How to help “At Risk” Kids Succeed in Life.

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Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from "Any Given Sunday". Image courtesy of Pauseforclarity.com

Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from “Any Given Sunday”. Image courtesy of Pauseforclarity.com

Recently, I was asked to speak at a leadership event for student athletes. A prominent political figure in our area was scheduled to speak prior to me on the importance of the pursuit of academic excellence.

I was excited to hear this individual drop some knowledge on these kids and inspire them to greatness. I was hoping he would go all Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday and spit out some powerful metaphors and personal stories that would move the needle in all of our lives.

**Mini-lesson** 
High School Students love this clip, have them interpret the meaning in a writing exercise.

Unfortunately, he went all Ben Stein and started dropping statistics about how difficult it was to earn an athletic scholarship for college. He then essentially proceeded to explain to them how to forget about becoming a professional athlete because the odds were stacked against them.

All I could think after hearing him speak was…

“You had ONE job to do!”

Self Doubt Kills Ability

The quickest way to stifle a student’s development is to set limitations on what they believe to be possible. Or as the French artist Edgar Degas articulated, Self doubt kills ability.”

Now before you start referring to me as Captain Optimism (I would probably find that flattering, I could go by Captain O, for short…never mind, that sounds like a SNL skit), I do believe a healthy dose of reality is good for children when placed in the proper context. However, when talking to young people about their hopes and dreams, we must understand the weight our words carry.

I am probably more sensitive to this type of stuff because I was labeled by educational leaders as an “at risk youth” and was told more times than I can remember that I need a “back up plan” if and when I failed to achieve my dreams. I still remember standing in front of my 4th grade class being told by the teacher that “professional athlete” was not a realistic vocation to choose for the upcoming career report because only a gifted few make it that far.

Here I was, a latchkey kid who was struggling in school, my parents were going through an ugly divorce, my older brother had just ran away from home, and I was surrounded by adults who wanted to teach me about “realism.” Being that I walked by drug dealers and sex workers on my way to an empty apartment, only to boil some Top Ramen for myself for dinner, I think I had “realism” figured out.

I served myself a healthy dose of “reality” every night. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The ONLY thing I had in my life was baseball; I did not understand why the adults in my life were not leveraging my enthusiasm for this game which gave me purpose. Instead, they treated it as a negotiation tool. I know they all had my best interests in mind, and I am sure this elected official had noble intentions as well. However, if we are going to have a shot of preparing our young people for the complex global issues that await them, we need to think critically about the language we use.

3 Practical Approaches to Positively Influencing Youth in High Risk Situations. 

See what I did there?

You are not dealing with “high risk” children. It pisses them off when they hear that…good luck earning your way into their circle of trust with that mindset! 

You are serving children dealing with “high risk situations,” often times due to circumstances outside of their control. [Read more...]

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#BeNice: A Reminder to Listen to Young People

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We at CivilSchools get to work with some pretty amazing young people on a regular basis.  It’s honestly inspiring to realize how many young people are out there in the world, working daily to improve their communities and our society.

Thus, when I got to work with a school in Washington recently, I was expecting to find some pretty phenomenal young people, but I wasn’t prepared for the force for good named Jake.

During our UPstander Intervention Training, I talked to the students at Jake’s school about the idea of being social normers, of being the change you wish to see in your school so that you can inspire others to do the same.  We talked about how social norming helps to change the air students breath in school to make it more inclusive, which makes the other work of being an UPstander far easier.

While talking to these students, though, I didn’t realize that one of the students to whom I was speaking could easily have been up there offering his wisdom.  After all, not long before I came to his school, Jake had made this video:

One of the most common forms of ageism toward young people in our society today is thinking that as adults, young people have nothing to teach us.  Often adults pretend that we have the whole world figured out and that young folks will one day know as much as we do if they make it to the magical world we call adulthood.

In reality, though, young people are often the ones with the most to teach.  After all, they have not been fully clouded by the cynicism or negativity that sometimes comes with age.  Even more, young people are engaging with the world in ways that those of us even ten years older than them could not have imagined at their age.  Youth are inspiring revolutions in the Arab Spring and transforming their communities through activism and servant leadership in every community around the world.  Plus, with the power of the internet that they know so well, they have the ability to learn from other young people as well as from elders in ways I never would have imagined at sixteen.

What Jake reminded me, not only when I met him or when I first saw this video but in our continuing relationship through social media, is that I have a lot to learn.

And Jake reminded me that sometimes the best teachers are those who are many years younger than me.

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