Volunteer program helps teenagers develop emotional intelligence

An eight-week program combining physical activities and emotional education
Being a teenager is more complicated than it’s ever been. With so much cultural white noise, many young people fail to learn key life skills or recognise the positive qualities within themselves. Founded by psychology graduates, the Helmsman Project aims to put them back on an even keel.

“It’s about the point where you move from being a child to becoming an adult. You learn to take the ‘helm’ of your own life.”

Charmaine O’Brien

He was without fail, the rowdiest kid in every classroom, but during the Helmsman Project group camp, he went on a 45-minute walk where no-one had phones, and no-one was allowed to talk. After the camp, this rowdy kid said the silent walk was the thing he liked best.

“He loved it. All the kids do,” explains the Helmsman Head of Programs, Dr Charmaine O’Brien (MScPsychCoach ’15). “Which says a lot about the lack of quietness and reflection in their lives.”

The Helmsman Head Coach, Matthew Robinson (MScPsychCoach ’18 MTeach ’02), points out how technology plays a big part in this. “A lot of these kids are constantly curating their images on social media,” he says. “And if you don’t get 100 likes on every post, what does that say about you? To have that pressure taken away must be an amazing sensation.”

So, what is the Helmsman Project? It’s designed to help Year 9 students from disadvantaged backgrounds to see beyond themselves and reach their full potential. And despite the silent walks, the program is anything but low-key and introspective. It is highly active, with an outdoor adventure camp as one of its key elements.

More than confidence building

This is a familiar scenario, particularly for students in more advantaged schools, but the Helmsman adds another layer to this ‘adventure education’ that makes it unique.

“We don’t just throw them in the bush for a week as a confidence booster,” says Robinson. “Our program coaches guide them in reflecting on the experience both before and after it happens, so the kids are getting as much out of it as possible.”

O’Brien and Robinson have very different energies; she more reserved, he more animated. But they share a strong sense of purpose in what they do for the kids. “We both know how important equitable opportunities are,” says O’Brien. “And we want to help these students develop the skills they need to get them.”

Head Coach at the Helmsman Project, Matthew Robinson and Head of Programs, Dr Charmaine O'Brien.
Head Coach at the Helmsman Project, Matthew Robinson and Head of Programs, Dr Charmaine O’Brien.

The Helmsman approach is based in a relatively new category of evidence-based psychology called coaching psychology. The University of Sydney was first in the world to offer it as a master’s course and both O’Brien and Robinson are graduates. Coaching psychology had a particular evolution.

“These days, medicine does more than just heal the sick. Medical principles now help athletes become better at their sports,” explains Robinson. “Coaching psychology is the same idea. We use a variety of psychological principles and tools developed in the clinical space, but we apply these to help people who are fine but want to make more of what they have.”

The founders of the Helmsman Project, Andrew Stainer (MAppSc(PsychCoach) ‘12) and John Naylor (MOrgCoaching ‘13), met at the University while doing the coaching psychology course, setting up the project in 2010. Naylor, who is a master yachtsman, named the organisation for the person who steers a ship. As O’Brien explains, “It’s about the point where you move from being a child to becoming an adult. You learn to take the ‘helm’ of your own life.”

Turning knowledge into outcomes

The founders are no longer directly involved, but the Helmsman Project continues to guide and encourage young people, supported by government grants and public donations. “We look for the kids who are coming to school but not meeting their potential,” says O’Brien. “They’re not necessarily struggling, they just lack motivation and maybe some social skills.”

In the five years since it began full operations, more than 439 students have experienced the program.

The process starts with representatives from the Helmsman visiting schools (currently in western and south-western Sydney, but expansion is planned) to recruit Year 8 students for the following year. The school helps identify those who might benefit most and encourages them to join. “The kids have to choose to be part of the program. They have to want to do it for it to be effective,” says O’Brien.

The eight-week program matches students to volunteer coaches who help them understand the emotions they experience during the various activities (so far, 39 of those coaches have been University of Sydney graduates). They also guide them towards other ways of thinking about those emotions and how they perceive other participants.

A group of students taking part in a Helmsman Project activity.
A group of students taking part in one of sailing activities as part of the Helmsman Project.

Learning to be in the world

While one aim is to challenge the students with planned physical activities (some students are so unfit, even walking a short distance is a trial), the more significant challenge can be mixing in with the 40 or so other students on the camp. For teenagers, connection with peers is critical to wellbeing, but the necessary social skills might be underdeveloped.

For cultural reasons, some kids are expected by their parents to study and nothing else – two students joined the program just to spend some time outside. Others, particularly girls, find themselves taking over home duties during their teens, which keeps them isolated within their families. And again, technology plays a role in limiting opportunity.

“Many kids have devices that allow them to access everything they think they need from their bedrooms,” says Robinson. “They might be communicating with people they know, but they’re also alone and don’t actually learn the nuances of human interaction.”

“We create challenges that demand collaboration and social skills. The camping is part of it – putting up tents, taking them down, preparing meals. Some of the kids have never cooked and it’s really exciting for them to do it.”

The other key element of the program is a community project that the students design, develop and implement themselves. This can be an eye-opener, making them aware for the first time of bigger issues like homelessness and the social isolation of older people.

Robinson describes part of the process. “Depending on their chosen project, we might say ‘let’s research local aged care facilities and come up with at least three places where we can offer to help’. Then we tell them they have to call those places.”

The kids collaborate on a script for the call. “That’s always fun to watch,” says Robinson. Then one of them makes the call, often on speaker phone so the whole group can hear it.”

“Some of these kids have never spoken to a stranger on the phone before,” says Robinson. “So, they’re learning all that social etiquette.”

Research funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), has shown significant benefit for students who have participated with the Helmsman Project, particularly in developing the so-called 21st century skills like teamwork, resilience and leadership. It also shows that participants who come from further back flourish the most.

“The Helmsman kids at one school did a presentation where one of them confidently talked to a group about the experience,” says Robinson. “Afterwards the principal said, ‘I nearly fell off my chair. I’ve never even heard that student speak before.’”