Cultural Competency

15 Things Everyone Needs To Know When Working With Teens and Young Adults

When working with teens or young adults, it doesn’t matter how dynamic, well-prepared, or up-to-date you are with youth culture (but it doesn’t hurt); the most important thing is building positive relationships. Once you form a trusting relationship, you can become the “Pied Piper” to teens and young adults. Teenagers and young adults want to feel that they can rely on and trust an adult who is looking out for their best interest. This blog will provide you with 15 things everyone needs to know when working with teens and young adults.

Number 1Know yourself 

Before you can begin to understand and effectively work with youth, you need to understand yourself. Some of you may think, “But I already know myself; I’ve been the same person for… years.” Our experiences, backgrounds, cultures and ethnicity all shape who we are. We may be more sensitive to certain topics or issues, and this may inadvertently impact and/or influence the way we interact with our young people. Being aware of who we are and where we come from only helps make us stronger educators, teachers, or counselors.

Everyone has a presence and a first impression they give. Learn to use that in a positive way in order to connect with your youth. One thing I state upfront, is to not read into my facial expressions. Some may call the expression on my face R.B.F. (We really need a new name for this). I learned a long time ago that my expressions don’t match my thoughts in my head. I have been in numerous workshops where I was intently listening to the facilitator, and they stopped to ask if I was okay. I need to explain that it’s the expression that I make when I am engaged and listening. Apparently, my “I’m listening“ expression looks more like “why am I here” face. Trust me; I have long tried to rectify this by sitting in front of a mirror and trying to change the expressions, it hasn’t worked. It’s subconscious, and I have learned to embrace and accept it, so, I let my students know upfront. It also let’s them to also know that I don’t think I am perfect and am just as human as everyone else.


Number 2Build a positive caring and trusting relationship

Young people want to know that you care about and support them. Demonstrate that you understand what they are going through. We all want to feel heard and validated, and youth aren’t any different.

When I was a School Counselor, I had a student sent to my office for having a major outburst. The student continued to vent, and I let him until he was done. I spoke with him in a calm manner, and he had an epiphany. He stated, “No matter how bad I act, you treat me exactly the same.” Granted, this was after several months of building a trusting relationship with this student, but this was something very new for him. I’m also aware that couldn’t work in a classroom, but a conversation and follow-up is needed after the class is over in order for you to build that trust. Work on supporting and listening to your youth in order to form these positive relationships.



Number 3Admit to your mistakes Superhero

Participants should know that it’s okay to make mistakes however, when you continue to make the same mistakes and don’t attempt to rectify them that it becomes a problem. You should model this behavior for your teens. As educators, we are expected to be superheroes, but, unfortunately, we are not. We are human. Admit and own up to your mistakes, they will respect you much more. When you don’t own up, you’re just becoming another reminder of those from who they have learned not to trust in their lives.


Number 4Be non-judgmental 

You are educating youth to be independent and think for themselves. You want to provide them with all of the information they need to make their own choices.

I had a young teenage girl disclose that she was ready to have sex. She explained that she had told another adult that she had trusted, and felt that her tell her what to do, made her want to have sex even more. She stated that the conversation left her feeling a sense of shame. I listened to her, asked her questions, and provided her with information in order to help her make her own informed decisions. She thanked me and stated that she appreciated that I didn’t tell her it was wrong or that she shouldn’t do it. She just wanted to be heard and not judged for her choices.


Number 5Let your participants get to know you

Share a little about yourself. If you are corny, like I am, or tell bad jokes, use it. They will most likely roll their eyes and laugh, but it’s part of who you are, and they will appreciate that.

Be authentic – Teenagers are fantastic lie detectors. They can tell when you are not being genuine or authentic, which may cause your youth to distrust you.

Acknowledge your differences and similarities. If you are a different race or ethnicity than your students, acknowledge it up front. It’s not a secret or something to feel uncomfortable about. Let them know that you want to learn from them, and provide an opportunity for learning and growth for both you and your students.

I had a colleague who struggled through her first year of teaching. She was a young, Caucasian female in a predominately Black and Hispanic school. She told me about the comments students had made, and I suggested that she try acknowledging that she was white. She refused, stating that she believed that color doesn’t matter and shouldn’t affect her teaching abilities. Her second year, though, she was so frustrated with her struggles in the classroom that she was willing to give it a try. She remarked that having that conversation with her students resulted in her having better relationships and connections with them.


Number 6Set professional boundaries

Even though we discussed sharing a little about yourself, this doesn’t mean your students or participants should know everything about you.

I once had a student disclose how uncomfortable she was when Mr. So-and-so told the class about how he “got wasted during this crazy weekend.” That is your personal life and should stay just that – personal. It’s also unprofessional to share this information with your participants and it doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Reiterate expectations and boundaries with your participants. YOUR STUDENTS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS! They should be looking to you for guidance as a role model not discussing how great you look or how they want to spend time with you outside of work.


Number 7Have separate phone, email, and social media accounts for your students

Social media hasSocial Media allowed us to connect with people easily. I’ve found that, in recent years, you can connect to your participants a lot more quickly through social media than making a phone call. Create a professional account to share with your students and parents/caregivers.

Again, your students should not know how you spent your weekend and I stress the issue of boundaries. Don’t send messages after a designated time you set-up with your class or group. I once worked with a teacher who was suspended over a situation where he had contacted a student late at night on his social media. It was innocent, just reminding them to bring in supplies for the next class, but the time of day made it inappropriate. Your job is not worth a late e-mail or Facebook message!


Number 8Value cultural competency 

It’s imperative to have an understanding of cultural competency when working with teenagers. Understanding the history and culture of your population will help provide insight into the expectations of families and communities. Each culture, ethnicity, neighborhood, and socioeconomic status (S.E.S) has its own unique and rich history. Having a knowledge base of cultural norms may help you better understand the perspectives of youth and utilize authentic, real-life scenarios.

For example, some cultures are taught not to look adults in the eye when they are speaking to you. Do you recall the statement, “Look me in the eye when I am talking to you?” While this isn’t usually said in the most pleasant of tones, some youth may, in fact, view it as sign of disrespect not to look someone in the eye when they are speaking. Clarifying that it’s alright to look you in the eye and that you would prefer it is helpful when having one-on-one conversations with your students or participants.


Number 9Understand youth development

Adolescence is a time of great confusion. Teens begin to mature mentally, physically, and sexually. They are trying to understand their roles, including who they are and who they are becoming. This is a time when youth need support and guidance through this stressful transition. They tend to value the opinions of their peers over adults, even if they do view you as a role model. This explains why they hate you one minute and want to be near you the next. Teenagers may often appear to be self-assured, but it may be really masking their insecurity. They can react defensively and without thinking. Teenagers want to feel that someone believes in them and that they are cared about.


Number 1Number 0Use a strengths-based perspectiveStrengths-based Perspective

Learn who your participants are and what they do well. They may possess the skills to persuade, create, draw, or lead use that information. Incorporate what you have learned about them into your activities, helping to empower your youth and aid them in building their confidence.


Number 1Number 1Conduct a Needs Assessment

Be aware of the unique needs of your youth. We can’t expect that youth will be focused on understanding the Pythagorean Theorem or figuring out who they are and broadening their cultural horizons when they’re more concerned with where their next meal is coming from. Understand the current needs of your participants. This can be where you start to take note of the resources you will need to begin compiling in your space.

Number 1Number 2Obtain resources

Using the information obtained from the Needs Assessment, research and begin to compile the resources to address the needs of your population.

I’ve worked with young adults who are disconnected from school and work. A constant barrier they faced was quality day care for their children. It took quite a bit of time to connect participants to a daycare that took vouchers or had a sliding scale fee. This took time away from them completing the program. Researching quality daycare was helpful in connecting these participants to quality daycare programs they needed for their children and allowed them for more time to participate in their own program.

Physical resources are also something that are always helpful to have on hand. I usually create a bin or a cabinet for these resources. The supplies include, but are not limited to: non-perishable food such as granola bars, portable tuna lunches, and soup; clothing; feminine products; and hygiene kits, which include razors, soap, a comb, spray deodorant, and lotion. You want your participants or students to be able to focus on learning, not basic needs.

Number 1Number 3Use teachable moments

This is an unplanned opportunity for you to have a meaningful conversation and share insight with your teens. If an opportunity arises; go with it. Students appreciate when you address topics they may need to learn about and can relate to their own lives.


Number 1Number 4Ask for inputAsk for Input

Ask teens for their opinions, ideas, and feedback. Let them know how important their feedback is and how it affects the class or program. This will allow them to feel connected to you, the class, or the group. When they’re explicitly invited to participate in their own learning, they will be more likely to engage in activities.


Number 1Number 5Make learning fun

Participants are more likely to participate in an activity if they feel like they are engaged and interactive. Quality activities will help enhance their engagement. Participants may begin to feel that, because the activities are enjoyable, you care about their learning and want them to feel supported.


Applying these tips should help you create positive connections and aid in engaging your youth.


What positive relationship-building techniques have you used when working with your youth?


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