Nothing like a good old fashioned chat? Getting your head around youth involvement in the modern world (guest blog)

Guest blog: Katie Wilson from MindTech

MindTech is based at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham: a centre focusing on the development, adoption and evaluation of new technologies for mental healthcare. Earlier this year we visited the Involvement Centre at Duncan Macmillan House to start talking about technology. We hope to visit again soon, bringing some technology with us so you can have a go.

We’ve recently received funding for some new work focused on children and young people’s (CYP) mental health and the role that technology can play in this. Consequently, we’ve been thinking about how best to involve CYP and this blog provides a summary of our thoughts.

Because of the nature of MindTech, our focus was initially on how to involve CYP in digital projects and ways of using digital tools to communicate with CYP. However, it dawned on us that whilst digital can play a useful role, it’s not the whole answer. Even if the solution is ultimately a digital one, e.g. an app or a website, often nothing beats getting together offline. So, what do you need to think about when engaging face to face with CYP?

Reconsider time and place

Be prepared to go to places where CYP hang out e.g. play areas, clubs, schools. Places where CYP feel more comfortable usually results in more meaningful engagement. Also remember that office hours don’t often work well for CYP. Traditional environments, e.g. board rooms, can be daunting for CYP, so if you need them to come to you, try to create a relaxed, informal atmosphere and allow room for break out and relaxation spaces.

Be creative

Think up activities that engage CYP in meaningful ways, whether this is writing, drawing, model making or small group work. You might also want to kick off and conclude with fun ice-breaker style activities as this gets everyone warmed up (and down!). It can be difficult for many CYP to maintain a regular commitment over a long period of time, so you might want to think about how best to structure involvement, e.g. you could consider task oriented groups.

Be representative

It’s easy to get excited when a group of CYP become involved in your project but don’t forget they’re not one homogenous group. The age range is broad and so are CYP’s ideas and needs.

Rethink meetings

It might be that you cannot avoid more traditional meetings entirely, but you can make them more inviting. There’s nothing wrong with an agenda as it helps everyone know what’s happening, but do keep it short and focused and include regular breaks. You could also consider a buddying scheme, either peer to peer or pairing CYP with an adult mentor. Discussions can easily become complex so try to summarise important points on a flipchart or something similar to give everyone a visual reference point. Ensure the chairman or facilitator knows how best to get the most out of CYP, including the ability to encourage participation without putting them on the spot, remembering to clarify jargon, and summarising people’s points and any actions arising. Jargon can become a big problem so you could give people red cards to hold up when they spot some jargon that needs clarification. If other adults are involved too, ensure they are adequately briefed.

Build in adequate resources for development and support

It takes time to build trust so you need to factor in enough lead time to develop this. You should also be prepared to recruit more CYP than you think you need as turn out, and drop out, can be variable. You need to budget for adequate training, e.g. enabling CYP to run their own meetings, so ensure resources are in place for this. You’ll need to build in time for adequate briefing (clarifying what is expected and anything that might be sensitive or confidential and how to deal with it) and debriefing (minimising the risk of misunderstandings becoming big issues later on). Showing CYP they are valued is important: this might be ensuring you give thanks and recognition, such as emphasising a particularly pertinent contribution to the meeting. You also need to provide regular feedback about how involvement is making a difference. Keeping dialogue open between adults and CYP and allowing time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, is also critical. You might also want to consider small participation rewards.

We’ve realised that actually these principles are not new, nor are they rocket science; they’re just generally sound principles for involvement, whether this be for CYP or adults. Ultimately making your involvement strategy CYP friendly is making it friendlier to all of us!

NIHR MindTech Healthcare Technology Cooperative is a national centre, based at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham, focusing on the development, adoption and evaluation of new technologies for mental healthcare. It was established in 2013 and is funded by the National Institute for Healthcare Research. MindTech brings together healthcare professionals, researchers, industry and the public.

Katie Wilson is currently a member of the MindTech Reference Group. She has volunteered at the Rosewood Involvement Centre, and has been heavily involved with youth projects, including Right Here and The Site.