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Effective Practices for Counselling Youth

Youth want to focus on the future and imagine a successful transition to adulthood. In counselling young people, you may want to plan strategies to help them with personal challenges, such as low self-esteem or the need for a broader support system. You will also want to help them with education and training.

What do I wish I’d known when I first started working with youth?—“I wish I would have known to take the time up front to not rush too much into solutions, to explore with young people what they want, what their skills and abilities are. I wish [I’d] taken more time to get to know them, even when time frames were tight.”

Planning intervention strategies

2 key barriers affecting youth employment are:

  • A lack of general and job-specific skills
  • Low self-esteem and a resulting feeling of lack of control over one’s life

Many intervention programs aimed at youth now focus on empowering them. These programs build on the skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and interests that young people already possess. The programs also help youth learn basic life management skills and career planning.

Hierarchy of self-directed adaptation theory

Practitioners delivering such intervention programs and those working with youth individually may benefit from the approaches in the hierarchy of self-directed adaptation theory.

The theory identifies varying levels of intervention that are effective with different people, depending on the degree to which they demonstrate self-direction, independence, and the ability to adapt. Effective intervention strategies involve providing intensive support for individuals who are less self-directed, less independent, and less adaptable. Effective strategies for people with higher levels of self-direction, independence, and adaptability involve less intense support.

The strategies include advising or guiding. As the client becomes more self-directed, coaching becomes an effective strategy. Specific intervention strategies, such as formal instruction and self-help, are also effective as the client becomes more self-directed and adaptable.

The following is a brief discussion of the 3 levels of intervention strategies effective with less self-directed individuals: intensive support, advising or guiding, and coaching.

Intensive support

Ensuring that youth have ownership—“Ensure that youth have ownership in the interview and that they are guiding the process. If I open the door (by building rapport initially), they are more likely to invite the information in.”

The beginning of a transition is often an uncertain time. People are entering new environments and may be less self-directed and adaptable. Effective interventions include:

  • Providing 1-on-1 assistance, including advocacy
  • Involving trained peers to provide peer advocacy
  • Facilitating client awareness of skills, values, beliefs, strengths, and knowledge
  • Helping clients build a vision for their preferred future
  • Making clients aware of transferability of skills

Advising or guiding

Building initial trust and rapport—“We used to just give workshops. Now we are 1-on-1 more than anything in the beginning, especially to develop initial trust and rapport and to discuss any personal information. Then we move into a group setting and they are more ready for it.”

Because the move to independence may be gradual, intervention at the advising or guiding stage monitors and guides clients’ actions rather than taking action on their behalf. During this stage, it is helpful to:

  • Continue to help clients learn life management skills
  • Encourage them to begin to make connections between their vision, their assets, and the opportunities in the labour market
  • Assign tasks for clients to undertake independently
  • Encourage clients to begin identifying areas in which they need help, thus taking on increased responsibility for their own career development


At the coaching stage, the emphasis moves from 1-on-1 counselling to group instruction and counselling. In interventions that are effective at this stage:

  • The intervention is still relatively directive, but clients make more choices and take independent actions.
  • The emphasis on life management skills continues, with more focus on decision making and career planning.
  • Counsellors participate in the role of coach, while clients develop career-building strategies, including educational and financial plans.
  • Peer coaching may be introduced as a valuable intervention.

Peer advocacy

Traditional approaches to youth employment counselling often do not address the many initial barriers and needs that youth experience in their daily lives. In addition, many young people are wary of “the system” and may have trouble relating to the professionals who are there to help them.

Young people often find it less intimidating or threatening to seek help from their equals. Peers have the natural advantage of “having been there.” Peer helpers are traditionally trained to listen and provide support. The role of peer advocacy takes support to another level. For example, the peer advocate may initially give strong support while they both tackle the problems and issues the client is dealing with. However, the goal of a peer coaching relationship or program is to shift the responsibility to clients as their self-confidence and self-reliance grows, empowering them to effectively use services available to them.

Game-based learning

When used appropriately, games offer a powerful learning opportunity for youth. As simulations, they provide a safe space to explore new concepts, practice key skills, and learn the consequences of different decisions. As well, most games have clear incentive and reward structures that allow players to set goals and gauge their progress. Games can be physical and group-based, like board and card games, or they can be played digitally online.

Seek out games that address common needs that you see among your clients. Think about how you could integrate them into your practice. Always try them first, to ensure that they're appropriate. Here are some places to get you started:

  • Edmonton's Level Up Gaming League uses roleplaying games in a social work context to engage at-risk youth, helping them develop skills and build community.
  • In this YouTube channel, an award-winning Alberta high school teacher talks about how he's transformed his classroom into a game. Learn more on his website.
  • Game to Grow is an American nonprofit organization dedicated to the use of games of all kinds for therapeutic, educational, and community growth. They developed Critical Core, which combines modern developmental therapies with the mechanics of tabletop role-playing games to help kids connect with their families, their friends, and the world around them.
  • Geek Therapeutics offers evidence-based training and certifications to clinicians, social workers, professionals, parents, and teachers on how to use games and other geek culture experiences to unlock the best version of their clients.
  • Games for Change curates a library of digital games addressing contemporary social issues.
  • BoardGameGeek provides a ranking of popular educational board and card games.
  • American non-profit Next Gen Personal Finance has developed a virtual arcade to better engage students with decision-making around financial topics such as paying for college, budgeting, and investing.

Helping youth build self-esteem

Some youth who have not experienced many successes may have lower self-esteem. Here are some time-tested suggestions for discussion and activities to help youth build self-esteem:

  • Assess clients’ current levels of self-esteem.
  • Examine the origins of their self-esteem.
  • Examine the messages clients received as children.
  • Help them create opportunities to initiate and develop independent successes.
  • Help them use affirmations or journal exercises.

Counsellors are in a position to help clients work through self-esteem development effectively. At the same time, it is important to recognize challenges that emerge that require professional intervention and to refer such clients to appropriate resources.

Helping youth build personal support systems

Understanding how to develop and access a personal support network is vital to a satisfactory career path. Young people, especially, need the day-to-day help and emotional balance that a support system can provide. Sources for developing personal support systems include:

  • Parents
  • Family and friends
  • Peers
  • Professionals
  • Community organizations

The parent connection—“There is a trend to very hands-on parent involvement... We’ve found the best way to capitalize on the high involvement of parents is to include them. And, one of the best ways of including them is to bring them in to workshops where they are given information about the career-building process and the labour market. They even bring their kids and the kids are engaged!”


Many parents are very involved in the lives of youth. Tap into this involvement by including both parents and youth in career-related activities. Provide them with information on current approaches to career building, new ways of working, and current labour market information. Help both youth and parents to improve their communication skills.

Family and friends

Young people may have unsupportive family relationships or may be distanced from their families. It may be helpful to explore relationships within the family, including extended family and friends, to determine who might be sources of support. When the immediate family is not available for support, sometimes grandparents, aunts or uncles, and even old friends of the family are able and willing to step in.

The responsibility to ask for support may fall to the young person. If so, youth may be reluctant to make this request. Some youth may need support to seek help from family and friends.


Encourage youth who are experiencing difficulties to develop relationships with peers who have successfully managed similar difficulties. You may want to help youth find someone who can act as a model and perhaps even as an informal mentor. This relationship could be developed through an established program or it could be a relationship that you help your client establish.


Young people may be mistrustful of “the system.” Be clear about your role as a professional. Identify what you may be able to do for them and what they can expect from you. Be authentic. Do what you say you will do. Your interaction with youth may shape how they perceive and act toward other professionals. Help clients to:

  • Develop an understanding of services that professionals can provide
  • Learn how to select the appropriate professional
  • Learn how to communicate their needs

Community resources

Community organizations may provide continuing growth experiences for clients, as well as an increased network of contacts and friends. Connections to support systems, such as schools, religious organizations, cultural communities, and youth groups, are known to help youth become more resilient and overcome their challenges. Youth need opportunities to build trusting relationships with adults.

If appropriate, encourage clients to consider volunteering in their community. The common experience of volunteers is that they gain as much as they give. The possibilities for volunteering are endless: literacy programs, sports and cultural activities, and seniors’ programs. As well as broadening their network, youth frequently find that volunteering builds both self-esteem and skills.

Introducing youth to mentorship

Most people can identify someone who has had a significant and positive impact on their lives. We learn from these mentors, and they help us grow personally and professionally. Mentors can be friends, relatives, teachers, co-workers, and others we admire. They can even be authors, historical figures, pop culture influencers, or others who we have never met. Usually, a mentor is someone with greater experience than ourselves. That experience allows them to serve as role models, challengers, guides, and allies.

Youth may benefit from establishing mentoring relationships with experienced people from whom they can learn. You can encourage youth to identify the type of help they might need or areas they would value learning more about. You can also help youth locate an appropriate mentor. Once a mentor relationship has been established, it is important to make the most of the learning experiences available.

Helping youth through group programming

Group work can be successful with unemployed youth because it establishes peer support and helps youth overcome isolation. Group work also helps youth develop social skills and expand contacts.

Creating a youth-friendly group environment

Consider the following suggestions to create a youth-friendly environment:

  • Flexible timing. Be open to meeting times that suit the schedules of youth participants.
  • Transportation. Schedule group get-togethers in accessible locations. If possible, provide travel vouchers or immediate reimbursements for travel costs. Also consider the pros and cons of hosting virtual sessions online.
  • Food. Provide food at meetings where possible. Snacks help establish an inviting and warm atmosphere. Food is an added bonus for youth who may not be receiving adequate nutrition.
  • Equipment. Provide access to computers, Wi-Fi, phones, and other equipment to support clients in their career-building process. Where online resources are mobile-friendly, encourage youth to access them on their own devices so they can easily revisit them later.

The importance of patience—“One of the most important things that I have learned regarding career development and youth is patience; all good things will happen within their own time frame. The best ideas, strategies, resources, and interventions cannot be forced upon people. When the clients are ‘ready,’ the best ideas and services will make sense and move forward.”

The following are some time-tested strategies to use in groups for youth and in 1-on-1 counselling situations:

  • Behaviour expectations. Facilitate a process through which group members identify group behaviour expectations and consequences for breaking those guidelines. Youth can then take ownership in the group and enforce the expectations they set.
  • Attendance. Ask that group members be honest about their absences and make contact when they cannot attend. Demanding perfect attendance may be unrealistic. When members are allowed to return to the group after absences, they often display increased motivation and commitment.
  • Trust. Build trust with sincerity, honesty, objectivity, and a non-judgmental attitude rather than through specific activities.
  • Group goals. Have the group set small, achievable goals. Even if you, as the counsellor, have ideas you feel are more appropriate, try to make sure that the group establishes the goals. When these goals are achieved together, your credibility grows.
  • Consequences. Demonstrate support and belief in group members even when they fail to achieve their set goals. Follow through on individual agreements to apply consequences for unacceptable behaviour.
  • Planning. When planning activities, have the group identify what interests them. Consult the group first to prevent setting yourself up for disaster. Group members can take responsibility to plan many group activities, particularly those of a social nature.
  • Role models. Lead by example. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Never ask a client to do something that you would feel uncomfortable doing yourself.
  • Discussion starters. To generate discussion, try storytelling, role playing, or game playing. The more creative you are, the more you will succeed with this client group.
  • Teachable moments. Often issues and feelings important to youth come up unexpectedly. For counsellors, this often means setting aside their agenda to deal with the issue of the moment. When issues arise in the group, they are meaningful and often offer outstanding learning opportunities. Seize them as teachable moments.
  • Cautions. Be aware of personal limitations. Issues such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, and suicide often come up with individuals and in groups. If you do not have a group therapy background, do not enter this territory. Know where to draw the line and refer youth to outside help. Also be aware of your ethical and legal obligations around reporting your knowledge of these issues.

If there isn’t an appropriate group in the area to which you can refer young clients, you may want to establish one.

Helping youth make the transition to adulthood

The most successful youth career programs address life issues as an integral part of facilitating the career-building process. Youth in transition to adulthood face a variety of challenges and benefit from support for managing the transition process.

Youth identify a variety of information and resources that would be helpful to them as they make the transition to adulthood. Common themes include:

  • Finding affordable housing
  • Gaining effective job skills
  • Managing money
  • Learning about landlord and tenant responsibilities
  • Finding options for school for those over 18
  • Finding help when kicked out and homeless
  • Balancing your own morals and values and those of family without offending family members
  • Dealing with stress
  • Learning to be goal oriented
  • Learning organizational skills
  • Managing going to work and going to school at the same time while living on your own
  • Having a heightened awareness of the world (locally and globally)
  • Hearing motivational speakers on drugs and alcohol issues
  • Managing inner turmoil and stressful situations that limit success in employment or school
  • Building self-confidence

Helping youth explore education options

Education has become an increasingly important prerequisite to employment. An important responsibility for counsellors working with youth who have limited education is to help them see that there are many ways, both formal and informal, to learn.

Know what options are available within the high school system. In particular, Alberta high schools offer both a dual credit pathway and a Registered Apprenticeship Program.

Helping students stay motivated—“When [youth] return to school, December can be a dark month, and they get really discouraged… I ask them, ‘What were you doing, what was your vision, when you decided to return to school?’ to help them remember why they’re there, why they chose to return to school, how it relates to their vision, their hopes, or goals. We also talk about their family, especially if they have children, what their hopes are for them. Or, they write letters to themselves before they go back to school and then open them later. It all helps them remember why they chose to go back to school.”

Counsellors should also have a general understanding of the different post-secondary credential types available in Alberta, and why they exist. For example:

  • Microcredentials prepare students to perform a specific task or use a specific tool that may be common across multiple occupations.
  • Certificate programs prepare students for specific gateway occupations in different sectors of the economy.
  • Diploma programs prepare students for generalized employment across broader groups of occupations.
  • Bachelor’s degree programs prepare students for entry-level professional positions across a wide range of sectors.

Informal learning

It may be worthwhile to help young clients become more aware of informal ways to learn. Research indicates that people who have difficulty learning often benefit from trying different approaches. If needed, informal learning can be recognized through prior learning assessments.

Here are some suggestions for informal learning experiences:

  • Watching tutorials, training videos, and free courses online
  • Researching information on the internet
  • Joining an online community of fellow learners or knowledge holders
  • Attending a weekend or evening seminar
  • Reading books, articles, manuals, magazines, and news
  • Shadowing someone at work
  • Asking a friend to show one how to do something
  • Asking a mentor
  • Working as a volunteer

Young people will be able to suggest more strategies.

The importance of learning

It is important to encourage and support youth in completing their education. This remains the biggest factor in employment success for this client group. Many youth, particularly those at risk, have not had successful experiences in the school system. Encourage and help youth explore educational alternatives to the traditional classroom. Some youth will also find success in 1 or more of the many non-school training programs that are available.

Ongoing learning is a fact of life and an essential ingredient in a successful career. You can play an important role in helping youth discover and pursue the learning that works best for them.

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