensitive issues, they must trust us. For adolescents, especially if we are talking about those from troubled backgrounds, building trust is a difficult process that takes time, patience, humility and a deep concern for the well-being of the youth. Young people can usually see through adults that are not honest with them. They know when people are ‘putting them on’ and are not genuine. Thus, it is imperative that when working with youth we are honest with them, we are ourselves and we do not try to put on airs.
Furthermore, youth and adolescence are at a stage when they begin to think critically about the world. It is therefore very important that we do not try to impose our views on them so much but ask them questions and allow them to understand things on their own. Adolescents must be challenged to arrive at their own conclusions about things with our guidance and support.
Probing, challenging questions are a good approach to get young people to arrive at the answers in such a way as to allow them to internalize their responses. It also illustrates in a very real way a concern for them and a desire to know what they think, rather than just a desire to lecture them which is what they usually get from adults.
Often, as adults, though we say we want to learn how to communicate better with young people, what we really mean is we want them to listen to us and obey us more. Communication, on the other hand, is a two-way street. We must, therefore, be honest with ourselves in terms of what we want with our young people.
Do we want to communicate with them or do we want them to be obedient to us? These are two very different things. If we truly do want the former, then we must be willing to put in the time, care and skills required to reach a stage where we really are communicating with our young people. Before that can happen, though, trust must be built and relationships must be formed. This takes time, patience and perseverance.
In terms of techniques, I would start by taking a genuine interest in your students by asking questions about them and really listening to them and what they have to say. Try to understand their world and place yourself in it, try and empathize with them and attempt to understand them from where they are at rather than from your own perspective. Then, use your wisdom and knowledge to guide them along in a way that is not domineering or paternalistic.
Use probing and guiding questions to get them to think about themselves and their actions, so that they can arrive at the answers without you having to give them to them. This will facilitate internalization as they arrive at conclusions on their own. In addition, don’t focus so much on verbal communication but also think about non-verbal communication and the importance of just ‘sharing space’ with them and being there for them when they have questions and concerns.
Of course, in this way we must also always be thinking and conscious about modeling behaviors for them. In sum, think of communication as more than just the direct, verbal kind, and be honest and genuinely concerned about them. Lastly, be patient – relationships and trust takes time!
From Counselor Hwaa Irfan
As salamu `alaykumو
As simple as your question is, it is very difficult to answer. Hundreds of teaching techniques exist, but I have found that those teachers who are most effective in getting the attention of their young students are those teachers who:
- a) Are genuinely interested in what the youth think and feel.
- b) Are genuinely interested in a learning partnership with youth – meaning involving the youth
- c) Who allow space for the youth to offer their experiences/understanding for the topic at hand.
- d) Do not see themselves as being superior/inferior to their students
- e) Who are genuinely interested in the learning process
- f) Do not see the youth as empty vessels to be filled.
What this means in real terms, is that one has a timed lesson structure that:
Introduces the topic in reverse order. By this I mean for example asking questions that lead to the topic within a given time frame using their language.
Expand on the topic in terms of what others (“experts”) might have said
Explore the topic (which can be done in/or out of the classroom) through various mediums. This allows you to increase vocabulary
Project work/homework (short/long)
Review/test which can be both formal and informal.
Most of all, as the youth undergo a process of individuation, it seems that they very much want to be independent and left to their own devices, but it is a period of discovery, self-evaluation/understanding and trying to establish their place in the world. Most of all, they need to feel connected i.e. they belong and someone cares.