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April 14, 2011

YMCA Academy’s Guiding Principles for Working with Youth

by Peter Skillen

I am taking the liberty of sharing some of the philosophical underpinnings of an independent secondary school in Toronto. I was fortunate to be part of the creation of this school that was started by the YMCA of Greater Toronto in 2003.

A few words about the YMCA of Greater Toronto first because YMCA’s all over the world are quite different from one another!  This YMCA is secular and stands on the principles of diversity and social inclusion. ‘YMCA’ is not an acronym as it is in many parts of the world. The YMCA is a charity. Read much more on their website.

The following is from their website but is so relevant to many of the discussions we have about education. I want to share this now because I want to discuss some it in future posts – especially the more controversial aspects such as the ‘trans-theoretical model of change’ and ‘harm reduction’. Many can accept these at face value, but when you try to implement it in class or schools, you need to be prepared for some soul searching and flexibility. For example, how are you going to cope with students who are regularly late or absent? How will you handle incomplete assignments? What about ‘inappropriate’ dress? Or other issues where schools normally have ‘rules’ and/or a ‘zero tolerance’ policy?

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The Academy’s approach to working with youth is based on a series of frameworks inherent in all YMCA youth programming:

Guiding Principles for Working with Youth



Youth Engagement, Competence, Belonging and Identity are nurtured and supported through the following frameworks:

I. YMCA VALUES: we embrace the six core values of the YMCA of Greater Toronto:

Respect – we recognize and protect the inherent worth of every person, including oneself

Responsibility – we are dependable and accountable for choices, actions and commitments

Inclusiveness – we appreciate diversity, strive to be open to all, and seek to understand differences and find common ground

Caring – we act with compassion and concern for the well-being of others

Health – we are committed to physical, social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development

Honesty – we demonstrate integrity and trustworthiness

II. ASSET BUILDING

The framework of Developmental Assets is grounded in extensive research on what adolescents need to succeed. Upon admission to the Academy students are asked to list those assets which are strongly rooted in their lives. Our programming assists students in developing the skills to increase the number of their developmental assets.

To see the complete list of 40 Developmental Assets click here.

III. TRANS-THEORETICAL MODEL OF CHANGE

The Academy understands that change is not a single action but a complex process of awareness, reflecting, planning, doing and sustaining behaviors. With this paradigm we can more readily work with students at their present stage of change. When we do this we can offer the appropriate supports that will help them achieve their goals and minimize resistance or sabotaging of their own efforts.

IV. DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH

We recognized that health is not merely the absence of disease but emerges from a complex interaction of many factors, including: socio-economic status, physical environment, genetics and biology, education and literacy, employment and working conditions, social environments and support networks,  personal health practices and coping strategies.

V. DEVELOPMENTALLY APPROPRIATE

The adolescent brain is in a very delicate stage of growth. The pre-frontal cortex, where higher level thinking and judgment are developed, is incomplete and does not finish growing until the age of 24. The Academy supports the development of these capabilities in students, creating opportunities for them to explore and take risks but not to endanger their well being. It is also proven that young people’s sleep needs are different from children and from adults. For this reason The Academy starts its day at 9:30 and has a full-time counselor present to assist in asset building.

VI. HARM REDUCTION

Respect is at the root of the Harm Reduction philosophy; respecting the right of another human being to make choices is its goal. This philosophy assumes willingness to understand all human behavior as having a positive intent, however maladaptive it may appear to the observer. This philosophy allows staff to assist students to make smarter, healthier, safer choices in their lives regardless of their stage of change.

*source: YMCA of Greater Toronto “Teen Strategy” October 2006 p20-21

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