Building self-worth through outward bound residentials

I was recently involved in a youth project working to raise the self-esteem of 21 vulnerable teenagers from local schools. This culminated in taking them to a residential centre for four days where they engaged in a hectic programme of outward bound activities including high ropes, horseriding, rock climbing and zip wires. Needless to say, we all faced challenges (staff included) and returned exhausted. “Thanks for taking us to Wales and letting us do loads of fun things” wrote Connor afterwards, expressing his gratitude on a scrap piece of card.

I’ve done a lot of this sort of thing over the past six years, and in doing so I’ve learned a fair amount about what drives young people and how to get the best out of them. I also think that many schools underestimate the positive impact that high-quality residential and adventurous experiences can have on all their students and particularly the most vulnerable. In this post I’ll offer a few thoughts on these sorts of trips and how to make the most out of them.

Who are our ‘vulnerable’ young people?

I don’t know if there’s an accepted definition, but I tend to think of vulnerable students as those whose low self-worth* puts them at risk of negative behaviours and outcomes. Some such individuals present as timid and introverted; others cover up for their insecurity by acting out or bullying; others try to escape from the pressures of life by truanting, cutting or abusing alcohol and recreational drugs. A few weeks ago I spoke to 15-year-old Ryan about his aspirations. He said he’d like to join the Army next year “unless I’ve got a kid by then”. He had no real concept that this was something under his control.

* It’s almost always about self-worth. This may have been damaged in the past by physical, sexual or emotional abuse, a poor home environment or a history of bullying, or there may have been other factors.

How can time at an outdoor centre benefit these individuals?

There are three key factors.

  1. It’s a great opportunity to achieve. The other day a Year 9 student stormed out of her maths lesson and, seeing me in the courtyard, went into a monologue about how school is boring and the work is irrelevant and teachers are unfair and she had a headache so how was she supposed to put up with someone telling her what to do. Clearly for some, school isn’t the easiest place to thrive. Going out kayaking or abseiling or caving or zip-wiring is different. In this environment, all students are on a level playing field and everyone can genuinely achieve. Even an activity as simple as camping or outdoor cooking can broaden students’ horizons because in many cases they have never even considered that it is something they can do. Thirteen-year-old Joe was afraid of heights but he came on a recent trip and gave every activity a go including climbing and high ropes. On several occasions he broke down in tears, such was his fear, but he always persevered onto the next challenge. Reflecting on the trip, he said he’d never been so brave or experienced such a sense of success before.
  2. Students benefit from the residential setting. Vulnerable adolescents often associate with the wrong crowd in their communities and get into negative patterns of behaviour and routine. Taking them out of their normal environments even for just a few days can be eye-opening for them. They see that there’s no need to drink alcohol to enjoy themselves and discover that they can get up at 6:30am on a Saturday just fine. They help each other out as a team and get to know people they might not normally choose to spend time with. Most of all, they benefit from the leadership of calm, supportive adults who put their best interests first.
  3. The out-of-school context is ideal for developing lasting relationships. A few months ago, 14-year-old Liam came away on a two-week camp and one evening he totally lost it with a member of staff over something I can’t even remember. Various people intervened, but in the end I went after him and we talked for about an hour – not just about what had happened but about life at home and his worries and what was really going on inside his head. As a classroom teacher, I very rarely have a conversation like that in school. Afterwards, Liam said he needed to go for a smoke and when he came back he apologised to all the people he had offended. Away from school, not only do staff and students see each other in a different light, but by supporting our young people we earn their trust and build the foundations of strong professional relationships.

A few thoughts on making trips work

Whenever I come home after a residential, I take time to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned.

  • Take staff who work with the students on a regular basis: their Heads of Year, teachers, form tutors, mentors. These are the people best placed to bond with them.
  • Plan for every minute. Vulnerable students generally don’t cope well with down time, and giving them an hour to ‘relax’ in the evening is bound to end in trouble. It’s good to have lots of games and activities to keep everyone busy.
  • Model transitions in energy levels. It is a careful balancing act to ensure that participants finish the day tired enough to fall sleep but not so tired that they lose patience with one another and become upset. Be prepared to adapt the programme to achieve this. A group who wake up unusually lethargic may need to be energised before commencing their scheduled activities. Conversely, competitive sports could be substituted for a film if everyone is agitated at the end of a long day. Tone of voice can also go a long way to raising or dissipating a group’s energy.
  • Praise process, not outcomes. “You’re a natural rock climber”, “You’re great at starting camp fires”, “You’re the fastest in the group”. Phrases like these actually discourage learners from stretching themselves because they fear that they will fail and let you down. Instead, praise effort: “I was really proud that you didn’t give up”, or “I’m impressed by how hard you’ve worked on your technique”.
  • Set clear boundaries. Constant positivity is essential, but it needs to be in the context of very clear rules and expectations. If a young person isn’t being compliant, find the right person to talk to them. I’ve been in plenty of situations where a teenager was totally defiant to a colleague but then followed instructions the moment I spoke with them – and of course I have also been in the opposite position. Relationships are key, and staff need to work together to ensure that minor issues are resolved and not escalated. That said, “zero tolerance to bullying, drugs, fighting” must mean exactly that. The ultimate sanction is to send a young person home – and as unappealing as this will always be, it is sometimes the right decision in the interests of the group as a whole.
  • Look for the best in every student. I recently worked with a girl who had a really unpleasant manner. She was totally blunt (“I’m bored, this is shit”) and always came across in a negative way. This immediately set me up to dislike her, and I have to admit it took a few days for me to see past this aggressive front to the kind, sensitive personality beneath. Looking back, it seems likely that she was unconsciously transferring her own sense of worthlessness onto me. She just needed me to be relentlessly patient and positive.
  • Remember that every drama is an opportunity to show support. Help to resolve friendship issues, find some spare toothpaste for the child who forgot theirs, recognise the young lad who is feeling homesick – every positive interaction will earn trust and respect. A few years ago, a student ran up to me and explained that his friend Callum had brought some chlorine water purification tablets and was talking about taking an overdose. When I got to Callum he hadn’t taken anything and it seemed to be a cry for help. So I took him to the office and we had a long conversation about everything; it turned out he was having a tough time at home. Whenever I spoke to him afterwards, it was like we had an understanding.

Schools are a vital safety net for vulnerable children and adolescents, and it is my experience that residential trips can go a long way to building self-worth in those who lack and need it the most.

(All names in this post have been changed.)

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