By David Garb
It is not an easy thing to find real ways of connecting with people around us. For young people, their ways of connecting are usually governed by what is acceptable among their peers, or what they have learned or had modelled at home by their parents or guardians.
Learning to feel safe in a group, safe enough to express ourselves without fear of ridicule, humiliation or judgment is rare. When it is able to happen, transformation of a sense of self begins. An expansion of expression, feeling heard on a deep level and feeling truly seen and accepted for who you are then becomes possible.
My work in this area began with my own dismal teenage years, where the basic skills of communicating, dealing with conflict and learning relationship skills would have been considered a foreign language. Struggling with my these areas led me to discover ways that worked for me, forced me to confront edges of fear I would not have thought possible to deal with, and helped me to realise that we don’t have to wait until we have stumbled through a dozen relationships and heartaches to learn how to feel seen and loved.
I discovered the value, challenge and enormity of group work when I began directing summer camps in Canada with a Canadian psychologist. I was teaching in a Waldorf school in South Africa at the time, and would fly out to Canada each summer. Our first year was geared for children between the ages of 6 and 12 years old. Every picture of idyllic camping possibilities were quickly blown out the water when children began chasing each other with firewood axes or discovered pyromaniac tendencies. After vowing not to EVER do that again, requests from campers for more the following year led to expanding the age limit, and after 7 years, we had campers from the ages of 6 to 20 years old. By balancing artistic, physical and fun activities, we soon discovered we had an enormous family in which everyone’s needs were catered for. Teenagers did not have to be ‘cool’ all the time, and they would often have little ones on their laps in the evening when stories were told. The final camp was geared to teenagers in particular, with focus on communication skills.
I had now moved to New Zealand, and was taking my second class of children through the seven years of Waldorf education. Some high school teachers approached me to help them with a particularly difficult Class 9. We arranged an afternoon to do some basic communication games. After the session, a group of students grabbed me and asked when we were doing more of this. I told them that this was it, as I was teaching full time with the little ones and there was no time allocated for it. As a safe aside, I suggested that the weekends were the only possibility, feeling smug in my belief that no teenager would give up weekend time for school activities. I was then asked what time and where, and the first group was born.
I met with this group of 15 students every Saturday of that year, culminating in a weekend workshop at the end of the year. Big shifts had taken place in their group dynamics, confidence and ability to express themselves. The following year, students from other classes began to demand workshop time. We began holding workshops every second weekend for students between the ages of 15 to 18, covering topics such as family dynamics, conflict, dealing with anger, depression, grief etc. The group sizes varied between 20 to 30 students. These workshops were free to students, and I considered them a wonderful learning opportunity for me. I had a female facilitator working with me, and had a supervisor with whom I discussed topics and approaches beforehand and would debrief with afterwards.
With merely having a psychology degree, a Waldorf training and special education training, I began further counselling and psychotherapeutic study in the next few years, ending with a Masters in counselling and a four year psychotherapy training in Gestalt psychotherapy. My role as school counsellor began to expand, and workshops were gradually introduced to all high school classes as part of the curriculum.
The demand for workshops gradually spread to other schools around New Zealand, and then into Australia and South Africa. I visit certain schools regularly each year in these countries, and have designed a program for each year group, focusing on specific themes relevant to that age. Starting with Class 8 (around age 13-14) with basic communication skills, Class 9 (around age 14-15) on pressure (peer, family, school), to Class 10 (around age 15-16) dealing with conflict, relationships and friendships, to Class 11 (around age 16-17) dealing with sexuality, relationship and intimacy, and finally with Class 12 (around age 17-18) looking at self expression, what has been gained from their education and moving into the world. There are also workshops for parents and for teachers.
This journey is an ongoing one, from which I am constantly learning, and having any fixed ideas and beliefs profoundly challenged. The depth at which young people allow themselves to be met by their peers and me is something that continues to awe me. The feedback from students, teachers and parents reminds me that creating this window of opportunity for allowing young people to get real and connect on a deep level can profoundly change and enhance a person’s life. There is then often a request that their parents and teachers be given the same opportunity so that deeper and more real relationships can be forged with the youth.