For Best Results, Engagement Comes First

“Have you ever stuck a foreign object up your nose?” It’s a curious inquiry – one that you might expect from a couple of friends swapping stories, not a question you’d expect a youth to ask their mental health provider during the first visit – but the unexpected humor of this get-to-know-you question is at the heart of effective youth engagement.

The mental health provider cracks a wry smile and responds to the question. “I have. It wasn’t my proudest moment. I was in first grade, on the playground and saw some kids sticking pebbles up their nose and blowing them out. I thought it looked like it’d be fun until I couldn’t get it out. One panicked trip to the nurse’s office later, my nose was clear, but I can assure you I have never done that again.” The youth laughs, delighted by this strange revelation, and shares a story of their own. The awkwardness of their first meeting is subsiding.

Next, it is the provider’s turn to ask a question. Reading off of the card in front of her she asks, “do you feel like anything is too serious to be joked about? And if so, why?” The youth, having caught a glimpse of their provider’s personality and backstory, feels more comfortable now to share their story. The youth responds, explaining that when their friends joke about cheating on their partners, they get angry as they’ve been cheated on by a partner in the past. The provider and the youth fall into a natural conversation before it is the youth’s turn again to ask the provider the next question. In that initial meeting, the provider starts to build a picture of the youth’s story, triggers, and values, and the youth sees the provider demonstrate their trustworthiness.

As anyone who works with youth knows, one of the most challenging parts of working with youth is finding ways to authentically engage youth when working under time constraints. For this reason, Youth ERA – a national nonprofit specializing in peer-delivered services and youth empowerment – created the Youth Engagement Kits. The kits are designed to build rapport, develop trust, identify goals, and increase engagement during the first initial meetings between a youth and provider.

The questions about foreign objects in noses and inappropriate jokes belong to a card game “Stacked Deck” – one of several tools in the kits – in which providers and youth alternate asking each other questions based on what’s written on the cards. The card game is designed to break the ice, build rapport, and dig a little deeper beyond the small talk of an initial first meeting.

“It’s a great icebreaker when being in the engagement phase with youth,” said Solmaira Trujillo, Youth Wraparound Support Partner at Youth ERA. “It also allows us to share a little bit of ourselves first, and I believe that makes the youth a lot more comfortable to share.”

The idea for the kits came from Youth ERA’s own need for training their staff to engage with young people more effectively. Youth ERA specializes in peer support for transitional age youth, ages 14 to 25 and hires young people with lived experience in mental health, residency, foster care, juvenile justice, recovery, trauma and other areas that match their youths’ experiences. Youth ERA found that the young people they hired often felt unsure of what to do during the first few meetings with youth so they set about developing a portable toolkit that their Youth Peer Support Specialists could take with them to meetings. Youth ERA’s engagement first model led them to design the first kit to focus on relationship building while the second kit helps youth and their provider identity a youth’s goal, strengths, and unmet needs.

Wraparound Youth Partner for Youth ERA, Noura Kader, attests to Youth Engagement Kit’s ability to break the ice, “I think that it does take some of the pressure off of youth partners and youth in terms of coming up with ‘small talk.’ No matter how social or extroverted you are, it’s always going to be a little awkward during those initial meetups.”

Youth ERA soon realized that better youth engagement was a shared need among providers who work with youth. It wasn’t just Youth Wraparound Support Partners or Youth Peer Support Specialists who needed assistance but therapists, case managers, and even foster parents. These roles have valuable services to offer, but when youth aren’t interested, the services aren’t as impactful. For Youth ERA, engagement has always come first.

“Services are only effective if the youth are choosing to engage in it,” explained Director of Wraparound Services for Youth ERA, Todd Taylor. “Youth need to see that we are going to be there for them and advocate for their interests 100 percent of the time. By taking the time to do the groundwork, youth will be actively engaged in accessing services.”

To achieve this, a provider can use the first kit, which focuses on relationship building. Besides “Stacked Deck,” providers can access a booklet of “Quick Tips,” which includes strategies for empowering youth, establishing youth vision and communicating with youth. The first kit also includes a large wooden die imprinted with questions for the youth to ask the provider including items like:

  • What is mandatory reporting?
  • Is there a time that I can’t contact you?
  • If I’m having a hard time, can we text or chat?
  • Will you share what we talk about with my parents or case manager?

Youth ERA found that most youth did not know what mandatory reporting was despite being in systems that would require them to know.

Taylor said, “Most youth view mandatory reporting as a ‘snitch law’ but we found that when we take time to explain to them what mandatory reporting is, youth not only understand it better but begin to feel empowered by it. Instead of viewing it as something that can be used against them, they see it as a tool they can choose to use to keep them safe.”

The die gives the power of knowledge and asking questions to youth while ensuring that providers cover those challenging but essential conversations about boundaries. The die builds trust between providers and youth, which will be vital for later, more in-depth work.

“A lot of youth and families that come to Wraparound are system weary,” Taylor explained. “They are tired, sometimes they are in crisis, and they are managing a lot of different things in their life. By the time they get to Wraparound, they view it as just another system that isn’t going be impactful in the long term. By going slow and getting to know the youth, the youth learn that their voice and goals are valued and that they will be leading the process. This establishes trust to do the deep work providers will need to do later.”

With the foundation of trust that develops in the first meeting between youth and a provider, they can move onto the second kit, which focuses on helping a youth clarify their vision and goals. This kit includes one of the most popular features, “Creatures of Fate,” a card game where youth build themselves as colorful, fantastical creatures that tell a story of who they are now and who they want to be in the future. This process enables providers to quickly get to a youth’s vision statement and create a holistic path forward, which accounts for all domains of their life. The cards also identify a youth’s unmet needs that a provider needs to help the youth develop to reach their goals and a youth’s strengths that can help them achieve those goals. “Creatures of Fate” is used by providers to initially engage youth to identify goals and to re-engage youth when they become disheartened by the process.

Shannon Marble, Youth Wraparound Support Partner for Youth ERA, said of the game, “Many of the youth I work with have been stuck in their tough times for so long that they are uncomfortable thinking about what could lie ahead. The kits help take the pressure off of thinking about their future and have a conversation about it.”

Meaningful conversations lead to change, but it’s effective youth engagement that leads to those conversations. With the right tools to engage youth, providers, and youth can dive into the more in-depth work that changes lives. When youth are involved in that process, empowerment happens, but engagement comes first. For more information and to get a peek inside the kits, visit Youth ERA’s Youth Engagement Kit website.

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About the Author

Gina Gervase

Gina Gervase is an Executive Assistant at Youth ERA, a nonprofit that engages and empowers transitional age youth through peer delivered services. Before immersing herself in the mental health field, she rallied voters in state and local politics, worked in education and studied Journalism at the University of Oregon where she learned to see both sides of the Oxford comma debate.

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