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Victoria researcher ponders how to help problem teenagers

Victoria researcher ponders how to turn problem teenagers around

Mixing physical activity with structured teaching of personal and social responsibility could be a winning formula when it comes to turning around at-risk and problem teenagers says a Victoria University of Wellington researcher.

Dr Barrie Gordon, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Education Policy and Implementation, says in New Zealand, getting students involved in sport is often wrongly seen as a cure-all.

“Actually, there is no guarantee kids will learn the right things just because they are playing sport.

“A lot of the impact on young people depends on the behaviour of their coaches and other adults involved, and that may or may not be positive.”

Dr Gordon has recently returned from three months in the United States as a Fulbright scholar where he studied an American programme that mixes sport and activity with initiatives designed to teach leadership and personal responsibility.

He worked with Professor Paul Wright from the University of Northern Illinois, who is regarded as a leading scholar on the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) model, which promotes using physical activity for positive youth development.

Dr Gordon was based in DeKalb near Chicago and observed a group of students aged 12 to 14 which included “loners, bullies, those who were being bullied and others with explosive tempers or behavioural issues”.

The students were invited to join an after school leadership club which meets twice a week and offers a programme of physical activity combined with giving members a high degree of responsibility to make their own decisions.

Both membership of the club and attendance at sessions is voluntary.

“To be part of the programme the students had to accept some basic premises, including being respectful and not preventing other participants from enjoying the programme, being prepared to try things that were new and hard, and accepting the consequences of their actions,” says Dr Gordon.

He says they are also encouraged to make decisions and take leadership.

“While I was there, for example, the students decided to combine a wellness day the school was having with a drive to collect items for homeless people. They came up with some great ideas, including requiring people to bring an item for the homeless collection as the entry fee to take part in the wellness activities.”

But, says Dr Gordon, the students also have to take the consequences of their decisions.

“There are many students who were used to blaming others and avoiding taking responsibility for their actions. They found it difficult to accept and acknowledge their role when problems arose and to live with the results. While most worked through the issues, a small number left the programme.”

Dr Gordon says staff at the DeKalb school say the programme has changed their approach to discipline.

“They told me that for a long time they had said to kids ‘we have a rule and you broke it’. As a result of this programme, they are more likely to say ‘why do you think we have that rule and how have your actions affected others in your community and can you see the ripple effect of the decisions you make’?
“And they report positive changes as a result, both among well-behaved students and among those who struggle behaviourally.”

Back in Wellington, Dr Gordon is adapting the programme for New Zealand use and hopes to trial it in an intermediate or primary school in the Wellington region this year.

ends

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