Social 'seatbelts' keep teens on the right track

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Seatbelts may appear to be unremarkable strips of fabric and plastic, but they can save you from a trip to the A&E department if the car you are in gets into an accident. There is another kind of "seatbelt‟ that most people are unaware of. It seeks to prevent social problems before they have a chance to develop, and to help vulnerable teenagers stay on the right track.

Alex was a bit of a loner. The 14-year-old did not get along well with his peers, and was often shunned by them. He found himself deliberately left out of group activities by his classmates, who found his temperament difficult to understand.

His classmate, Charlie, had his own set of problems. Charlie's family was not well-to-do, and he was resentful of the fact that he could not afford the things his peers had. His frustration at his financial circumstances sometimes boiled over into fits of anger. To compensate for his lack of perceived power because of his family circumstances, he joined a group that comprised largely of problematic youths who smoked and had gang connections.

Wei Ming, on the other hand, appeared to be the stereotypical cheeky class joker. His cheerful and mischievous countenance camouflaged his sadness over his parents' separation. He did not want to return home to an empty house each day after school and would try to fill up his time with other activities.

Jun Liang was more aloof. He kept his distance from most of the other boys in his class and hung out with a clique that was, in his own words, "a bit bad".

All four teens, despite being classmates, belonged to different cliques - or, as in Alex's case, was socially isolated from the rest of the class. Now 19, Alex, Jun Liang, Charlie and Wei Ming are firm friends who support one another in achieving their goals and dreams.

These formerly at-risk youths are now regular volunteers at Students Care Service (SCS), and chip in their services when they can.

This gradual change was brought about by a preventive social work programme designed by SCS. Known simply as class-based Group Work, the programme takes proactive and preventive action by reaching out to vulnerable students. It works with classes of at-risk students from the Normal Technical stream to build on their innate protective factors such as self-esteem, identity and sense of belonging to a community. In this way, Group work helps to increase the protective factors in the students' lives while concurrently reducing risk factors.

Group Work planted the seeds of change in each of these teenagers. Through 10 weekly sessions, they learnt the four ingredients of Quality Relationships - Forgiveness, Respect, Overcoming Negative Peer Pressure and Support for one another. Four social workers were assigned to the class during this period, with each social worker facilitating a group of about 10 teens in group discussions.

As a result of Group Work, the teens became regular visitors to SCS's Activity Centre in Hougang which became their preferred after-school hangout. "We wanted to go somewhere to 'chill out' after school," explained Charlie. "Some of us didn't have anyone waiting at home for us, and we didn't want to go home to an empty house and be bored."

His friends, most of whom were also latchkey kids, agreed. "We would come to the Activity Centre to play games such as pool and table football after school," said Jun Liang. "Through playing games together, we learned to be friends and to work together as a team."

The teens also began to participate in volunteer activities organised by SCS. This was partly due to the fact that they had come to regard their social worker Ms Lim as an 'elder sister' of sorts, and would agree to help her whenever she asked for their help. Eventually, the youths realised that they did enjoy some aspects of volunteering.

Charlie, for instance, went on a two-week volunteer trip to an orphanage in Cambodia with SCS. Prior to the trip, the then-14-year-old was discontented with the life he and his family led. He often wished that his family was wealthier, and that he had more material things. The trip changed his worldview and showed him how fortunate he really was. Charlie became more reflective and appreciative of the things he had.

Wei Ming was also changed by his volunteering experiences. He discovered that he actually enjoyed helping other people - a trait that grew so much so that his family noticed it and encouraged him to take up nursing. "This was something that I'd have never thought of - never! - if not for Group Work," he said. Indeed, the chatty, extroverted teen bears nothing in resemblance to the image of a serene Florence Nightingale. Yet when Wei Ming talks about helping other people, his voice and expression soften, revealing a genuine desire to help others. He has since completed his NITEC in nursing, and looks forward to furthering his studies in Australia.

Trial by cockroaches

Alex related an occasion in which he and his friends agreed to help Ms Lim clean up the apartment of an elderly man living in the neighbourhood, a hoarder who had not cleaned his house in years.

"Every single drawer we opened contained dead cockroaches," he said with a grimace. "It was really gross!"

"And the smell!"

"It was filthy!"

All the teens confessed to being tempted to abandon Ms. Lim and the cleanup project.

"The thought definitely crossed all our minds," Charlie admitted. "Each one of us was tempted to just sneak away and leave the others behind to finish the work."

"Before going through Group Work, that's probably what we would have done," noted Wei Ming. "It would have been each man for himself!"

"But we didn't want to 'play' each other out. And we didn't want to leave the whole mess to Ms. Lim," explained Jun Liang. "So we stayed on. It was really nauseating, but we finished our part of the task - cleaning up the kitchen and getting rid of all the dead cockroaches and lizards. And we didn't let each other down."

It might sound like a simple, if highly unpleasant, task. Yet it is an example of how Group Work helped to transform the four teens into a team that watched out for one another, supported one another through unpleasant situations, and showed empathy and consideration for other people.

Today, these youths have finished their studies at ITE and are waiting for enlistment into NS. One is an aspiring nurse, another is planning to go into interior designing, and yet another is considering joining the police force. All are on track to becoming productive and helpful members of the community, thanks to the simple 'seatbelt' of the Group Work programme.

AsiaOne is the official media partner for Students Care Service (SCS).

Your support for SCS' work will help them to continue providing programmes and services for the children and youth under their care to maximise their potential. To find out more, visit their website at