Activating Strengths Reaching Potential

Activating Strengths, Reaching Potential

By Joe Chan, Head (REACH Youth) 


(Article was first published in New Grace June 2015)

In my work with youths, I have found the Solution Focused Approach helpful in identifying and integrating their interests together with the agency and programme’s agendas.  Resistant, defiant and inexpressive are common adjectives used on youths and dealing with such behaviours and responses requires a certain amount of insight into their world and perspectives.  

My team and I need to constantly be attuned to the changing needs and expectations of our youths, the stakeholders that we work with, and the national landscape of policies and trends. As many of our youths are involuntary, one of their unique characteristics they display is the lack of recognition for the need for help. These youths are often perceived as uninterested, unmotivated or even resistant to change. While some practitioners will exercise patience and engage the young people, others may just end up in a ‘tug of war’, which can cause the youths to be more set in their ways. 

Using the Solution Focused Approach, we have come a long way in understanding what works with our group of youth clients. We don’t see ourselves as the experts of their problems and issues, but always remind ourselves that the youths’ perspectives are more crucial. We do not want to breed a whole generation that is labelled as needy and problematic, and have had professionals solve their problems for them. This is disempowering, it can result in a reliance on professionals and experts to resolve issues and help them meet their needs as they transit into adulthood.

Danny and Johnny are youths who had previous brushes with the law, were involved in youth gangs and were notorious in their respective schools. As we journeyed with them, we stayed focus on the things which were really beneficial for them in this helping relationship. This is the essence of the Solution Focused Approach.

Danny and Johnny’s Rites of Passage

Danny and Johnny were 16 and 15 respectively when they were referred to us because of their gang affiliations and risky behaviours.  Danny had previously been arrested for various petty crimes, violence and even sentenced to court probation order. Towards the end of his secondary school years, all his school leaders were happy and relieved that they are finally able to get rid of a highly disruptive and non-compliant student. Danny’s family members were highly concerned yet helpless. He was already out of their control as he wouldn’t follow any rules set by them. 

Johnny, who was also involved with the same gang as Danny, was at the other end of the spectrum. He didn’t create many problems in school because he simply lost interest in his studies. He would instead be spending a lot of time gaming and hanging out with friends at LAN gaming shops. Sometimes he would spend the night playing LAN games for days and only return home to sleep in the day. Johnny’s family only earns enough to make ends meet and he’d take on ad-hoc part-time jobs during the day to pay for his long hours of gaming. This makes it even more difficult for him to focus on his education and lead a normal life.  

By the time Danny and Johnny were referred to us by the police for their gang-related activities, they have already been put through many of the frontline interventions like school counselling, school support programmes and even court probation orders. The mandate from the police for them to complete the programme with us just made them compliant but still resistant to change. In fact, during the initial stages of the programme, they were very apt at putting up a compliant front. They were actually trying very hard to skip the sessions as they felt that they have no problems.  

The Solution Focused Approach has definitely helped set the tone and clear expectations from the start. It recognises that the client is the expert in deciding what he would like to do to achieve the outcomes of this programme and that we are not the specialist in fixing his problems and behaviour. Therefore, whenever there are incidents where the youths breached certain rules of the programme, we would just go right back to the goal formulation and rapport building process. We see ourselves as facilitators of change, together with the youths, to co-construct a goal and outcome that would be helpful not only to them but also to fulfil the police’s expectations. During the goal formulation stage, I would often find myself asking them a variety of questions like: 

  • “How can I help you to get you what you want?” 
  • “What would it take for you to complete this programme successfully?” 
  • “Why is it important to you that you complete this programme?” 

Another challenge I face as a caseworker of such mandated youths was that I had to run the programme within a community agency setting, where I had been delegated authority from the police to ensure that the youths stay within the requirements of the programme so that they can successfully complete it. This was a difficult position to take because it required me to play a dual role of a counsellor and an enforcer. But because of Solution Focus’ collaborative stance, I was able to let the youth choose which role I should play. I was able to communicate clearly to them that I can be a counsellor but I can also be an enforcer based on how they choose to act in the programme. This freed me from the dilemma of choosing between the roles because I was just managing my roles according to the context. 

When I was working with Danny and Johnny’s parents during the course of the programme, I also sent a clear message to the youths that we will not be able to continue with the programme because the youths hadn’t been able to identify a thing which they think will be helpful for them to work on. Informing the parents in the presence of the youths sent a clear and strong message that nobody else is able to choose their paths except for the youths themselves. We also saw how that brought about a sense of empowerment for the parents as their feelings of helplessness shifted to a position of collaboration and being good role models for their children. 

During the programme, I also tapped into the Danny and Johnny’s strengths. I explored with them exceptions where they were not their typical non-operative, uninterested selves. I was able to draw out lots of hidden interests, positive behaviours and useful attitudes that can be built on. For Danny, cooking for his family is where he finds enjoyment. For Johnny, there were some lessons in school where he was not disruptive but engaged.

These were definitely powerful information that could be used to propel their momentum for change. In the remaining time they had in the programme, we no longer focused on their problematic areas. Instead, we spent the time talking about their hidden hopes and dreams, miracle picture of the fulfilment of those dreams, the impact that they will have on those around and how baby steps could be taken towards it, starting from where they are. 

To me, working with youths is like kite flying. The harder we tug at the strings, the more tangled they become. Many-a-times, there will be sudden bursts of wind from different directions. And these are the times when we would have to learn how to let go of our control as parents, educators, counsellors and social workers to simply watch where the wind is taking them. We often just have to hold on tight to the strings of connection and trust them as they go through the process of growing up.

Danny’s thoughts: “The impetus for me to change was when I realised how my actions have upset my loved ones. I remember how it was during an OBS camp that I told myself I will strive and do my best to achieve what I want.  I feel that it will be helpful for adults to really listen when communicating with teenagers and to know what they want. Joe is like a big brother, a teacher, a really good friend to me and I’m really thankful that he has pushed me to go for my dreams.” 

Danny is currently a 21-year-old pursuing his diploma in Culinary Arts at At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy Singapore. 

Johnny’s thoughts: “One thing that Joe has helped me is to lead me back to school after I had dropped out for 2 years. He made me understand what I want for my future and guided me along the way. He was there during my difficult times.” 

Johnny, 19 is currently pursuing his diploma in Accountancy at Singapore Accountancy Academy. 

There are many more people like Danny and Johnny in our community.  Surely, REACH Youth Powerhouse @ Bukit Batok is built for a purpose.  Together with my team as change agents, we desire to spark transformation in youths, and our promise is to always affirm their identities and unique strengths.

Do look out for our REACH Youth’s official opening in August.  It’ll be a celebration of the youths’ successes and one where the community can be part of. Stay tuned!