Creating safe spaces

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How to create a supportive environment where young people feel they can speak up if something is wrong.

As adults in Scouting, we are responsible for making sure that young people are protected from harm. This is our priority. Part of keeping young people safe is about making sure that they feel able to speak up if they are worried about something, in trouble or being harmed in any way, in or outside of Scouting.

But how do you create a safe space for young people to feel they can speak up? And what action should you take if they do? We’ve gathered some useful advice about how to create safe spaces for young people in Scouting.

How do we as volunteers ensure that we are creating safe spaces?

Tina Wilson, Head of Safeguarding at the Scouts:

For me, safe spaces are created and maintained by everyone knowing the rules and everyone feeling able to challenge problematic behaviours. Our Code of Conduct ‘Young People First’ (the Yellow Card) outlines the Scouting policy and provides rules that all adult members must stick to. It’s important that everyone, including young people and their parents, know the rules outlined in the Yellow Card. We want an open, transparent culture.

Kester Sharpe, Deputy UK Chief Commissioner and member of the Safeguarding Committee:

As volunteers in Scouting, we need to make sure that we keep young people safe, physically, emotionally and psychologically. The Yellow, Orange and Green Cards have evolved over time through our experience and learning, and are designed to keep us

all safe. So, make sure you know what the Cards say, and share them with young people and their parents. It’s also important to be clear about the boundaries that apply to us all. In my Troop, when we are camping, just before or after tea on the first day, we talk about the rules and boundaries, where they can and can’t go. We make clear that nobody goes into someone else’s tent without permission, and that this applies equally to Scouts and leaders. We also make sure they know that nobody has the right to make them feel uncomfortable and if that happens, they should tell the person to stop and if they don’t, find one of the leaders. It’s about having open conversations and being consistent in what you say and do.

And there is an element of trust, both ways: I trust you to do this and you trust me to do that. Young people need to know they have a voice and that they can come and talk to you.

Also, think about how your actions as a leader might be perceived by others. How you intend them might not be how they’re interpreted. You should never be scared to challenge other people’s behaviour.

If you see someone doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable or doesn’t feel right, you should approach them about it. You don’t have to accuse anyone of anything – keep it light and focus on how the behavior looks to other people. Tell your line manager about it in case this behaviour has been seen or challenged before. If you continue to be concerned, raise your concerns with your line manager again. 

Dr Noreen Tehrani, specialist trauma psychologist:

One of the great things about Scouting is that psychologically, it gives young people the opportunity to try out new ways of being and interacting with others, as well as new ways of thinking, responding and reacting that are safe for them and respectful of others.

It’s important to think about creating psychologically safe spaces in the same way as creating physically safe spaces. If you’re running an archery session with Cubs, for example, there will be an element of danger but if there are safety rules everyone follows, this danger is kept to a minimum. The same principle applies to maintaining a safe space psychologically. One of the crucial elements is that young people should feel comfortable speaking up if they are unhappy or uncomfortable, or are being harmed in any way, so it can be dealt with.

The way that volunteers in Scouting behave can encourage or prevent the creation of safe spaces. Leaders need to behave in a way that is encouraging, supportive and honest.

They need to display acceptance toward young people in order for them to feel safe to speak up. It takes a while to build up a relationship of trust with a young person and leaders should be consistent in their behaviour because trust can easily be lost with a thoughtless remark or uncaring behaviour.

What do I do as a volunteer if a young person discloses something to me that highlights a child protection issue?

Tina:

If a young person tells you something and you are concerned, don’t try and sort it out or manage it alone. You just need to listen, make note of the details like times and dates, and call us immediately. Make sure the child feels listened to – ask them enough to understand what is going on, but don’t interrogate them or try to investigate. 

Crucially, don’t make a promise you can’t keep. You need to explain to the young person that you have to tell the safeguarding team. Be open and honest about this from the outset, otherwise you’ll destroy the trust you’ve built up.

We’ve seen a year-on-year increase in Scout leaders recognising child protection issues within families and reporting them to the safeguarding team. We usually get children’s services involved and get support and help for the family. Quite often that’s what they need – support and help – it’s rare that we get a referral that leads to a child being removed from the parents. We are here to help.

Noreen:

What a young person needs, more than anything, is to be heard. You need to explain clearly and honestly what you can and can’t do upfront. If you’re asked to keep things secret, you need to explain what secrets are and the secrets you can keep versus the secrets you can’t. If it’s a nice secret, like buying someone a surprise gift, then that secret can be kept, but if it’s a bad or scary secret, then you won’t be able to keep it. Explaining this difference very clearly, before the child says anything, maintains the young person’s trust. It’s about being absolutely truthful to their level of understanding.

Children have a very strong sense of right and wrong. But, of course, if they’re in a relationship where they’re being groomed to keep secrets, understandably, they will have a very difficult time in woring out what to do, even though they may know that what’s happening to them is wrong.

Ultimately, all you can and should do is listen to them, reflect bac what they’re saying (checking your understanding) and respond to their needs. You need to make sure you handle your own emotions and be clear about what needs to happen in order to prevent the young person from being harmed. You need a certain amount of resilience and acceptance to be able to do that.

For more information on safeguarding in Scouting visit: scouts.org.uk/safeguarding.

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