If you’ve had a bad day as a youth worker or school chaplain, it can be hard to make sense of such difficult times. That’s where a reflection process can make all the difference.

Most youth workers help young people facing challenging circumstances in life. This means that plenty of things will happen that cause your day to feel awful.

A teenager making a wrong choice and finding themselves suspended or expelled from school. A death of a client, one of their family members or a staff member. A child’s arrest or disclosure of harm. Critical incidents and emergencies. Funding cuts or removal of a program.

None of these things are easy to deal with. For some youth workers, they’re having to make decisions on the run. These split second decisions can either help or hinder the situation.

People who last long term in youth work have great strategies for making sense of difficult times. They focus on learning how they can manage these bad days better.

If you've had a bad day as a youth worker or school chaplain and are struggling to make sense of it, try this reflection process.

What makes a day in youth work bad?

You might have looked at that list and felt that none of the things you face are there. But I bet you still have tough days.

A bad day is one where it draws on every bit of emotional strength and physical energy to get through it. It could be an unpleasant conversation with a coworker. Or listening to too many young people talk about the complex lives they have. The only person who can define a day as good or bad is you.

But there are a few things that will make you more inclined to having bad days:

  • You’ve been in the job for a few years and you don’t spend much time talking about the theory behind what you do
  • You feel your emotions are frazzled
  • You’ve got other stresses going on in your life, either at home or another job
  • You think you’re too busy to make reflection and learning a priority
  • You’ve been soldiering on without professional supervision

If this last one is you, and you find this article helpful, I’d encourage you to find a supervisor pronto. I’d love you to consider using me, and you can read more on my page about professional supervision. But if you have someone else in mind, check out my article on the 10 qualities you should look for in a supervisor.

A reflective process to make every bad day a learning experience

No matter what process you use to look back on bad days, you’re not going to stop them all together. Like I said earlier, they’re part of being a youth worker or school chaplain and working with kids in crisis.

I can guarantee that having a reflective process will help you learn from those experiences. It will help you handle future ones better.

A great process that makes a lot of sense in youth work, and isn’t too hard to remember is Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle. Graham Gibbs published his book Learning by Doing in 1988 (what a good year that was!). He identified six stages of reflection, but I like this simpler version from MindTools. It only has five stages; one for each finger!

Step 1: Description

This first step is all about describing what happened. It’s the facts of the situation. Sometimes it’s helpful to just write this out. And if you’re keeping case notes, this is likely to be what you’re going to record anyway.

It’s the essential stuff like who was there, who said what and who did what.

Jonah is a youth worker who spoke to a young person yesterday. This teen was feeling overwhelmed by some relationship issues with his girlfriend. Jonah’s turned up to work today and heard that this teenager has since taken his life.

Jonah’s supervisor has asked to meet with him shortly. But before he goes in, Jonah’s just gathering his thoughts. Did something he say contribute to this? Could he have done something different?

Sitting down to write some notes, he focuses on what happened during the conversation yesterday. What the teen said, and what he said. What questions he asked. What behaviours he observed. Who else he spoke to about the conversation.

Step 2: Feelings

This is where you turn the spotlight on yourself and look at what your response was. What did you feel? What were your thoughts?

In Jonah’s case, he’s sitting there thinking back over yesterday. Did he feel from what the teenager said and was doing, that suicide was on his mind? Did he feel uneasy about any of the teen’s answers or statements? What was he thinking when the young person walked out of his office?

What was his assessment of the situation? Did anyone else agree or disagree with this assessment?

Did he help the young person develop an action plan? What was it?

Step 3: Evaluation

This step involves some analysis. What went well or didn’t go well? What sense can you make of the situation? Did your feelings and thoughts fit with what was happening?

You have to be willing to be a bit critical here. Imagine that you’re in that meeting with your manager. What would you say if they asked you why you did what you did, or didn’t do more?

Back with Jonah, he’s concentrating on what the young person was like just before they walked out of his office. Were there any signals that suicide was on his mind? Or was there a sense that he had an action plan that was going to work? Jonah’s thinking about how his thoughts and feelings fit with the client’s behaviour and statements. Identifying any signals he might have missed.

Jonah’s pretty sure he didn’t miss anything. While it was late in the day, and the teenager arrived distressed, he did calm down. Jonah felt the teen left with a clear action plan. At no time did the young person suggest they were contemplating suicide or feeling that the action plan was unworkable.

Jonah recognises that there were a few hours between when the young person left his office and when they took their own life. He’s wondering if something else happened. Could new information have surfaced for the teenager to throw out the action plan and feel that suicide was the only option?

Step 4: Conclusions

This is the stage where you think about all the things you could have done differently. Write a list, no matter how crazy some of the items might be. Then winnow it down to things that would have made sense in this situation.

Think about what you would do different if this happened again. Look for gaps in your knowledge that could help you do a better job.

After thinking through the whole situation, Jonah feels he should have asked the teenager if there were any other ideas he was contemplating to solve his problem. He wonders if inviting the young person to talk about suicide might have helped prevent this one. He thinks that’s definitely something he’d consider doing different. But before he does that, he’d like to get some more training about dealing with suicidal teens.

Step 5: Action

The last step involves developing your own action plan. This is one that Jonah would be looking to develop during his meeting with the manager. Both more training and better questioning could make a difference for future clients.

You can read more about the Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, including some sample questions in an article on MindTools.

But before you go, let me finish the story of Jonah. While his manager agreed that some extra training around spotting and responding to suicidal intentions was a good plan, he wanted Jonah to know that he’s not expected to be a mind reader. There was still going to be a investigation, but Jonah had the full support of his manager and the team leader he’d spoken to after the conversation with the teenager.

Bad days can be some of our most valuable learning experiences in youth work. They shine a light on our weaknesses, but also our strengths. If we maintain an attitude to keep learning, we can use these days to ensure that our practice goes from strength to strength.

What do you think? Have you used this process? Or maybe you’ve got your own… I’d love to hear what you think helps youth workers learn from their difficult days.

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