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Tips for teaching life skills to highly vulnerable youth

Copyrights: Project FLEX

Tips for teaching life skills to highly vulnerable youth

Sport can help facilitate and bring about positive and productive changes in vulnerable youth, like those that are incarcerated.

Have you ever imagined what it’s like to be incarcerated? Movies, books, the news, and other forms of media often portray prison as a place ridden with violence, restriction, and other negative experiences.

In particular, incarcerated youth represent one of the most vulnerable and isolated segments of any society, because they are still in the developing phase and may not understand the full complexity of their actions yet. Fortunately, as recent as the last fifteen years, sport programs with a life skills focus have been popping up in youth prisons around the world in an effort to help individuals’ time behind bars become more positive and productive.

Project FLEX is one such example, a program run by professors and students from Northern Illinois University in high security youth prison facilities. As research continues to evolve about the power of sport, it’s critical that practitioners and researchers recognize the role sport can have on some of the most underserved global youth groups, namely incarcerated youth, youth from developing nations, youth who are victims of trauma or unrest, etc.

Sport’s potential uses with youth

Relationship building

Relationship-building requires a psychologically and physically safe space for individuals to express themselves. Prison holds the common sediments that “everyone should look out for themselves,” or “you have to fight for respect.” Therefore, erasing some of the negative, preconceived notions of violence is a critical first step to establish a positive sport space.

Strategies to foster positive relationships range from asking questions about mutual interests or prompting individuals to express something about themselves. Relationship-building requires patience and gradual steps that are led by youths’ comfort levels.

For example, approaching the youth with a series of irrelevant interrogation-like questions such as “where do you live?” may come off as alarming, as youth may relate this to being cross-examined. Instead, asking “what activities do you have today?” is less detailed and establishes a sense of trustworthiness, without coming off as too eager. In the context of sport, if relationship building is not taken seriously, then instructors can lose opportunities to establish meaningful bonds.

Establishing positive relationships in prison do come with challenges. Unfortunately, incarcerated youth can be looked at from a deficit perspective, stemming from the attitude that the youth are “damaged” or “unfixable” because they have been incarcerated. This mindset leaves youth feeling inferior.

However, this can be counteracted by pointing out the youth’s strengths or viewing them from an asset-based approach. For example, if an instructor sees a youth getting through a tough workout, they should say “way to keep pushing through” or “I love your energy.” These small yet consistent interactions allow the youth to feel seen and initiates rapport in a genuine and appropriate manner.

Challenging and supporting youth

Another way to challenge youth is to hold them accountable for misconduct. One gentle intervention strategy involves pulling youth aside from the larger group and talking to them. For example, behavior that deserves immediate attention are the youth initiating gang affiliated handshakes with instructors.

Offering a short, clear, and serious response is suggested: “While that’s a part of your life, that isn’t part of this program because it excludes others”. The statement is respectful to the youth, keeping in mind that gang life for many serves as a sense of belonging, family, and community, but also holds them accountable for misconduct and requires a commitment to inclusive conduct moving forward.

Sport programs with an empowering focus also build an environment based on autonomy and implore youth to explore making decisions during the sessions. For example, if the youth are not enjoying a game such as handball, instructors should encourage them to give constructive feedback without being offended or egotistical.

In fact, this type of feedback should be applauded, as it allows for further leadership opportunities in asking, “what games do you want to play instead”? or “what can I do better or different as an instructor”? This allows the youth an opportunity to talk to us about how we can facilitate better sports games, transferable life skills, and overall engagement.


The impact of sports reaches beyond the games and transferable skills, it has the opportunity to advocate for social justice and facilitate change in a global context. Project FLEX is dedicated to finding both tangible and intangible resources to continue fighting for social justice through sport.

This work requires a consistent and collaborative effort not just from program instructors, but the youth as well. We charge our instructors to check all judgments at the door, have an asset approach with the youth, find their motivators, and create culturally relevant life skills and lessons.


Javon Davis is a second-year graduate student in the Kinesiology and Physical Education Department at Northern Illinois University. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in Sport Psychology. He is a certified Recreational Therapist. Javon's has served as a graduate assistant for the FLEX program at the Illinois Youth Center, where he conducts research and teaches sports and life skills to incarcerated youth.

Gabrielle Bennett is a PhD student in the Kinesiology and Physical Education Department at Northern Illinois University. Gabrielle is a graduate assistant for the FLEX program at the Illinois Youth Detention Center, where she conducts research and teaches youth transferable life skills through sports. Her research interests include the disproportionate arrest rates amongst African American youth, the long-term health effects of African American youth incarceration experiences, and the relationship between trauma and incarceration for African American youth.


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Javon Davis; Gabrielle Bennett


Tuesday, August 10, 2021 - 20:04

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