Trading Places: Young People Educating Adults

Young people frequently listen to adults talk, question, give advice, direct, correct, educate, praise, cajole, and more.  But what if youth had an opportunity to educate adults, such as parents, teachers and others? Would a youth voice sway adult attitudes and understandings regarding communication, youth culture,  parenting approaches, adolescent substance use?

Based on experience from conversations over the last seven years the answer to the above questions is a resounding “yes.”

What is a Capacity Café?

A Capacity Café is a youth-friendly environment where youth openly talk about what matters to them while adults sit and listen!  It is a unique, structured opportunity where grownups can come to understand and appreciate life from a youth’s perspective, thus becoming better equipped to support and be an ally for youth.

How is a Capacity Café conducted?

Capacity Cafés are held several times a year in local Vancouver high schools and are organized by SACY, the School Age Children and Youth Substance Use Education and Health Promotion Initiative. Secondary school students with and without substance use experience are recruited, primarily from those whose voices are least attended to by adults. Prior to the café, these young people participate in activities with SACY facilitators to help them develop trust and comfort within a group setting, build confidence and a sense of safety for speaking their truth, and prepare for a larger group discussion with adults. The adults (from a different school than the youth speakers) meet separately to identify topics they would like to know more about from the youth perspective, hear about the safety guidelines for the evening and learn how to participate in an effective listening activity.

During the Capacity Café, adults sit in a facilitated circle listening to youth share their perspectives and experiences on the issues anonymously identified by the adults. They do not speak.  Their role while with the youth is simply to listen. The one-way talk sees youth addressing questions such as:

  • What stresses young people out?
  • What gives you confidence?
  • Why do some youth use substances? Why do some youth not use substances?
  • What do parents/caregivers do that doesn’t work for you? What works well?

What are the benefits of the Capacity Café?

According to an evaluation by Arbor Educational & Clinical Consulting Inc., as a result of attending the Café, adults report spending more time listening to youth, more patience, more perspective-taking, and providing more space for the youth to approach them for conversation. Both youth and adults report feeling empowered by the event.

As a result of the Capacity Café,

  • 84% of adults strongly agreed that they felt that they had a better understanding of life from a teen’s perspective. “It was helpful to hear about other kids talk about “stress” – I thought my son was just sensitive.”
  • 70% of adults strongly agreed that they felt more confident that they could talk to their youth about difficult subjects. “I’ve learned to work with my son and not against my son.”
  • 57% of adults strongly agreed that they intended to spend more time talking with their youth about substance use issues. “Listening to the kids (at the Capacity Café) reminded me to slow down, and stop nagging and really hear my kids.”

Youth who have participated in several events have also experienced positive development in their role as community leaders. Youth say:

That is the longest an adult has ever listened to me in my whole life!”

“I can’t believe they (group of parents) wanted to hear what I had to say!”

Making space for the youth voice has the potential to shift adults’ understanding of youth experience, while strengthening adolescents’ sense of value and self-respect.

Art Steinmann

Author: Art Steinmann, Manager, Substance Use Health Promotion and SACY

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.

Must we punish in order to teach?

The great appeal of “just say no” is that it is simple – straightforward. But that simplicity replaces a broad commitment to “education” with a narrow application of “social marketing” (the art of selling someone on an idea or behaviour that promotes the social good). Nothing wrong with social marketing, but it should never be all there is to drug education.

A similar narrowing process seems to have happened with our concept of discipline which has largely come to be seen as punishment. But discipline is from the root “disciple,” and a disciple is a student or apprentice – one who is learning. So how did discipline come to mean punishment? Well, because some ancient one discovered that humans do not like pain. And, if you induce pain and associate it with a particular behaviour, a person may learn to avoid the pain by avoiding the behaviour – a sort of hands-on social marketing. All of this is true – but it is not the whole truth.

imagesIt is too simple.

Life is more complex. Not everyone has had the same past experiences or holds the same beliefs or has the same personality. As a result, not everyone reacts the same way to any specific situation, including punishment or a social marketing message. In practice a social marketing campaign that works with some people may, in fact, have a negative impact on those most vulnerable to harm. The same is true for punishment.

So, for example, a zero-tolerance policy related to drug use may help students who are highly connected to the school and motivated to achieve high marks to make sure they do not get caught smoking weed at school. But the same policy might have a very different effect on a student who feels little connection to the school. The resulting suspension may actually be a “badge of achievement” rather than something to be avoided. That means, the punishment has little deterrent effect, but it is, nonetheless, harmful in that it lowers the student’s connection to school and the chance of successful completion. The evidence is mounting that punitive responses are doing more harm than good.

So what can schools do about drugs? The available evidence seems to suggest that multiple strategies are needed and that these various elements of a comprehensive approach need to work together. For example, clear policies that articulate acceptable behaviour can define a positive school culture. But, it is also important that the policies and practices engage all members of the community (including students and their families) in nurturing this positive physical and social environment. Well-trained and supported teachers will facilitate learning environments that engage students as active learners. Restorative approaches to discipline will contribute to, rather than interrupt, learning for students who get into trouble. And a continuum of school- and community-based services will support and promote student and staff health and well-being.

None of this, of course is simple, but then …

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” (H. L. Mencken).

#4 Dan Reist Preferred

Author: Dan Reist, Assistant Director (Knowledge Exchange), Centre for Addictions Research of BC

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC.