Engaging the disengaged

Engaging the disengaged

I am about to conduct some workshops on ‘Engaging the disengaged’…that is how to get the attention of a young person whose identity has been established in opposition, defiance and the expectation that the world is unloving and uncaring….


…how to get this young person’s attention and then hold it…so that you might be able to have…a conversation together.

Well apart from anything else…here are some bits of research that I think are particularly relevant to any such discussion.

Adolescent brain development. Use it or lose…or…what fires wires

Jay Giedd Neuroscientist. (See ‘Frontline’ on the net) says: ‘In the teen years ‘…this part of the brain that is helping organization and planning and strategising is not done being built yet.’

‘Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die.’

Hills look steeper to someone carrying a heavy load

Dennis Proffit (University of Virginia) says something along the lines of: If you are looking at a hill and working out how steep it is, and if you have a weighty pack on your back, you are going to OVERestimate how steep it is.

On the other hand, if you are looking at it with a friend standing next to you, you will see it as easier. If the friend is a long-term friend then you will find it easier still. This is kind of interesting in terms of working with people in hard times. What hills are they facing? How are they looking at their hardships? Are they facing them alone or with someone?

Control, being in charge

I am always referring to Len Syme…and I have no intention of stopping now. Len (Professor of Epidemiology) says:

‘I’m looking for the answer… My hypothesis is that it’s control of destiny… My argument was this is the most important finding in the last several decades. So I now understand why social support is seen to be important. I now regard social support as one of the ways that we use to control our lives. That is to say, if I challenge you with a problem and you look to others for advice and support, that helps you negotiate life’s challenges.’

‘The stories that stick around…become who we are.’

Jonathan M. Adler (doctoral psychology student) has studied what influence the telling of stories has on people’s lives, and what happens if people spend a lot of time caught in telling stories of failure and mishap. As the quote above suggests, if we tell the same story of misery and failure to ourselves and others over and over, we may well be setting ourselves up for more of the same. On the other hand Jonathan goes on to say that people who seemed to do best…tended to tell stories of ‘a victorious battle.’

So what do we do?

With a young person who is disengaged, I often find myself focusing on the following aspects of their life:

And with an awareness of the challenges…if we pay attention to these areas and do so with creativity and invention, we might be making a good start. So for a disengaged young person and for you? Some questions:
Where is home?
Where do you belong?
What do you care about?
Who do you care about?
Who cares about you?
What is it that makes you…you?

Comment ( 1 )

  • Sam Stott

    hey pete,

    i stumbled across these thoughts of yours when i was in search of some of your wisdom about engaging young people in drawing as a way of expressing themselves… and am going to adapt some of these fabulous questions in a reflective activity with some young people i do some service-learning work with. in particular:

    * where do you belong?
    * what do you care about?
    * who do you care about?
    * who cares about you?
    * what is it that makes you…you?

    some of it will be spoken, some visualised and some drawn, depending on their preferences. i’ll frame the questions in relation to the young people themselves, but also the recipients of their service, as part of developing their empathy and awareness of the needs of others.



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