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6 Things I Learned From Working With Mentally Challenged Kids

Lessons From a Week of Volunteering in a Camp for Kids to Boost Their Confidence — and How You Can Too


The past week I’ve been off the grid. It was great. I took a little vacation from me and served others. I barely touched my phone and didn’t do anything for me, my work or even my writing.

I volunteered at a camp organized for kids aged 11–13 who are about to embark on their High School journey. These kids all have some mental challenges. Some have autism, others have been (severely) bullied, suffer from anxiety or are highly-strung, experienced some kind of trauma or are just extremely insecure.

Together with 15 other volunteers, led by therapists and pedagogues, we provided those kids with a week full of learning, challenging, playing and evolving.

I’ve never experienced something as rewarding as this. To see a girl with autism — who at the beginning of the week didn’t as much as look up — laugh intensely at a joke is breathtaking. Or to see another girl — who was always buried in one of the volunteer’s embrace — sing a song about bullying, just breaks your heart.

We laughed, we cried, we helped. Through proven scientific methods, theories and exercises we helped those kids build more confidence.

Here’s what I learned.


#1: Pay More Compliments 👍

A compliment is verbal sunshine — Robert Orbin

I’ve been lucky. Extremely lucky. I hadn’t really realized this until spending time with these kids. I’ve never (really) been bullied. I was able to stand up for myself. I had a big mouth. I had a lot of friends.

It’s unfair to think that some are less challenged early on in life and others are extremely put to the test. Kids can be mean, especially if you stand out. And the kids I met on this camp all stood out because of their behavior.

These kids’ self-esteem was very low at the beginning of camp. One of the things that boosted their confidence throughout the week was to create a positive vibe and pay a lot of compliments.

We did this throughout the day. The compliments could be small like saying they wore a nice sweater or that their hair looked great. Or bigger, about something they had achieved on a day, or how they dared to raise their hand and ask a question.

At the end of each day, before the kids were sent to bed, we had an event called Dreamland. All kids lay down, wearing their pajama’s. One of us read a story. They got hot cocoa. Then, we discussed all the things they had learned that day. This was followed by a magical moment, giving them compliments for things they did that day that showed their growth.

Volunteers and kids alike could hand out Star-moments 🌟. To see those insecure faces light up when they received a compliment was so fulfilling. You could literally see them sit up straighter when receiving one, making eye contact.

We could all hand out more Star-moments to our family, friends, and co-workers. What do you feel when you receive a compliment? Exactly. Hand them out more often, you’ll help others become more secure.

It sounds so simple, but do you do it often enough? I know I don’t!


#2: The Magic of a Safe Bubble 💧

We spent the week on a farm, right in the middle of pear fields. We had a classroom set up in which they got short classes like Math or English. In those classes, they got to experience situations which might happen in High School. Like being punished or other students rioting the class (volunteer actors). To prepare them.

We were secluded from society. No one left the camp. Groceries were brought by van a couple of times a week. With 16 volunteers and 22 kids, they got all the attention they needed. We created a safe environment for them to be themselves, to learn and explore.

Us volunteers could be ourselves too. I felt like a kid again. I played games with them too. We build an obstacle course and had water balloon fights. I could make silly jokes. I was able to play and explore too. There was this great unprejudiced environment in which we all could be who we wanted, without judgment.

This little society we formed of only 38 people was far less complex than the real world, therefore it felt so clear and safe. Only after returning to my city at the end of the week did I fully realize this.


#3: Keep a “Proud of” Journal ✍️

During the week I was a mentor to two boys. They both had their personal goals of things to learn that week. One of them wanted to learn to make friends. While seemingly smart and out-going, this young man had great difficulty approaching someone and accepting that a friend doesn’t need to be perfect.

Both boys were quite insecure. One of the tools taught to me by the professionals in the camp was to provide them with a “Proud of” journal. In it they must write three things every day of which they were proud. Usually, those things were connected to their goals and the things they tried out. For we gave them small tasks (approach someone and ask about their interests), to get them to practice with their goals.

At the beginning of the week, I wasn’t so sure I could help those boys. I’m no professional. But that wasn’t the point. Whatever I can do could help them. I could use my own experiences and common sense. Even though I’m not a psychologist or pedagogue, I’ve helped them. I was handed tools such as the “Proud of” journal to help them. Besides that, we invented small tasks, exercises and role play.

So whenever you have something you feel insecure about, try writing down three things you’re proud of doing/being. Pay yourself compliments every day.


#4: Use Your (Body) Thermometer to Examine Your Emotions 🌡

This sounds weird but bear with me. Whenever you experience a particular emotion, it can reach different levels. For instance, when you’ve just missed the train to the airport, you might be mad. If you use your body as an imaginary measure instrument, you might feel your anger rise up to your knees. At the airport, you’ll find the line at security to be very long — you might miss your flight. Your anger level might move to your navel. If then, you reach your plane just in time, you feel rushed, but hopefully better. Then, when you arrive, it takes another hour before you can finally pick up your luggage. You go pick up a rental car, your credit card declines at the car hire. Your girlfriend nags. You might feel an anger that goes beyond your body. Your Thermometer explodes.

You could use this for every emotion, like stress, anxiety, happiness, fear, etc. Do you know at what level your emotions are? Train yourself to act before you burst out of your bodily Thermometer. Find ways to lower your stress level, your anxiety or anger. What can you do differently? Breathe. Exercise. Meditate. Walk away.

The kids at the camp learned to recognize how intense their emotions were. We helped them find ways to bring them down. It helps.


#5: Use Helping Thoughts 🤔

So your Thermometer explodes. Imagine a traffic light. Your emotions got the better of you. Now the traffic light turns red. Stop.

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Analyze your behavior. What do you feel? Tension?

The light turns orange. This is a moment of reflection. How can you solve the issue at hand? What thoughts or actions would actually help you at this point?

In the case of the travel incidents above, what would you do? You could yell at your girlfriend and direct your anger towards her. Or the rental agent. You could take it on the chin and think “tonight I will be in my bed”, or “in a few days we’ll laugh about all this”. What plan of action would help you the most? The last one is called a helping thought.

The light turns green, it’s time to make a decision and go. Choose wisely.


#6: Get Out of Your Comfort Zone 😳

So we managed to help those kids boost confidence, help them achieve their goals, build friendships, stand up for themselves, better deal with their emotions, and get out of their comfort zone to do so.

It was a wonderful experience to see those kids grow. As I said in the beginning, it was a mental holiday as well. I didn’t even have the time to think about myself. And that was great for a change.

Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

I did, however, have my own goals that week. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone as well. I don’t have children, I wondered if I could handle spending a week with 22. ✔️

I needed to play a strict Math teacher who was so fed up with some kids that I needed to send them out of the classroom. Another time I was an English teacher, threatening the whole class with an unexpected test. I’m uncomfortable acting, but I did so anyway. I dressed up. I improvised. I played. ✔️

The program was insane, we got up at 7.30 and went to bed at 1.30 am. Some days I slept only four hours. Could my body handle that? Apparently so. ✔️


Conclusion

I could write a whole short story about this experience. Maybe I will. Hopefully, I’m able to catch the magic of that week. Camp is over, the kids have to face High School now. I just hope we’ve helped them enough to face the challenges ahead.

I know the tools I mentioned above helps them. They help me. I hope they can help you too.


Would you like to listen to short fiction stories while you’re commuting, walking, running or cooking? Listen to the Turner Stories Podcast.

Check out the Turner Stories Podcast in iTunes.

Originally published at medium.com

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