Being principled may get you into trouble

Over the years more people than I can count have told me that my personality and behavioural styles can irk others and cause trouble. For those who know me well it comes as no surprise that on the Myers Briggs I come out as an ESTJ. Put another way I am a high D and a high I in the DISC behavioural style. I can be forceful, single minded and I do not suffer fools. I can also be the life of the party, an over communicator and start projects with gusto. I struggle to finish tasks, I live life in the clouds and absolutely hate to be down in the weeds with the detail. You see I know myself really well. I have spent a lifetime dealing with my demons and looking right into the good, bad and ugly of my innermost being. I am not afraid to face myself in all my glory and point at the flaws… and the positives.
However, over the years I have met more people than I can count who do not know themselves and struggle with people who know themselves. These people struggle to understand why you will stand your ground when they see a way to cut corners. They struggle to see why you insist on going the extra mile when they want a quick fix. Most of all they struggle when people point out that they are not up to scratch. 
When I begin my lectures with new youth work students I ask them for 100%. I tell them they must know themselves and know their content to the highest standard. I tell them that if they do not want to do this they can leave my sector now. I do not want people who play a half assed game doing a number on the vulnerable young people I care about. As you could imagine this gets under the skin of a number of my students.
I believe that youth work is an amazing profession. I believe that most of our colleagues are there for the best and to be the best. I believe we make a difference. But all of this is due to a focus on becoming better than we are right now and a clear understanding that only the best will do. These are the youth workers I want in my sector. These are the youth workers I expect in the sector. If you don’t meet the standard (and your not trying to become better) I will tell you… and I expect that if I was missing the mark you would tell me.
Don’t be precious about where you are at. Remember no one person is the Ultimate Youth Worker it is a journey. We all have more to learn and more to become. When someone says that something won’t work and that the way you are doing it ain’t up to scratch cop it on the chin and fix it. Personalities and behaviour types should be the last thing that comes into the equation not the first. In the end get used to people saying you are a trouble maker. Standing up for your principles makes people who are not there yet uneasy.

What do you think??? Leave us a comment below.

A sense of entitlement: youth work education in the 21st century.

Over the past few months I have spoken with over a dozen youth work educators from throughout the world about the calibre of youth work students coming through there courses. These course range from one year to three years and have people from all walks of life coming in droves to study. But one thing seems to have united the student body more than anything… A sense that they are entitled to become youth workers!
A little over a decade ago I decided to become a youth worker. It was an audacious plan for a young bloke who had never finished high school or anything else he had put his hand to. I had a reverence for the profession and an academic fear of my lecturers. I would have heated discussions and difficult conversations but when the lecturers called an end to those conversations that was the end. When they told me something needed to be done I did it or I failed (and I did fail once). Above all I knew that youth work was a profession that expected the best and if we didn’t like it we could bugger off.
As you can see I stayed and made it out with a degree.
All the youth work educators I have spoken with have told me that there are some students who still hold the reverence for the profession and the educators however more than ever before there is a sense of entitlement in new students. They seem to believe that getting their qualification is a foregone conclusion and the teachers are just in the way of them entering the sector. This feeling has been reiterated by the numerous organisations I place students in to gain experience. The organisations are seeing lazy, unprofessional and generally unworthy people coming through. What has gone wrong?
Could it be that youth work is seen as an easy ride? That people see youth workers as those who cruise through with no need for excellence? Has the free market made youth work for the lowest bidder attractive to those with no hope and no reason to work? Or perhaps it is that youth work education which aims at the lowest common denominator has finally found it.
We are in trouble! We need to bring back a level of respect for our profession. We need to see excellence. We need quality over quantity. We need to be graduating youth workers who want to be in the field because they are passionate and qualified. We need youth workers with a reverence for the work.

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Bring a pen and paper!!!

A short one today! Over the last couple of weeks I have been working with a number of student youth workers helping them with their field placements. One of the most frustrating things tat I have seen in these new recruits to the sector is something which has become more prevalent over the last decade. They don’t take notes!!!

It is really hard to take notes when you don’t have a pen and something to write on. Some say they can do it on their phone or Ipad, but the reality is that there is no substitute for pen and paper.

When I was a new member of the working class a mentor of mine said to me that I should take pen and paper into every meeting I ever have. Write everything down he told me. Your memory is not as good as you think it is he said. He was right!

The one piece of advice I give my students and many of those that we supervise is take a pen and paper every where. Write everything down. You never know what you will need to remember!

Police records and public perception: Youth work with conviction

Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with a number of young people who have had run ins with the justice system. Many of these young people have had people look down on them because of their infringements. A number of them have since become youth workers.
Over the last couple of years we have had a number of inquires and inquests into the abuse of young people in care in Victoria. It never fails that there was a lapse in organisational protocols that let someone with a record into a place of trust who then abused their role. However, for every one person who causes trouble hundreds more go about their job with honour. The issue however is that the public view and society more broadly is that if you have a police record you are not worthy of being placed in a position of trust. We are a species which seeks retribution rather than restoration.
This of course leads to issues in youth services as we believe strongly in the restoration of people, the focus on strengths and the ability for people to choose their own destiny. It is also an issue as many youth workers come from having been troubled youth themselves! I think we would be surprised to see how many youth workers had some sort of record.
To attempt to negate the negative we have instituted a number of safeguards including a Working With Children Check and Police Check to screen potential youth workers for their appropriateness. However, if you went by the general recommendation a person with a record would still not be able to get a position, whether your offence was superficial or serious. As an employer I have employed youth workers with and without police records. The seriousness of their offence is always one of my first questions but if it is a minor offence I am know to have a discussion.
I remember sitting in a court room when a Judge told a young man who was about to start a youth work course that he was an idiot for his infringements. The Judge told the young man that with his background and his knowledge of the justice system he would make a great youth worker. That was over a decade ago and I have had to deal with the fallout of a stupid decision ever since. Many youth workers are in the game to help young people stay on the straight and narrow and hopefully not head down the path that they trod.
Youth workers need passion and conviction. A conviction against their name is not necessarily a reason to exclude someone from becoming a youth worker. As with most things that develop an Ultimate Youth Worker its all about character. Whether you have a record or not I will not employ a youth worker if they can’t show character. If you have a police record let people know, show them your character. If you are hiring and a person states that they have a record have a discussion, see if their character is a fit for your organisation. Above all be transparent.

Mental state exam for youth workers: Cognition

Second last post this week for our series on Mental State Exams. Over the past few weeks we have been building an understanding of the core components of a mental state exam so that we can support our young people as best we can. This week I was speaking with a youth worker in one of Victoria’s largest Christian denominations about a mental health conference he was at. I was reminded about how important it is for all youth workers to have a strong understanding of mental health. So far we have discussed how a young persons appearance, behaviour, speech and language, mood and affect, thought process and content and their perceptions can provide indicators as to their mental state. Today we discuss how a young persons cognition can provide insight into their current mental health status.

In this section of the Mental State Exam we are looking at a young person’s level of alertness, orientation, attention, memory and executive functions. It is often this part of the MSE which requires the use of structured tests in conjunction to unstructured observation. However, an astute youth worker can use the basic understanding learnt here to gain a base level to work from. Cognition is observed through judging alertness, orientation, attention and concentration, memory and executive functioning.

When observing alertness we are looking into the young person’s level of consciousness i.e. awareness of, and responsiveness to their environment. Their level of alertness may be described as alert, vigilant, clouded, drowsy, or stuporous. If you are on a camp or at the end of a long Friday night youth group then alertness may be low. Conversely, on your way to a concert or game of laser tag alertness may be quite high. There are many factors which you must take into account when observing alertness. Rock, paper, scissors is a great game for testing the alertness of a young person.
Orientation is assessed by asking the young person their name, age etc (orientation to person) where he or she is (for example what building, town and state) and what time it is (time, day, date). What we are looking for is that they are oriented in person, place and time. People who have taken a big knock on the football field and are dazed are often asked these questions to observe whether they have a concussion. In the drug and alcohol field we often use these questions when people seem substance affected to judge how affected they are.

Attention and concentration are assessed by using structured tests such as series seven tests, or if you are in a pinch getting them to spell a five-letter word backwards), and by testing digit span. Here we are looking to see if the young person can keep their focus and concentration whilst completing given tasks. These tests are great for judging inebriation, attention deficits and anxiety.

Memory is assessed in terms of immediate registration (repeating a set of words), short-term memory (recalling the set of words after an interval, or recalling a short paragraph), and long-term memory (recollection of well known historical or geographical facts). If there is a severe issue with memory it may indicate dementia or neurological issues. Short term memory loss can be a symptom of anxiety.

Executive functioning can be screened for by asking the “similarities” questions (“what do x and y have in common?”) and by means of a verbal fluency task (e.g. “list as many words as you can starting with the letter F, in one minute”). The mini-mental state examination is a simple structured cognitive assessment which is in widespread use as a component of the MSE. These tests are looking at higher order brain functioning and a persons ability to stay on task. This is important for their ability to think in a critical way.

Note: The kind of brief cognitive testing discussed here are regarded as a screening process only, and any abnormalities should be more carefully assessed using formal neuropsychological testing.

Stay tuned for our final segment next week: Insight and Judgement.


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Why do youth worker’s struggle to work together???

Over the last few months we have been working with a number of organisations to help them develop in one way or another. For some it is providing supervision, for others it is developing policies and procedures and others it is a top down organisational overhaul. In almost all of these organisations we have noticed that youth workers are really good at throwing each other under the bus! We are even better than our clients!
The amount of cat fights and general mistrust that we have witnessed is truly astonishing. Colleagues who would turn against each other over trivial issues and games of oneupmanship that would put most two year olds to shame. I must say it made me sick to think that I belonged to such a profession. It has led me to ask the question “Why do youth worker’s struggle to work together???
Here are my current thoughts:
  1. Youth work has become a competitive industry and this permeates through to staff. 
  2. Vicarious trauma which is not dealt with properly has to come out eventually, usually in burnout.
  3. When people work in close proximity in tough situations it can lead to some personality clashes.
  4. Managers provide minimal accountability and do not squash issues within the team quickly enough.
  5. Some people are just not cut out for youth work!!!

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Mental state exam for youth workers: Mood and Affect.

So far in this series we have been developing an understanding of the core components of a mental state exam. So far we have discussed how a young persons appearance, behaviour, speech and language can provide indicators as to their mental state. Today we discuss how a young persons mood and affect can provide insight into their current mental health status.


Mood is described using a young person’s own words. Happy, sad, angry, elated, anxious or apathetic. Many young people may be unable to describe their subjective mood state. Throughout my career I have seen a marked decrease in emotional intelligence in our society. It may take some work to flesh out how a young person feels. There are a number of resources to help young people to articulate their emotions, my personal favourites are mood dudes and the stones. In essence Mood is how young people see themselves in their own opinion.
Emotional intelligence in a squeeze ball
The key to remember about mood is that it is subjective. The young person is the master of their own emotional state. Only they truly know what is going on inside.


Affect is noted by us when we observe the apparent emotion conveyed by the person’s nonverbal behaviour. Affect may be described as appropriate or inappropriate behaviour to the current situation, and as congruent or incongruent with their thought content. For example, a young person who shows a neutral affect when describing a very distressing experience such as family violence would be described as showing incongruent affect, which might suggest PTSD. The intensity of the young persons affect may be conveyed as normal, blunted, exaggerated, flat, heightened or overly dramatic.
A flat or blunted affect can be associated with schizophrenia, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Heightened affect might suggest mania, excitement or anxiety and an overly dramatic or exaggerated affect might suggest certain personality disorders. A young person may show a full range of affect, or a wide range of emotional expression during your assessment. They may move from heightened to blunted or they may only show a single affect.
The key to remember about affect is that it is objective. It is what you observe about a young person. The key here is to be clear about what you are observing and why you believe it means what you believe. For example, “Aaron appeared sad. He spoke slowly, kept eye contact on the ground and cried“.
Stay tuned next week as we discuss part five: Thought process and content.

Mental State Exam for youth workers: Behaviour.

“Oh Behave!” Austin Powers knew all to well that we toe a fine line as humans when it comes to ‘normal’ human behaviour. When we are doing a mental state exam we are observing the fine line between what our clinical brothers and sisters would call ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. Behaviour is an interesting phenomenon for youth workers to observe. It requires us to use our powers of observation and our own self reflection (apparently youth workers can be a little abnormal!) to determine whether a person is doing alright. We need to observe whether the young person is acting in a similar way to how they act most of the time or differently. Whether they are acting similar to their peers or completely different. Behaviour requires us to have an understanding of normal behaviour and abnormal behaviour.
Normal day or abnormal behaviour?


Tremors, shakes, tics, involuntary movements may indicate a neurological disorder, or they could be the side effects of antipsychotic medication, schizophrenia or drug abuse. If your young person is showing these types of movements it may be normal for them or it might be abnormal. It may be something serious like a neurological disorder or it may just be the effects of the drugs they have used. Your ability to observe this behaviour and refer them out to more specialised support will be key.
This also goes if they are hyperactive, rocking, gesturing wildly, fidgeting or unable to sit still. This may mean they are delirious or manic, or it might just mean they are excited or full of beans. Only your keen observation of their movements and your deep relationship will tell you if something is out of the ordinary or ‘abnormal’.

Level of activity and arousal

A persons level of activity and arousal may also provide insight into their mental state. Are they hyperactive (high action) or lethargic (low action)? An increase in arousal and movement (hyperactivity) which might reflect mania or delirium. An inability to sit still might represent akathisia, a side effect of antipsychotic medication. Similarly a decrease in arousal and movement (akinesia or stupor) might indicate depression or a medical condition such as dementia or delirium.
Of course if you are over aroused and hyperactive you may just be having a birthday, bar mitzvah or a wedding. You may be on a camp and really excited. If your young people are lethargic it may just be the last day of camp, the end of a boring group session or a distressing break-up with a cherished boyfriend. Your keen understanding of your young people will help you to know whether or not it was the red cordial or sad movie that is making your young person behave differently or whether it is something else more insidious.

Eye contact

The eyes are the window to the soul they say, and never more so was this true than whilst doing a mental state exam. Does your young person make good eye contact with the floor? Can they look you in the eye? What happens when they are telling you porky pies??? A persons eye contact can say a lot about their mental state. It can tell you if they are lying. It can tell you if they are psychopathic. It can tell you if they are nervous, sad or depressed. Eye contact is one of the most important behavioural signposts for us as youth workers.
There are of course some caveats  to this. If your young persons culture frowns on eye contact for example the aboriginal population in Australia. A young person will not make too much eye contact with an adult out of respect. A young person with eye issues such as having a lazy eye may not seem to be making good eye contact, but it may just be your view.

There is a danger

Behaviour is difficult to observe objectively. Not Impossible, but difficult. Most of us observe others behaviour subjectively. We watch through the lens of what we find appropriate. In some cases this is not an issue. We see someone hit their child with a lump of wood, or a person overdosing or a young person in a relationship with a 40 year old and our observation is that this is abnormal. For the most part this is right. When we start to look at others behaviour we must think about what they are thinking when they do this. Most of us do not behave inappropriately on purpose… too often anyway. There is also a number of theories from a number of very noted behavioural theorists that can help us determine whether a person is normal or abnormal.
Aside from the clear observable issues like shakes, poor eye contact or hyperactivity some peoples behaviour can just be different to us. One of the best way we know of to observe and relate to a person on a behavioural level is DISC. Disc is a quadrant based behavioural analysis tool which can help you to determine if another person is nuts or just in a different quadrant than you. Since doing some training in DISC and using this to view peoples behaviour I have found that my mental state exams (as well as my general observations) have become more clear.
PS. If you observe something that seems out of the ordinary, try to explain what it is. For example, ‘John seemed depressed’, will not get you much help from a clinician. However, if you say, ‘John seemed depressed as he was making poor eye contact, was mumbling and wouldn’t finish sentences’, then you are more likely to elicit a response from clinicians.
We hope this helps. See you next week for part three, Speech.