Home > article

Notes from Youth as Staff: Training Young People to Work with Children - Session Two, January 17, 2013 Networking Meeting

Sep 25, 2013  Anne Lawrence

The Robert Bowne Foundation hosted Youth as Staff: Training Young People to Work with Children - Session Two  on January 17, 2013.  At the request of participants, this Networking meeting continued to build on the topic of working with young people as staff members from the November 2012 Networking meeting.  Session Two looked more specifically at practices around preparing, training, managing, and supporting young staff. Christie Ko, Executive Director, and Mary Lee Diniski, Senior Program Director, from Fiver Children’s Foundation led this interactive presentation. 

Participants were welcomed to the session by Anne Lawrence, program officer for the Foundation.  She reiterated the purpose of the Networking meetings: to offer a forum for participants from across the city and a range of out-of-school-time programs to come together to share their work, develop some new ideas for your own program and to dialogue on important issues in the field. 

Fiver Children’s Foundation working with youth as staff

Fiver Children’s Foundation has a history of working with youth staff; Christie Ko framed it as part of their mission as a youth development organization to support young people in transitioning from program participants to youth workers.  Fiver serves approximately 550 children a year from New York City’s under-served neighborhoods through school year programs out of their New York City office and through summer camp at their 129 acre summer camp.  Fiver is a ten-year program; children come into the program at 8 years old and stay involved  through middle school, high school and into college.

Fiver employs youth in their ninth and tenth year in program (17-18 year olds) to work in summer camp as assistant camp counselors, in the kitchen and in other capacities at the camp. They are designated as the "Serve team."   During the school year, youth do an internship in a corporate environment to gain another type of work experience. Fiver also uses college-age youth as staff at their summer camp. Fiver has a lot of experience in bringing youth on board as staff.  

To get participants going, Fiver modeled one of the activities that they use to get young people engaged in trainings and meetings, Mary and Christie led the group in an ice breaker activity, Boppity, bop, bop, bop (instructions attached).  Mary made a point of noting that many ice breakers are done as get-to-know-you activities, but she has found it very valuable to use them as energizers.  Such an approach invites young people to drop their reserve and act silly even though they may be self-conscious. They have fun and see the presenters as fun and not boring.

Mary and Christie then led participants through Fiver’s developmental process of engaging youth as staff: from preparing, to training, to managing, to supporting them.


One important way of preparing youth to become staff is articulating expectations - both yours, as an organization and the youths’ as staff.  One way that Fiver does this is using a visual of the outline of a hand; this is a powerful and easily accessible tool for memory as you always have your hand with you.  When they gather youth for orientation to their work they ask youth staff to think about expectations related to each finger, and label them as the young people articulate them.  For example:   

  • Thumb - as in “thumbs up,” give encouragement, be positive, and support each other.
  • Pointer - be accountable, don't blame (as in don’t point a finger), be a model, give direction, guidance, be responsible and ask for responsibility.
  • Middle finger - be respectful, teach respect, appropriate professional behavior, no cursing, be part of a team (as the middle finger in isolation is not so useful).
  • Ring finger - commitment, stick with it even when hard, follow through; be engaged in your work.
  • Pinky - smallest contribution can make a difference, don’t forget the “little guy” - the kids who need help to fit in and be included.
  • Fist or wrist - work as a team, power for the mission of working with kids, non-violence even when it is hard or you are mad, flexibility, support.

This visual and the eliciting of expectations from the youth themselves is a powerful reminder of what is expected of them and what they should expect of themselves in the context of their work. 

Another area that Fiver focuses on before youth begin working is policies. (See attachment-Fiver’s policies checklist) They have found that the initial introduction of policies needs to be serious, and that this topic needs to be reviewed regularly (every year and before summer camp as well).  Once the policies have been introduced, in later days you can make a game of remembering the policies through songs or games.  Youth need to be clear about the reasons for policies, and that they are not punitive, but meant to guide practice and conduct. 

Participants raised ideas and on-going questions about policies as they related to their own programs:  

  • Food - Having kids and staff eat together builds community, but then who is watching the children if this is a social, community time?
  • Social Media - It is hard to keep up with new social media and to police youth engagement with it.  For example, many programs have a policy of staff not being Facebook friends with children in the program.  However, it is impossible to police this.  When supervisors do find out then there are clear consequences.  Engage youth in establishing policy. An example is no tweeting or blogging about kids.
  • Technology - Sometimes supervisors need to be flexible with technology.  For example, one program is using a cell phone app to translate for non-English speaking kids; this is allowing staff and children to communicate with the children who do not yet speak English.  Programs emphasized the need to make youth staff accountable for why and how they are using their phone; if it is in the service of their work with children then it is ok.  It was also noted how important it is to get youth staff to know that attention to their cell phone takes away from their attention to the children.

This discussion led to the point that policies need to be in writing, but should not be written in stone. Policies need to be revised and adjusted from time to time.   

What about consequences or earned benefits?  Some examples that programs gave were:

  • first time verbal warning, second time written warning
  • docking pay
  • suspension (though this is a loss of staff so it can be hard for the program)
  • sending youth with policy infraction home that day
  • bring youth (or any member) who has an infraction before the community and holding a group meeting with the clear purpose to address the issue
  • making amends, for example allowing youth staff to make up hours or work (IOU signed that says youth owes hours)
  • if regularly on time, allowing youth staff to earn day off
  • getting youth staff involved in the consequences of their actions, have them develop action plans.

Participants also discussed how it is harder to enforce consequences with volunteers. It is essential to set high expectations BEFORE anyone becomes a volunteer.  Many times you can draw on why they wanted to volunteer in first place. 


The next phase of developing youth staff is training. Fiver uses role plays because this gives youth an opportunity to act out various responses to challenging situations in a safe environment where they can get and give feedback. 

One way Fiver does this is the “Behind Closed Doors” activity.  They use a space with a variety of classrooms.  Behind the door of each different classroom is small acting team (assigned in advance) who act out a situation when the door is opened.  Youth staff is taken to each door, invited to open door and step in and handle whatever the situation is that the “actors” are acting out.  Others in the group are observers and everyone debriefs on what went well in the intervention and what could have gone differently. This kind of role play makes youth staff feel prepared before the children arrive. 

Mary and Christie then led participants in several role play situations and invited a few participants to intervene.  

  • Role play #1 - Two youth staff are talking about a party that they went to, got drunk, etc, in front of children; another youth staff walks in on the conversation and has to decide what to do.  In debriefing, participants noted that the participant acting as the youth staff who intervened was firm, but polite, stuck to her point, was direct, brought up that the children overhearing could be impacted, and told the other youth staff that they could talk about the party, just don't do it in front of the children.   One suggestion from the observers was that the intervener could also include a concern that her peers could get in trouble for talking openly about the party in front of children.
  • Role play #2 - A teen participant is giving a youth staff member a hard time about having to follow directions; the youth staff member must respond to this younger person.  In debriefing, the participants noted that the youth staff member explained clearly her role and why the teen needed to listen to her.  She acknowledged the teen’s point of view, but also restated her new position as staff.  She showed that she was being responsible to the kids, that this is her job, not personal, and she asked for the teen’s help.  Additional suggestions were to invoke the authority of a supervisor, and to refer to the expectations of community: "Are you respecting your elders?"
  • Role play #3 – A young participant approaches a youth staff member to ask about sex, specifically to ask about the youth staff’s first time having sex; the youth staff member must respond.  In debriefing, the participants complimented the youth staff member for not getting flustered and responding calmly.  She did not reject the young person’s needs, but also made a clear boundary.  She turned it back on the young person, saying “Let’s talk about you, what are you feeling?”  Mary commented that saying something like “Thank you for coming to me” validates the young person and buys time to think about how to respond. Many noted that when young people raise such issues as sex that saying “It seems like there is something else if going on, tell me about that” is always a wise approach.  Youth staff needs to know that other more experienced staff are also available to support the young person.

Mary and Christie stated that these sort of difficult conversations are really important to play out ahead of time. They cannot anticipate everything that can come up, but they know the general variety of what youth staff will encounter.  Fiver sometimes elicits topics for role plays or difficult conversations by asking youth staff to write down one thing they DON'T want to talk about with children or teens.  They then throw these topics into hat. Then youth staff draws a topic out of the hat to act out (you don't have to do your own).  It makes it easier to discuss and develop language in the role play, in a safe environment, before you encounter it with children.  It also allows you to discuss your organization’s policy or stance on topics like sex, drugs and explicitness of conversations.  Youth staff must be equipped with this knowledge if they are to respond accordingly. 

Mary and Christie also shared Fiver’s use of these descriptors for staff members:

  • 100%er - the staff member who is always there and contributing 100% to everything that goes on; they initiate and take responsibility.
  • Foundationer - the staff member who is steady and consistent; they do what they are asked to do with energy and commitment.
  • Along for the rider - the staff member who is just there; they don’t take away from the mission, but they do not contribute value to it either. 
  • Anchor - the staff member who drags things down; they may be inconsistent or inappropriate and do not take direction well.

Fiver describes these categories to youth staff and uses these descriptors to call on them to be their better selves.  No one wants to be an anchor or even an along-for-the-rider, and no program needs either of these. 


Christie and Mary next engaged participants in discussion about managing youth as staff.  One of the first things they noted was how important it was to understand why youth staff is not doing what you want them to do.  They suggested that asking youth staff first why he/she is not doing what you want before deciding what to do.  Having said that they asked participants to give their own thoughts:

  • They don’t understand why they have to do it.
  • They don’t see how it contributes.
  • They don’t agree.
  • They don’t know how/ they don’t have the skills to do it.
  • They don’t have the motivation.
  • They don’t have the authority, or don’t think they have the authority; they are not self actuators.
  • They are embarrassed or scared to try.
  • They are not comfortable with change.
  • They don’t want to be seen as 100%ers or over-achievers.
  • They don’t feel that it is part of their job or they are not compensated for it.

The attached worksheet, “The Top 10 Reasons Why Employees Don’t Do What They are Supposed to Do,” gives additional reasons.  What is most important to note is that it is rarely personal. 

Christie shared a pyramid that helps make the layers of reasons visual, with the bottom layer being the starting point and area of most reasons, on up:

  • Interpersonal - between two personalities—top layer                                                                                               
  • Process - not given direction or permission—next layer
  • Role - did not understand their role—next layer
  • Goal - did not understand the goal or reason why--bottom layer

Christie and Mary also recommended using the framework of Situational Leadership (see attached handout).  It is very helpful for more experienced staff to understand how to supervise youth staff.  While we all have our preferred or default leadership mode, being aware of all the types and thinking about how they relate to the experience and motivation of youth staff members is important to shaping those interactions in positive ways. 


Mary and Christie asked participants to think about how they support youth staff—what kind assessment and feedback do youth need to help them improve?.  They provided examples of five different evaluation tools that they use:  

  • Informal observation sheet - this is a check off; it offers a way to give positive feedback, directly after a session.
  • General evaluation - this contains a rating scale which they have found useful to provide a metric.  It is more formal, but also offers direct feedback to youth staff.
  • Peer evaluation - this is done by a few assigned peers and put together with the formal evaluation by a supervisor.  Fiver does not use it with youth staff, just fulltime staff, but it does offer a way for peers to be involved in evaluating each other. 
  • Self-satisfaction assessment - this is a way for youth to evaluate their own practice. It  is important for supervisors to look at the difference between the staff member’s sense of satisfaction and how important they see the task or role to the organization. 

Finally, Mary and Christie asked participants how they keep it fun and engaging for their youth staff.  Some of the practices were: 

  • Celebrate birthdays
  • Sunshine committee - someone or a small group who remember birthdays, other important events  and recognition for work well done
  • Potlucks - eating together builds community and allows youth staff to socialize
  • Celebrations - asking youth and all staff to share something of themselves, like music, food, dance...
  • Random acts of kindness - little notes of recognition, encouragement and thanks left for everyone
  • Finding time to have fun, caring conversations, making connections and share a bit of yourself
  • Staff outings - bowling, softball game...
  • Offering SWAG - t-shirt, bag, dog tags...
  • Recognition for something actually done.

Next Steps

In conclusion, participants shared what they were excited about and thinking about trying; these covered all the areas of preparing, training, managing, and supporting:

  • Using ice breakers as energizers.
  • Using the Five Finger/Hand visual with youth staff to help them articulate expectations.
  • Keeping policies as living documents, taking them off the shelf and actively reviewing them with youth staff.
  • Using role plays to engage youth staff in difficult conversations and interventions, to build their confidence and language.
  • Thinking about why staff is not doing what they are asked to do and using that to guide responses.
  • Engaging youth in peer and self-evaluations.

All were excited about using and adapting what they learned from Fiver in the context of their own programs.  Several participants remarked how helpful it was to engage in these activities themselves as a way to think about how to apply them in their programs.      

Next Meetings

The next Robert Bowne Foundation Networking meeting will be March 22, 2013.  Look for an email from Anne Lawrence announcing it.


The handouts and resources provided by Fiver are attached .

You may contact Christie Ko, the executive director of Fiver at Christie@fiver.org