Jim Conway believes adults can do a better job of personally connecting with teens and adolescents. Adults don’t need to sign up for a school program or a sport, insisted Conway, a researcher in youth behavior, who spoke to a group of adults last Tuesday at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Those more formal activities, he said, are fine. But a simple, “Hello, how’re you doing?” to the kid working behind the counter at the fast food joint, or to teens scampering around the mall, can impact kids in more ways than adults realize.
Conway spoke to about 60 people last Tuesday at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville, including officials from the village and school districts 200, 97 and 90. The West Cook YMCA sponsored the May 13 lecture, titled, “Building an Asset Rich Community.”
Conway, a senior trainer with Minneapolis’ Search Institute, a non-profit research agency, has traveled around the country for more than 10 years talking to adults about having better interactions with youth.
He jokes that most people think his lectures are about finances or teaching kids how to open checking accounts. The assets he’s referring to, however, involve creating positive behaviors in kids, and the role adults play in achieving that.
In 2003, the institute surveyed close to 150,000 students across the country, grades 6-12, ranging from age 11 to 18. Students were asked about their experiences in such areas as how involved they are with their school, with adults and with their community. The institute identified 40 factors, or assets, where adults can impact students. Research shows that 68 percent of students had strong family support, but only 27 percent had parents or other adults who modeled positive or responsible behaviors. As for students receiving support from three or more non-parent adults, 43 percent of students reported they did.
The goal, Conway stressed, is to expose youth to more rather than fewer “assets,” but that’ll take changing the attitudes of some adults.
Children, he said, tend to be viewed as a problem by some adults. Oftentimes, kids are labeled negatively as troublemakers, under-achievers or impaired. Those labels, along with more positive ones, don’t accurately describe who children really are, Conway added.
And some businesses even put limits on how many kids they’ll let walk inside their establishments, Conway noted. All of these things send the wrong message to youth, he said, adding that some kids do have behavioral issues, but adults shouldn’t paint most of them with the same brush.
“We need to move beyond that,” he said. “When we use the lens of assets, we start to see other things. We first see that we as a community really need to move beyond seeing young people as a problem to seeing young people as a resource in the community.”
Lekia Savage, a youth coordinator with the West Cook YMCA works primarily with high school-age children. After listening to the lecture, Savage recognized changes she can make interacting with youth.
“One of the things that really struck home with me was the little things that I can do. You get your routine going and those small things just slip away,” she said.