Student Wellbeing – the role of youth volunteerism

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) describes Student Wellbeing as present when they realise their abilities, take care of their physical wellbeing, can cope with the normal stresses of life, and have a sense of purpose and belonging to a wider community.

Each of us derives meaning from our own educative experiences, meaning that helps to form our very identity. In this modern world young people are faced with difficult choices and pressures that weren’t as prevalent in the past. At the stage in life when young people navigating complex choices, make meaning for themselves and find their place in the world around them, we have an opportunity to orientate them towards volunteerism.

There are many and varied interpretations of what volunteering is. The European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers outlines how volunteers should undertake work that is not to replace paid workers. Closer to home the working draft of Volunteering Strategy 2020 – 2025, describes volunteering as ‘... any time willingly given, either formally or informally, for the common good and without financial gain.’ This definition falls slightly short for young people as the expectation of financial gain is not generally applicable to them. I understand the term ‘Youth Volunteering’ to mean when a young person freely takes action, in response to a need, without the expectation of anything in return.

While this may seem like a pedantic point, I feel the language of volunteering is important. As is the language of education, much of which is future orientated. The principle role of education, in the eyes of many, is to prepare learners for successful lives. Having a successful life is important, whatever success means. But it is also important to be mindful of what renowned educationist John Dewey believed, that education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. This serves as a reminder that young people, while preparing for their future, are living their present. Their world is now. In order for education to be valid, it should occur in, and be relevant to, the real world of the now.

The conflict of adolescence, as described by the developmental psychologist Erik Erickson, is one where young people are concerned with how they appear in the minds of others compared to how they feel they are. In other words, a young person’s identity has less to do with how they perceive themselves, or how others perceive them; but rather it is based on their own interpretation of how other people perceive them.

The navigation through choices that inform identity often leads to feelings of being overwhelmed. In my opinion the most important thing for young people to learn is how to orientate themselves, how to make choices that they alone are answerable for. Perhaps then, one of the most important roles of educators is to inculcate the notion that we all form our own identity through a process of self-discovery or through a self-actualisation process, so that we can achieve our full potential.

It occurs to me that young people today are acutely aware of ways in which they wish to orientate themselves. We only need to bring to mind the Climate Action Strike and Black Lives Matter to understand how powerful the youth voice is in shaping the world around them. Our world is changing so rapidly because of the actions of young people. Surely then, education should play a role in preparing young people for the challenges that are happening through them, as well as to them.

We have an understanding that volunteerism is beneficial to society and to groups and individuals that are the beneficiaries of altruistic acts. It may seem a bit odd that volunteerism also benefits the volunteer, but never-the-less this a common and consistent theme throughout research on the topic. When volunteering, young people typically engage with people that they do not regularly encounter, this creates the conditions for social, personal and educational competencies to emerge. Working with others, in the service of others, provides an opportunity for sets of behaviours to be amplified. The educative experience of responding to a real need in the service of others is also significant in the lives of young people in relation to personal development and social capital. In the workplace volunteering achievements are seen as a valuable asset, they are indicative of the ability to adapt to the dynamic changing world, and they are important indicators of types of intelligences other than academic intelligence.

The importance of non-academic achievements is a key feature in the work of the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, he believes that ‘achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success’. In other words, we put a lot of faith in exam results that neglect to recognise the range of non-academic learning, including volunteering, that are the actual predicters of successful lives.

While volunteering in not a panacea for student wellbeing, it does give young people a sense of purpose, what they choose to do matters to others and it matters to themselves. By responding to a real need, by acting selflessly for the betterment of others, they foster a sense of belonging to their wider community.

Student wellbeng begins with being connected, respected, purposeful and belonging.

By Harry Keogh, Education Coordinator with Localise Youth Volunteering

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