Impactful Adventures with At-risk Youth: A SSW Gets Creative To Reach Her Teens
“This program has changed me in many ways . . . one way being my leadership skills. Emotionally, mentally, physically — it’s done a lot for me to be honest with you. “Jairo, 16 years old, Addison Trail student, discussing the impact of Chicago Voyagers
Editor’s Note: Our author Nadia Gomez-Moran is a school social worker in suburban Chicago and is also completing the School Mental Health Advanced Practice Program (SMHAPP) certificate at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, which is a 15-credit, 99% online 2-year professional learning community that helps school clinicians sharpen their skills and become social-emotional leaders in their buildings . She is working on a 2-year project to build stronger trauma-informed care practices in her school Today, she is writing about another area of interest she explored though our SMHAPP certificate: how creative school social workers can access community resources to build meaningful clinical experiences for hard-to-reach adolescents, using the example of the outdoor education Chicago Voyagers program.
Stretching Myself To Reach My Students
As school mental health practitioners, we always use our clinical skills to determine what intervention would work best for our students depending on their presenting issues. Whether it is well-researched interventions like CBT or DBT, we find the best evidence-based intervention that we believe will yield positive outcomes. Although sometimes it may feel like it should be a no-brainer when choosing an intervention, I have sometimes felt challenged by students who are not responsive to the traditional interventions I wanted to use with them.
When working with at-risk youth, it may be sometimes challenging to find interventions that will engage students. When I first was hired as a Tier 3 school social worker, I knew that one of the main challenges that I would encounter would be lack of student engagement in social work services. I knew that I needed to be creative if I wanted to engage students that have never been receptive to socio-emotional curriculum or even meeting with a school social worker. Luckily, I found out that my building was partnering with Chicago Voyagers to provide experiential interventions to students in tier 3 programming.
To be completely honest, I was a bit nervous knowing that I would have to canoe (ps. I do not know how to swim), complete a high-ropes course 30 ft above the ground, or rappel down the impressive cliffs in Devil’s Lake, WI. The closest I had ever come to outdoor adventure was walking the paths of local forest preserves, never venturing out of the asphalt path. I was hopeful that even though I was nervous and inexperienced both the students and I would bond and grow together. Together with Chicago Voyagers staff, we developed a schedule of experiential field trips, starting with a focus on team building activities at the school and moving towards overnight camping trips aimed at building leadership and confidence.
I could not have imagined the impact Chicago Voyagers would have on students. In every experiential field trip, I saw students step outside their comfort zone, learn to trust themselves and others, and conquer their fears. I saw countless moments of leadership, friendship, and growth. My own nervousness dissipated and I was validated time after time again that outdoor experiential interventions are effective and a strong option when working with at-risk adolescents.
Chicago Voyagers is a positive youth development program that empowers at-risk youth through outdoor experiential adventures such as, hiking, canoeing, or rock-climbing to foster healthy relationships and responsible behavior. Current research indicates that utilizing adventure therapy or experiential therapy promotes pro-social behavior and decreases depression in adolescents (Norton, 2010). Findings show that these interventions may also be effective in reducing adolescent substance abuse and have been found effective in different settings and populations, including community settings and youth grief groups (Russell, 2008; Vankanegan et al., 2019; DeDiego et al., 2017 ). Experiential or adventure therapy has shown an overall increase in social skills and overall decrease in problem behaviors in youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Karoff et al., 2017). Furthermore, adventure (experiential) therapy has been found effective for at-risk youth, families, and those that have experienced abuse and trauma (Harper et al., 2007).
Chicago Voyagers utilizes outdoor adventure-based group work focused on positive youth development to promote the development of pro-social skills, empathy, and self-regulation. Chicago Voyagers empowers at-risk youth through outdoor experiential adventures that foster healthy relationships and responsible behavior. The organization provides opportunities to explore, grow, and take risks outside their comfort zone. All of the outdoor adventures are guided and planned by Chicago Voyagers staff.
Our experience: Chicago Voyagers and Addison Trail High School
Over the past five years, Chicago Voyagers has worked with two tier 3 programs (self-contained special education program and a general education alternative program) in our building. Chicago Voyagers worked with school staff to identify areas of improvement for both students and the programs. Themes such as increasing motivation or building leadership skills can be chosen to focus on. Students participated in outdoor experiential activities such as cross-country skiing, canoeing, rappelling, and hiking. Students were also invited to participate in overnight field trips and the culminating Mississippi River 3-day canoeing trip.
To measure the success of the program Chicago Voyagers collected data on 1) school-based behavioral indicators including attendance, grades, and discipline referrals 2) agency chaperone’s evaluation of each sub-program and 3); student testimonials. Data was also collected for students on a control group. Chicago Voyagers also administered the Positive Youth Development Inventory, Full Version, survey. This survey is a collection of 58 Likert scale items designed to measure changes in levels of positive youth development (PYD) that measures confidence, competence, character, caring, and connection. You can download a copy here. This survey was administered as a pre-post measurement with all participants.
Our Intervention Outcomes
Engaging youth in experiential activities such as cross-country skiing, hiking, and canoeing pushes youth outside their comfort zone. Some of the students that participated had never been on a hike, canoed, or rocked climbed. These activities taught youth team building skills, communication, and to trust others. Most importantly, students showed empowerment and determination.
“ I am really outdoorsy and I love doing stuff outdoors. It really helps with my ADHD too. ..”Junior, 18 year-old Addison Trail student
Results from 2014-2015 data collected on attendance, grades, discipline referrals indicated no statistically significant differences in between intervention and control groups on attendance and discipline, but our intervention group kids’ overall GPA improved from fall 2014 to spring 2015 compared to the control group. (As with any applied program evaluation project, limitations regarding data collection, student attendance, and student dropout rates impacted the results.) Although the quantitative data showed mixed results (and to be clear, our intervention group kids’ scores didn’t get worse over time but just didn’t show statistically significant improvement compared to the control), our qualitative data (student interviews) indicated strong effects on positive youth development. Additionally, the quantitative data for the PYDI yielded significant results for the intervention group, compared to the control group on overall positive youth development, as measured by the 6 C’s.
Some Student Testimonials
David, 16 years old:
In school, David struggled with anxiety, attendance and speaking up. Throughout the program, he was pushed outside of his comfort zone and was able to engage staff and peer in discussions, was able to speak up more, and was able to feel more connected with his peers. Back at school, David’s attendance improved and he is now motivated to graduate!
“The program has made me more social, in a way – it has made me talk more to my peers than I used to. It has made me stronger, and more persuasive (aggressive) toward my goals.”David, Addison Trail Student on his Chicago Voyagers’ experience
“One of my challenges this year was my attendance – not having the motivation to come, and to follow through in my classes. But this program has taught me to keep going and to make sure to follow through with things. I was even transferred to the GOAL program at school – that really helped me a lot – I was able to achieve in my classes and finished them.”
Jairo, 16 years old:
Jairo struggled with self-control, exhibited impulsive behaviors in and out of school, and was struggling academically. Jairo has shown great improvements regulating his emotions and impulsivity. Throughout the program Jairo took on leadership roles and was able to process his emotions and behaviors. In school, his behavior improved, he developed self-advocacy skills, and became involved in extra-curricular activities. His absences dropped by 50%. He went on to become vice president of a school club and graduated high school!
“This program has changed me in many ways . . . one way being my leadership skills. Emotionally, mentally, physically — it’s done a lot for me to be honest with you. As for a highlight — I don’t know where to start – canoeing, repelling, camping, teambuilding – all of that was awesome. I learned to push through my limits – to piece it out – just do it, like Nike . . . just do it.”
There’s been many challenges at school for me – one of them being my grades, my attendance – focusing, I know I couldn’t focus – I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m gonna need this pill, I’m gonna need this pill that I used to take when I was little’ – but here I am without the pill. All because — I’m pretty sure that it’s because of this – ‘cuz without this, I’d be regular me – always getting in trouble, always in the Dean’s office, always doing stupid things.
I stopped going to speech class, and at the end of the year, I talked to my teacher, and I said – dude, I’m totally sorry that I had to . . . that I made the decision to stop coming to your class. I told him that I am going to be here next year . . . that it’s my choice to be here next year and pass your class.”
Hailey, 18 years old
Hailey has struggled with self-efficacy and positive decision making in her high school years. She struggled with anxiety and depression and had multiple suicide attempts. Hailey is now in her 2nd year of college studying psychology and leading a productive happy life. During one of our overnight trips we were processing our successes/trials from the day and she shared a personal story. Reflecting on this months later, she noted:
“I confronted myself about self-destructive behaviors and the shaky ground of my recovery from alcoholism. I became extremely emotional about the subject. One after the other students, teachers, and Bess (Chicago Voyager staff member) offered me not only support but sincere, useful feedback. I was reminded that when I feel alone, there will be someone I can fall back on.”
This student needed to be reminded that she is not alone, and through Chicago Voyagers this was realized.
“(In this program) I confronted myself about self-destructive behaviors and the shaky ground of my recovery from alcoholism. “Hailey, Chicago Voyagers program member, now college student studying psychology
Junior, 18 years old
Junior struggled with impulsive behavior, low-self-esteem, and lack of motivation. He had a difficult time trusting others and opening up due to a history of trauma. As a result, Junior exhibited defiant behaviors in and outside of school. Junior has become a great leader in Chicago Voyagers in the past two years. He is now employed and on track to graduate. Emotionally, he has learned to open up and express his emotions and thoughts. Junior shares:
“ I am really outdoorsy and I love doing stuff outdoors. It really helps with my ADHD too. I feel like I have a lot more confidence because before this I didn’t have a lot of confidence. So partially because of Chicago Voyagers I feel like I can do more things now. I feel like I can accomplish more things. My view about my future has changed so much. Before I felt like I wasn’t going to do the best I can in life and now I want to become a fireman. These field trips have motivated me to do more in my life than just scrape by.”
Junior was recognized with the Fighting Spirit Award this year at the Chicago Voyagers gala.
A Parent’s Perspective (Translated From Spanish)
“Your program has been helpful with Victor. Our son spends more time with us and his family, and he no longer isolates himself like he used to. He allows us to get close to him and we are now able to have communication with him. We want to thank you for all your help – thank you for your patience and dedication. We really hope that he continues to participate next school year.”
As a school social worker, it is highly important to be able to develop positive relationships with the students that I work with. Chicago Voyagers gave me the opportunity to interact with these students outside of the school environment, and it also allowed me to connect with them in a different way. On a personal level, it pushed me outside my comfort zone – this allowed me to share my personal fears with the students and be able to process/progress with them in and out of school. Seeing the impact and growth in the students was amazing.
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Harper, N. J., Russell, K. C., Cooley, R., & Cupples, J. (2007). Catherine Freer wilderness therapy expeditions: An exploratory case study of adolescent wilderness therapy, family functioning, and the maintenance of change. Child & Youth Care Forum, 36(2/3), 111–129. doi:10.1007/s10566-007-9035-1.
Karoff, M., Tucker, A. R., Alvarez, T., & Kovacs, P. (2017). Infusing a Peer-to-Peer Support Program With Adventure Therapy for Adolescent Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(4), 394-408. doi:10.1177/1053825917727551
Norton, C. L. (2010). Into the wilderness—a case study: The psychodynamics of adolescent depression and the need for a holistic intervention. Clinical Social Work Journal, 38(2), 226–235. doi:10.1007/s10615-009-0205-5.
Russell, K. C. (2008). Adolescent substance-use treatment: Service delivery, research on effectiveness, and emerging treatment alternatives. Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 2(2), 68–96
Vankanegan, C., Tucker, A. R., Mcmillion, P., Gass, M., & Spencer, L. (2019). Adventure therapy and its impact on functioning of youth in a community setting. Social Work with Groups, 42(2), 127-141.