I’ve seen lots of youth workers start their careers, and always marvel at the two ways people seem to approach it. It’s like the fable of the hare and the tortoise. You know the one, right?
Some youth workers are like the hare and rush into the job. They seem so capable. Unstoppable! Right from the first day they seem do great things. But in all that action they make mistakes.
Then there’s the other youth workers who are more like the tortoise.
They take a more measured approach to starting out. Getting to know the people they work with and getting a feel for the culture too. And like the fable of old, they often end up the same. The tortoise youth worker builds layers of impact, creating a legacy in their work. While the hare often burns out all too quickly, not quite living up to all that promise.
So whether you’re starting out, or well advanced in your career, avoid these mistakes that come with the hare approach.
What to avoid in your first year of youth work
If your natural inclination is to rush into a new job, then look out for these seven mistakes:
1. Trying to do too much
Everyone wants to make a good first impression and youth workers are no different. It’s easy to get caught up in pleasing people that you say “yes” to every request. But that road leads to burnout.
Be helpful, be keen, but also be discerning. Stick to your role and leave others to do their own.
2. Treating your current job as a stepping stone
Most youth work roles are about relationships. Building trust with young people and journeying beside them as they tackle life. It’s hard to do that if you enter the role with a short term mindset.
If you’re not thinking this is a role you can do for a couple of years, then don’t immerse yourself in it. Concentrate on building links between people in the community, not strong relationships with you. Think about how you can leave things better than when you got there.
“Success does not consist of never making mistakes but of never making the same one a second time.” – George Bernard Shaw
3. Trying to be friends with the kids
Youth work is about being friendly to young people, not their friend. You’re a support worker in their life that has a job to do. Be approachable, but also seen as a person of substance. Make sure that the work you do, particular the fun parts hanging out with kids, link to your role description.
It’s fine to spend a lot of time playing games but be able to explain the purpose behind what you’re doing. If you’re already seen as a bit of a big kid, have a look at my article on to ditch the “king of the kids” tag.
4. Missing the importance of context
Working with young people draws on a body of theory shared with social work and community work. Most people enter a youth work role after some studies where they dig deep into these theories. But the way you work with people in a particular role is less about knowledge and more about context. The first year as a youth worker should be all about getting to know your community. Not only the
The first year as a youth worker should be all about getting to know your community. Not only the organisation you work for, but the broader community. Learn about local services, people of influence and where the young people hang out.
5. Getting ahead of yourself
It’s easy to see how other, more experienced workers do things and try to copy that. But youth work is about building relationships and respect. That’s far more important in the first year or two than what programs you run.
6. Not making time for the paperwork
Most people who get into youth work are people-people. They get their energy from interacting with others. The flipside of this is that a lot of youth workers don’t enjoy paperwork, so they put it off. Get into the habit of setting aside time each week to empty your email inbox. Sort through bills that need paying and write up any reports or case notes that need doing. Being
Get into the habit of setting aside time each week to empty your email inbox. Sort through bills that need paying and write up any reports or case notes that need doing. Being organised helps you come across as a professional. This will be important later on when you’re going for a higher level job, or wanting support for a program. If paperwork isn’t a strength for you, read my article on the five paperwork mistakes youth workers make.
7. Forgetting self-care
There’s lots of energy when you start a new job. It’s exciting and there are so many things to do. But if you don’t pace yourself well, you can find yourself running out of oomph by the end of your first year.
Youth work also takes an emotional toll. Some kids have very challenging lives. You get to journey beside them, but you can’t always step in and rescue them. That can be hard on your heart.
Self-care is an essential part of good youth work. Make time to reflect on your practice, plan what you’re doing and gather new skills. Professional supervision is a must if you want to stay well. Just once every couple of months can make a difference to how you process your work and keep life balanced.
Being a hare or a tortoise comes down to personality more than intention. But taking time to think about and avoid these mistakes will make any youth worker a better practitioner. They’ll help you stay in the race to the finish.
Is one of these mistakes a feature of your journey in youth work? It’s not too late to do something about it. Chat to your professional supervisor. If you don’t have one, then perhaps it’s time to try it – have a look at what I do, I’d love to help you out.