When we talk of “at-risk” youth we often think of the outside factors that teens are “at-risk” for: friends, drugs, failing school, etc. But I think we should be more concerned about the internal factors that influence these decisions. Self-confidence to find their passions, perseverance to not walk away when things get hard, awareness of how one’s actions control one’s fate. No wonder we focus on the friends, drugs, and school. Those are tangible and much easier to identify.
Let’s tackle this idea of “at-risk”.
Do you remember being a teenager? What did you know about yourself for certain? What were you questioning about yourself?
I’ll wager your second list is a whole lot longer than your first one. Social science breaks down they way we associate our identity into friends, career, money, spirituality, etc. None of which are certain when you’re a teenager. Add in the extreme brain changes that happen as their bodies biologically prepare them to get “kicked out of the nest” and you start to realize how high the risks really are for teens, all teens.
In outdoor education we weigh decisions based on the risk, or likelihood, of something happening compared to the consequence if it does happen. The consequence of getting your foot wet depends on the time of year. We spend all summer with our feet wet, loading and unloading canoes. Rather than stopping our activity, it’s part of it. In the winter, we go to extreme measures to keep our feet dry and if they do get wet, we stop immediately and get them dry and warm. These are drastically different consequences for the same incident. This model is relevant in typical daily life as well. The risks involved with a student skipping school become more unacceptable as the consequences become higher. Getting detention may seem reasonable and acceptable for skipping school once. A student being branded as a “screw-up” and a “failure” for continual truancy is an unacceptable consequence.
Easy enough. Don’t let your teen take risks with unacceptable consequences. As a parent of a student once told me, “I don’t “let” my child do anything. But sometimes they “let” me think I did.” So as parents lose the hold over if a teen will choose to take a risk, they often move to emphasizing the consequences. And yet again, a teenager’s biology works against them. Their brains are super-charged impulse generators. So no matter how logical, reasonable and true your explanation of the consequences are, the teenage brain often just doesn’t speak that language. Hence the old “one must learn it for themselves” adage. That leaves the ultimate question of “how to let a teenager learn for themselves when the consequences are unacceptable?” Well, if I had the answer you would have heard of me by now.
So let’s go back to what they’re truly “at-risk” for. Is it failing school or failing to realize the value of education? Is it hanging out with the “wrong” friends or being convinced to do things that go against their values? Is it playing video games all day or is it missing a discovery of additional life long passions, hobbies, and habits? That’s where outdoor programs can help (notice I didn’t say solve or fix).
Our students take risks every day. When life is simplified into the tasks of expeditionary travel, the cause and effect relationship of risks is amplified and harder to ignore. Dedicated and attentive preparation of macaroni and cheese can be appreciated anywhere, but the hunger of a hard day’s travel adds to the reward (or consequence). Belaying a teammate who is rock climbing requires concentration and commitment as their life is literally on the line. The necessity of trust cannot be avoided in this situation. As students take managed and safe risks within the context of Outward Bound, they are confronted with the consequences of their actions and “learn it for themselves.” When they take a risk to be a leader among their peers, they learn the value of compassion for themselves and others. Mastery of skills leads to pride in craftsmanship and hard work. Spending three weeks without electronic distractions allows teens to hear their own voices and know their own strengths. When they leave Outward Bound, students go home “at-risk” for the same external factors. But the adventure of an expedition has also made them more “at-risk” for perseverance, compassion, confidence and resilience. Those are acceptable consequences.
Regardless of who you are or where you are from, there is an Outward Bound course at Voyageur Outward Bound School that is right for you. Take a peek at our at risk youth programs, or our summer programs for teens, and discover why we are the leading provider of experiential and outdoor education programs for youth and adults.