St. Stephen’s Youth Programs serves 850 young people of all ages, with a mission to help school-age young people along the path to successful adulthoods. This case study highlights the practices of one program, the B-SAFE program, at one site. B-SAFE is a summer program that connects students in grades 1-12 to academics, art, science, and recreation.
Positive youth-adult relationships help create an environment where young people are free to be themselves.
Conversations with youth about their decisions and actions help them take control of their behavior, while valuing their agency and perspective.
Training, feedback, and evaluation are important for improving practices around youth relationships with adults – even if these relationships are already very positive.
Benefits to relationship-building extend beyond the scope of a single program or activity.
Q: How would you describe the relationships that youth in your program have with the staff?
A: There’s probably a wide range of different types of relationships, just because we also have a wide range of staff. We like to start from the idea that all of our youth and adult relationships come out of trying to create long-term, healthy, supportive relationships, and part of that is motivating students to come back, year after year. Our hope is that we’re creating relationships with young people starting at the age of five when they first enter the program, and going all the way until they graduate high school and take that next step in their own educational journey. In doing so, students move through our elementary, middle school, and teen programs, and many then move on to leadership roles in our program. Specifically within the program, I think about staff and their relationships with youth as mentors, as teachers, and as supportive adults.
Everyone’s goal – whether it’s the counselors in training, the lead Counselors, the teen staff coordinator, the site manager, or the teaching specialist – is to foster learning within our young people and to create an environment where all our young people feel big, feel safe, and feel connected, so that they feel empowered to try new things and to be themselves. They need to know they’re coming to a safe environment both in terms of physical safety, but also safety to be who they are and express themselves. We wants students to feel big by helping create opportunities for leadership as well as choice within programming, and finally we try and create a strong community at each of our sites so that they feel connected to one another, to the adults, and to the community we are a part of.
Those three hallmarks are the quintessential dynamic of how we try to describe our relationships with our young people: we want them to feel big, to feel safe, and to feel connected.
Q: What strategies do you implement to ensure that positive relationships are formed between staff and students?
A: Since its inception, relationships between youth and adults in our program have been at the core of what we do. We use a counter-cultural behavioral management system, based on a restorative model, that recognizes that ultimately, the only people who can control their own choices are the young people themselves. Instead of using rewards or punishments, adults in our program facilitate conversations with youth to help them figure out how they can better make their own decisions. For example, we wouldn’t send a child home right away for acting out. Instead our youth, through a facilitated discussion led by teen or adult staff, would come up with next steps that would help them rejoin the community in a positive way. This is part of our Blueprint, which is our process for developing group norms (through the creation of an Excellence Pact), and this process enables us to run a program where youth are engaged in teamwork and have a strong sense of community. This counter-cultural system wouldn’t work if not for the strong positive relationships we create between youth and our staff.
Forming positive relationships is also part of the day-to-day culture of the program. If a student has a bad day, then our staff knows to welcome that student the next day with a smile, and appreciate that they came back, giving them a fresh start. In addition, our staff is trained on how to both address actions that need redirection, as well as to acknowledge and share when students had really great days. Especially during the summer, sharing good news with parents and families is extremely important, and can help students feel empowered to continued to work hard. These practices create an environment of trust between everyone in our program that is fundamental for the relationships between them.
Q: How is your staff trained with respect to the relationships they have with students?
A: We work to effectively and efficiently train our staff on what their role is with respect to relationships. In preparation for the summer, our Main Office Leadership Team meets for two hours per week from April through June, helping to set the leadership structure in place so that we are prepared to train the rest of the staff. Before our summer programs even begin, we have a three day training for all staff – everyone from our teen counselors to our program directors – and we focus on how we can create good relationships and a positive environment for the youth. We work will all staff, both new and returning, to make sure they understand, appreciate, and buy into our program, and make sure everyone is on the same page going into day one.
It is also important for us that even if our program has really great relationships between youth and adults, we keep trying to learn from other programs and improve. Every year we take part in a “360 evaluation,” gaining feedback from young people, parents, teen staff, part-time staff, and full time staff that allows us to continue to grow and develop. While we pride ourselves on our ability to create strong, healthy relationships, we continue to look for ways to develop our programs. Our work is never done.
Q: What do you think are the benefits to having positive youth-adult relationships?
A: The positive relationships in our program let us develop a sense of community that is essential for everything we do. Our staff’s positive relationships with the youth, and with their families, is part of a long-term system of support for the youth and part of how we let them know that we are their advocates in the larger systems that affect their lives.
There are countless studies on the benefits of healthy relationships with adults outside of just the family: children are more likely to participate in out-of-school activities, assume leadership positions, and more. We see these benefits every day in our work with young people, and it is one of the driving factors for why we do the work that we do. All of our jobs are centered around creating a positive, vibrant, diverse community, and building healthy relationships is at the very heart of it all.
St. Stephen’s B-SAFE Program (The Bishop’s Summer Academic & Enrichment Program) is a five-week, full-day academic and enrichment program serving young people from first grade through high school. The goal of the program is to build a community where all people feel safe, feel big, and feel connected. The program includes ten sites in six Boston area neighborhoods. Each site includes academic programs in reading, writing and math; visual and performing art workshops; science activities; recreational activities; and many field trips. While based in Episcopal churches and schools, the B-SAFE Program has no required religious component for staff or youth.