What is Youth Work?
Before we discuss how you can become a youth worker, we need to discuss what actually is a youth worker. A lot of people work with young people (e.g., teachers, juvenile detention officers, GPs, counsellors), but not all of those people are youth workers. There is a lot of diversity internationally regarding what youth work is, so we turn to Associate Professor Trudi Cooper (Cooper, 2018), who studied this exact phenomenon and came up with a list of commonalities:
- Youth workers treat the young person as their primary client. Their primary focus is upon the experiences of that young person and what is concerning them.
- Youth workers are interested in the social context of a young person’s life – young people are social beings; they shape and are shaped by their social context. This doesn’t just mean their friends, but their whole social context (including social structures). Youth workers help increase a young person’s social connections, but also work to bring change within this context for the benefit of the young person.
- Youth workers work relationally with young people, and seek to maintain unconditional positive regard with them. That’s a fancy way of saying that youth workers treat young people positively regardless of how that young person behaves or anything else.
- Youth workers work holistically with young people – interested in their whole lives, including their rights, their participation in society, and their flourishing. Informal education comes along with this, because youth workers engage in helping young people become aware of their rights, how they can increase their participation in society, and how they can have their holistic needs met.
- Youth workers work with integrity. They work in such a way to protect young people, themselves, other youth workers, and the reputation of youth work. Codes of Ethics help to guide us to work ethically and professionally with young people.
Some Youth Workers also value:
- Increasing young people’s opportunities for voluntary participation.
- Responding to the young person’s mandate.
In Australia, the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition supports these statements:
Youth Work is “a practice that places young people and their interests first. Youth work is a relational practice, where the youth worker operates alongside the young person in their context. Youth work is an empowering practice that advocates for and facilitates a young person’s independence, participation in society, connectedness and realisation of their rights.” AYAC (2013)
Youth Workers are also professional. As Dr Phil Daughtry has said, while they might look like they are just, “hanging out and having a chat,” youth workers are professionals, “who bring theoretical frameworks, professional helping skills and ethical standards into activities and conversations with young people.” (Daughtry, 2011)
So youth workers aim to work relationally with young people as equals, and as people who are valuable in their own light (not as ‘future adults’), and bring theoretical principles and skills to the relationship. Learning to do this can be hard, but being theoretically informed can help youth workers be highly professional in the way they do this.
Who can become a youth worker?
Technically, anyone. But the real question is who should become a youth worker? Here are some questions for you to consider:
- Do you care about young people? Are you passionate about them?
- Are you willing to learn how to be an effective, ethical, and positive youth worker?
- Do you believe in treating young people equally?
- Are you relationally driven?
- Do you want to make a difference in the lives of young people?
- Are you willing to ‘check’ your motives at the door? (e.g., Religious conversion, feeling popular)
- Are you committed to sticking with it?
If so, then yes you probably should! If you don’t feel like you can say yes to them all, that’s okay. Youth Work is also a process of learning and growing as a youth worker, so as long as you start with 1 and 2, you can learn the rest too.
What skills does a youth worker need?
Youth Work WA says:
“We feel the important qualities that young people seek in a Youth Worker are: approachability, honesty, trustworthy, patience, tolerance, being non-judgmental, and an effective communicator and listener.”
Honesty, because youth workers can help young people see the hidden structures that are impacting them (including those within the youth service), and because this will help the youth worker work through with peers any bias they might have.
Trustworthy because young people need someone they can depend on when they are in vulnerable circumstances.
Patience, because change will take a long time.
Tolerance, because some young people might act out in ways to express their frustration with the injustices they are experiencing.
Non-judgemental, because young people are diverse and all deserve equal support and respect, and also because young people’s behaviour is usually a reflection of their circumstance.
Effective communication (including listening), because youth work is a relational practice.
Don’t have these yet? Or, do some of yours need some developing? Don’t worry! That’s what study is for, and that is what Communities of Practice are for.
How can I become a youth worker?
Everyone’s journey to Youth Work is different. Here are some things you can do (in no particular order).
- Study. A bachelor’s level of study is the industry standard for professional youth workers, and Tabor has a high-quality Youth Work degree.
- Get some experience. Volunteer to help out at a youth service – whether you do something as simple as making food for young people, or help facilitate some programs, the more experience you get with vulnerable young people the better. Our degree currently has 400 hours of placement to help you get this experience.
- Join a Youth Work association. In Western Australia, your association is Youth Work WA, and in South Australia, your association is Youth Work SA.
- Network with other youth workers. Ask lots of questions, listen to their stories, learn together. Tabor’s Community of Practice for Youth Workers is one way to do this. If you are in WA, there is the WA Youth Workers Facebook page as well.
The Take Home
Youth Workers work relationally, but they are also informed by professional standards and theoretical principles. If you’re interested to find out more about how to study to become a youth worker, Get in Touch!
Cooper, T. (2018). Defining Youth Work: Exploring the boundaries, continuity and diversity of youth work practice. In: P. Alldred, F. Cullen, K. Edwards & D. Fusco (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of youth work practice.SAGE Publications.
Daughtry, P. (2011). ‘2 am on a grassy knoll’: A perspective on distinctive youth worker attributes. Youth Studies Australia, 20(4), 25 – 31.
Youth Work WA. (n.d.). http://www.youthworkwa.org.au/contact-us/frequently-asked-questions/