Our teens deserve better mentoring, says Aluta

 

Kris Aluta is passionate about young people and wants the best for them. As a teens counsellor, he has worked with scores of young people and affirms that it is the care, love and devotion with which we raise our teens that will invariably inform the kind of output we get at the end of the day. He spoke with Richard Mammah

 

You have worked with Teens for a while now? What is the experience like? They seem not to open up freely? Is that your experience? How do you get around it?

Yes, I have been working as a teen mentor for a little over a decade now, thank God for grace and privilege.

The experience has been a roller coaster for me.

I have had to learn a lot, read a lot and adapt a lot too as the situation demands, with the aim of establishing meaningful relationships with teenagers, which will in turn help me become an effective teen mentor.

Teenagers do no naturally open up freely when meeting adults for the first time, except maybe when the adult comes with some additional profile like fame, or a very rich network, where relating with that adult can be seen as a trophy. Sometimes the door-opener can be the adult’s style which may include dress sense, looks, communication skills and others, just to mention a few.

So, each time I come in contact with a new set of teenagers, I want to first give them their respect as young adults and quickly find common ground in which we can have an open, honest, and exciting conversation.

The truth is, it does not always work outright, but most times it does. And on the occasion that it does not, I don’t really push it. I just let it go for now until another time. This is why I use the term “roller coaster ride.”

 

From your field observations, are there some extra constraints that COVID-19 has imposed on teens? What would this be?

Before COVID-19, teenagers were dealing with the harsh realities of identity crises, acceptance, relationships with their parents and their peers, and all the things that teens deal with regularly.

From my interaction with teenagers during this period, it appears that COVID 19 may have taken away some coping channels for teenagers like going to school physically, visiting the mall, and hanging out with friends at parties. However, it also created a golden opportunity for teens to bond with their parents at home, which should be the primary place of grooming, support, and care.

The question will now be whether parents also made good use of the opportunity to rebuild broken walls with their teenagers.

It would be good to also get the perspectives of parents on this.

Indeed, I recently posed this same question you have raised to 10 teenagers of various backgrounds and social status.  Five out of ten said yes, COVID-19 has placed additional constraints on them, while the other five said not really, that the difference is not that much before COVID and now during COVID. This is not a wide enough range of respondents to rely on as a definite pattern of reactions, but one can still draw some relevant information from these few responses.

And yes, there have been so many learning opportunities, conferences, workshops, summer camps, and boot camps, all online which is virtual. However, my main concern is the face to face relationship at home between parents and teenagers. And in this regard, I think teenagers need to do more, the same for our parents. We transferred the learning pressure from the physical school to the internet and we know the internet has her own good, bad, and ugly sides.

Before COVID-19, most teenagers lived most of their day after school on social media and the internet and sadly, this is still one of their major coping mechanisms in this post-COVID era. This shouldn’t be, in my opinion. There should be a better balance.

If before COVID-19, teens spent most of their time on the internet and social media, now that learning is virtual, this would mean more time on the internet, with learning as an excuse. This is where the parents need to rise up and be counted otherwise, the gap between parents and teens may just keep getting wider and that can lead to a series of psychological and emotional problems.

We also have the usual suspects of pornography. internet scams, video game addictions, and even making money from soft skills as other distractions contending with teens and their educational careers. The choice of which should come first is now a more difficult decision for teenagers to make as some of them have been making money with their soft skills during the pandemic and are now asking the question: why continue that ‘long walk to freedom’ via the road of formal education? Remember also that some of them also see how their parents who walked this long road of formal education, have just lost their jobs.

The high cost of internet data, parents losing their jobs, adjusting the home and family needs to their recent pay cuts…there was (and is) a lot to grapple with. Teens whose schools couldn’t deliver on online learning also experienced an additional layer of the social class differentials they may have been dealing with before COVID-19. And finally, some of our teens lost loved ones to COVID-19 or other sicknesses and accidents. They may need to undergo some kind of therapy and support as they might just see all this as too much happening to them over such a short period of time.

 

What would you recommend? How do we keep our teens focused and productive under the circumstances?

For teenagers who may have lost loved ones, parents and guardians should please ensure these teens are availed some form of therapy. This is very important in such a time as this.

Balance is the key thing here to me, when it comes to helping teens remain focused and productive in this COVID-19 pandemic era: a portion from the virtual world of learning and socializing, mixed with a good blend from the real world for a good, healthy, and balanced diet.

You don’t want teenagers finding solace only on the internet and at the same time, you don’t want them finding solace only at home away from virtual learning opportunities and the wider social pool of their network on social media.

Healthy face to face communications should be happening between teens and their parents, relatives, and neighbors if the situation permits. Activities such as family walks, exercising together with the teens playing a lead role, family gigs at home, maybe a family home fashion show, are just examples of activities aimed at improving the family bond. This should be at a level that can match the socialization on the internet. Balance is the objective here.

Communication is key and should not be restricted to the internet. Healthy conversations with parents, mentors, and even peers provide teens with a sounding board and perspective regarding their lives today and their dreams and future aspirations.

When I mentioned online learning to one of the teens I spoke with during the lockdown, he laughed and said, “Won’t you have internet in your area first before you now start talking about buying data and then a smart phone before online learning?”

He lives in one of the towns in a Middle Belt state and said the internet in their area is very unreliable. This is the case with some teenagers.

Not all teenagers in Nigeria can access the internet, not all of them have smartphones or laptops.

I recently tried to look up the numbers online, but couldn’t find a lot of relevant data. The closest I got is this excerpt from a report that says the number of internet users in Nigeria increased by 14 percent year-on-year in May 2020, and this is according to data released  by the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC).

The increase also reportedly brought the total active internet subscribers in the country to over 141 million in May as against the 123 million that was recorded in the comparable period of 2019. Of this, 18 million were said to be new active users.

Of this 18 million new active internet users, we can’t really tell how many are teenagers, but it will be safe to say around 40% of 18 million which is 7.2m are likely to be teens (age 13-19) because of their need to do a lot of online learning now and as we know, the youths (age 20-25) in public universities are not mainly online yet with their activities. Please note that I am just guessing on the numbers.

Parents, teachers, and all other stakeholders should engage teens along their lines of interest. A timetable should be established, a routine developed and support provided in a friendly manner, where perfection is not the goal, but rather responsible conduct is.

But still on the issue of coping mechanisms, parents and all other stakeholders should organize training, using teen pairing methods, as teenagers like working in pairs and most times do better in this setup. Teens should also be rewarded for the effort they put in. Introduce them to mentors or accomplished professionals in the careers they have chosen, help them in relevant skill acquisition, and give them internet access or pay for their data based on how responsible they are with it.

Overall, we should make that conscious effort to support, encourage, and motivate teenagers. We should protect them with internet policing, especially those who are new and are just coming into life on the internet. There is software that can help with things like that.

 

Finally, if you were to advise the Minister of Youth Affairs on that one thing that needs to be done to help our teens do better, what would it be?

The one thing the Ministry of Youth Affairs needs to do is recognize the existence of this subset of our population and engage them willfully and deliberately, with the goal of identifying their unique needs and charting out a mutually acceptable course for their development into empowered and beneficial citizens of this great country.

There have been many missed opportunities to do this before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virtual learning, one of these opportunities, is something that COVID-19 will leave behind when it goes away. Unfortunately, most governments schools as well as some private schools just could not swing the demand of setting up and running their classes online. This means that students in these schools are already missing out on the opportunity of virtual learning. This on its own can do a lot of damage to a teenager’s self-esteem, especially those who see education as a way out of poverty.

The government should have open discussions with stakeholders, including private school owners and partners, on how the government schools can deliver online learning to our teens, even if it is to be done gradually.

I am aware the Ministry of Education, did go into partnership with some organizations where teaching was done via radio and television programmes, which is fine. But we can and should do better because virtual learning is not going anywhere for now.

An unexplored and unexploited alternative is the correspondence school model, in which teachers prepare learning packs with printed learning materials, exercise sheets and so on, which parents collect from the schools at agreed intervals, either weekly or fortnightly. The students study the materials and work on the exercises which are then returned to the school for grading when the parents go in to pick up the next batch of learning materials and exercise sheets. There is no reason why this could not have been explored and implemented to serve communities with no internet access.

This conversation should be happening now.

Another thing I would strongly recommend, is that the ministry should start leading conversations around contents that are teen-focused across our entire mmeedia space.

For example, there is a channel called Nickelodeon on one of the cable networks, tailor-made for teenagers.  At least 20% of programs on this teen channel, are created and produced by teenagers, tapping into their creativity and harnessing their energy on something they love and enjoy. This is a full industry and teenagers are driving it.

We should have something like that for our teens here in Nigeria, it should flood our media space.

Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards

Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Sports

Nickelodeon HALO Awards (Helping and Leading Others)

The Ministry of Sports, the Ministry of Education, and all other stakeholders in the private sector should consider devising a plan to have an all-teenager television and station and that can give birth to many opportunities for our teens. Even if these are not government-run, they can create the enabling environment for private sector investors and content creators to take this up.

The current system of going into the university to study Theatre Arts for 4 or 5 years before practicing is becoming outdated. Some well-established professional schools now do these courses for less time and their students come out and fit into some of the programmes we see on Nickelodeon. Indigenous initiatives like the PEFTI Film Institute in Lagos which offer short and intensive diploma courses in various aspects of film-making such as script-writing, film-making, set design, and make up should be encouraged to develop streams for teenagers to express themselves creatively.

We should do more in the area of having a more structured system of guidance and counseling in our secondary schools with mentoring attached to it for our teenagers.

 

Mr Kris Aluta

 

 

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