Understanding and Supervising Young People at Work
The Australian Government definition of a young person is someone aged from 15-24. (http://deewr.gov.au/youth) The Australian Psychological Society defines a young person as aged between 12 and 26 years of age. (http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/inpsych/youth_mental_health/)
However, developmentally one doesn’t enter youth or exit into adulthood by definition, formula or some ‘scientific’ time scale. In reality (and also defined by some governments), youth can be experienced between the ages of 10 and 35 years of age or more. Due to changes in diet and other societal issues some young girls are now experiencing puberty as young as 8 or 9 years of age. Developmental maturity is not something that works like mathematics or engineering, humans all develop differently. One can easily have a very mature 16 year old on a work team and an immature 35 year old on the same team.
So what are the characteristics of youth and how does this knowledge help us understand and supervise young people to help keep them safe?
- The starting point for all supervision is an understanding of self. Supervisors need to know what their own biases are, prejudices, views of discipline, maturity and expectations before they start going off thinking they can supervise young people. Many times the mismanagement of young people is not about them but about a non-reflective adult who naively believes that they are objective and infallible. One of the foundations of effective supervision of young people comes from knowledge of one’s own weaknesses.
- Communication and people skills are vital in the supervision of young people. Whatever you think you say, that’s not how they heard it. Supervisors need to understand that young people have many filters that affect the way they hear the messages with which they are bombarded. The idea that young people can be supervised without any training or experience in communications and people skills is an absolute nonsense. One can either accept that young people are who they are and hear what they hear or, attempt to communicate with them naively and then punish them for not listening.
- The primary focus of supervision should not be on content but on establishing trusting relationships. Most of the young people exiting school are sharper and more savvy about technology and learning than many of us who experienced ‘spoon feeding’ in schooling. Indeed, inductions that and monological and boring like the white card are next to useless. The idea that data dumps are learning is also nonsense. The last people to be delivering white card training should be ex-inspectors and safety crusaders who have no training themselves in teaching, learning or relationship building. Training in training is not education and learning. As for on-line learning, good luck. Learning is not about reading comprehension. Some test at the end of a data dump is next to meaningless, unreliable and delusional.
When working with young people one cannot assume that the provision of information means learning has occurred. Supervisors and trainers in industry seem to have this funny perception that a powerpoint, manual, war stories and talking to someone invokes learning??? When one begins to establish a relationship with a young person at work, the best thing to assume is that the induction was ineffective. Unfortunately, you can’t start from the beginning either or this will be understood at patronizing and condescending. Poor inductions and poor training do more damage than good, as they create the illusion that the young person has some knowledge about something. Go back to the basics of relationship, ask good open questions and listen. This is the only way you will learn to know what they know and influence what they should know.
Risk is all about venturing into uncertainty with imagination and (limited) experience. For the young person, uncertainty and risk suggest excitement, decision making, independence and autonomy. Every supervisor needs to know that risk is attractive for young people.
The last thing a young person (or any person for that matter) wants is micro-management. The dynamic move from dependence to independence requires extensive skill and insight. The language of ‘monitoring’ and ‘correcting’ is not helpful when thinking about supervising young people. You might think it but don’t say it. If you establish an effective and trusting relationship with the young person, you don’t need to ‘monitor’ or ‘correct’ them. Young people respond best to effective ‘coaching’ (not yelling side-line coaching) and ‘advice’. The language of ‘policing’, ‘force’ and punitive fear doesn’t connect with young people.
Supervisors need to understand that talking about fines, authority and fear is not attractive to young people who are more characterized by rebelling from such. Such talk is alienating and de-motivating. Effective supervision that engages young people is more interested in establishing independent thinking and ownership than talk about fear and compliance. The important thing to know is that this young person being supervised can think and own their decisions about risk when the supervisor is not around.
One of the most important aspects of learning theory (established by Vygotsky) is that of ‘scaffolding’. Scaffolding is about building experiences incrementally so that independence and mastery is achieved. Another key principle of learning theory is the ‘hidden curriculum’. All educators know that hidden messages are more powerful than overt messages, with young people this is moreso. If there is inconsistency between your messages and behaviour, young people are most likely to adopt the behavior. This is where modelling and mentoring comes in. One can’t expect a young person to understand the engagement of risk if the supervisor doesn’t walk the walk and talk the talk.
Supervisors should undertake education and learning in generational difference. This is important in understanding self and learning to communicate across generations, up and down. People without effective people skills should not supervise young people at work.
One can talk about hazards and risk to the cows come home but learning without context is useless. Walking young people through tasks, walking and talking about and on site, conversations (not lectures) about risk, modeling and mentoring, open questions and listening – these are the key to keeping young people safe on site.
Rob has experience with youth as Manager of ACT Office of Youth, Founder of Galilee School for High Risk Youth, reformer of youth detention centres, Chair of the National Youth Affairs Research Scheme and currently parent of four 28-35 year olds.