On Friday 1st November 2017, the Releasing Potential Institute team journeyed to the Peak District, to deliver to undergraduate students at the University of Derby’s Buxton Campus. The second-year students were registered on the BA (Hons) Outdoor Leadership and Management degree via the University of Derby’s Outdoor Leadership Centre. The session, designed to introduce students to the theory and practice behind working with disaffected young people and young people at risk, formed part of a unit on ‘Inclusive Adventure in the Outdoors’.

Our challenge was to deliver a meaningful course aimed at undergraduates with little experience working directly with young people. It was an exciting yet daunting prospect. How could we engage those studying outdoor leadership in thinking about how to get the best out of children for whom access to many outdoor activities is limited? How could we make what we ordinarily deliver to professionals (in education, care, local government and youth work) relevant to a cohort of young students aiming for jobs in the outdoor industry? We needed to ensure that the relevance to student employability was emphasised; many outdoor leadership students plan to work as instructors or as part of outdoor-qualified teams. The likelihood that they will encounter young people at risk and experience difficulties in managing challenging behaviour is high, even if this isn’t something students necessarily recognise at this stage in their careers.

What struck us as we began discussing our mission to use the outdoors as a vehicle for positive change, was that the benefit of outdoor education to those lacking social/emotional skills was not news to those studying to become leaders in the outdoors. However, what became apparent was that our organisational approach—to emphasise the young person’s needs and put these at the centre of our practice—was in many ways antithetical to the students’ concept of excellence in outdoor practice and delivery. When ‘success’ in a goal-centred activity, such as climbing, involves overcoming fears, reaching within yourself and finding ways to break through physical, emotional and psychological barriers, how can our focus on the vulnerable young person and their needs be compatible with this? In particular, we asked ourselves how the definition of success in the outdoors—one exemplified and embodied by the best instructors and practitioners—might be determined by diverse and often unpredictable responses from the most marginalised of young people?

We began by asking the students to put themselves out of their comfort zones, an exercise which involved an activity for which even the most confident individuals found themselves unprepared: dancing. In forcing students to engage with an activity so far outside of their expected level of comfort and understanding, we hoped to show how a vulnerable young person will often feel when asked to engage in the sorts of activities that for us, as professionals, seem easy. It was important that participants held on to the feelings that the activity invoked, from shame and embarrassment, to surprise, bewilderment and even resentment. For the young people in our care at Releasing Potential, these responses characterise their experience of traditional educational models that fail to take into account their strengths, abilities, and preferences, and it was important to remind the students that as adults we are all still capable of anxiety that makes participation difficult.

The core of our training in managing challenging behaviour is based around a theoretical model called ‘Choice Theory’ (or sometimes ‘Reality Theory’) put forward by an American psychiatrist called William Glasser in the 1990s. Choice Theory draws on the assumption that as human beings, we all behave in response to five basic (and in Glasser’s view, genetic) needs: survival, love and belonging, freedom, fun and power. In the case of mentally healthy and socially and emotionally robust human beings, all five needs are relatively well balanced; at different times all of us behave in ways that attempt to satisfy, whether consciously or not, one or more of these needs. While Glasser’s maxims are controversial—they argue against the pathologisation of contemporary psychiatric illnesses and maladaptive behaviour as ‘disorders’ and instead focus on inter-personal relationships as key to treatment—they provide a useful model for working with young people that allows professionals to focus intervention work and create meaningful and personalised solutions when working with at-risk youth.

In the outdoor context, to assess and satisfy a young person’s complex needs may seem like an impossible task given the relatively short time instructors spend with students when delivering, say, an hour-long or day-long session.  Despite this, outdoor-qualified staff have a unique opportunity to address many of the needs that Glasser identifies—freedom, fun, power—an opportunity implicit in outdoor activities. While the need for love and belonging might be trickier to meet when work with young people is limited or infrequent, the importance of developing rapport when working, even for an hours’ session, with a vulnerable young person cannot be underestimated. Inherent in activities that require teamwork is the necessity for cooperation, trust and respect between an instructor and those to whom they are delivering as well as amongst the group, thus providing, even temporarily, an opportunity for young people to belong to a community in which their actions play a vital role in success. While for most, the notion of survival being reinforced by asking a vulnerable young adult to partake in seemingly dangerous activities seems absurd, this is in fact key. In our work, it has been surprising and affirming to find that allowing young people to take managed risks, instilling in them a sense of possibility through adventure and trusting in them to obey simple rules around safety, can strengthen their feelings of security and can meet the need for survival in unexpected ways. For the pupil expelled from school for poor behaviour, or the child deemed too vulnerable or too unpredictable to make choices in their own best interests, providing opportunities for self-reliance, self-determination and trust can reinforce a sense of control, power, safety, and belonging that addresses, in full or in part, all five of the needs identified by Choice Theory.

The students did an amazing job of getting to grips with the material for discussion, bringing some genuinely provoking insights to the discussion and generating new lines of enquiry for us as trainers. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience of delivering training in this incredible setting at the edge of the Peak District National Park, and are looking forward to continuing our relationship with the University of Derby’s Outdoor Leadership Centre.