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Teaching Life Skills at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center

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How to self-regulate. How to respond to conflict and manage anger. How to ask for help. What to do when you’re stressed or struggling with peer pressure. Time management. Responsibility. Self-advocacy.

Students at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center (YCC) don’t always arrive with the capacity to do many of these things – and YCC educators see their time with learners as an opportunity to ensure that when students leave, they leave having practiced some of these critical life skills.

When classrooms are often mixed age groups and students may be with YCC for as little as a few weeks, others for months or even years, it can be a challenge for educators to accommodate the diverse needs in their classrooms. But they’re more than up for it.

“Whether it be drug use, non-attendance or something else, for the majority of our kids, the traditional school setting just didn’t work. We need to meet the kids where they’re at,” said Lindsey Guidinger, whose experience as a school counselor and an abuse and domestic violence advocate led her to YCC. At a time when many educators are questioning the effectiveness of measuring the validity of what a student knows based on seat-time, YCC staff are actively engaged in securing the flexibility, support and resources they need to meet their students where they are – no matter how much time they have with them.

Helping students learn to advocate for themselves – and embrace discomfort in a safe place.

Torrie Jost-Olson has been in education for more than 22 years, and as the human relations coordinator at YCC, she sees her role as one of empowering students to express and advocate for themselves.

“When I work with students, I want them to bring their authentic self, their truth. They made some not-so-good choices, but that doesn’t identify them,” said Jost-Olson, who recognizes the impact that environment, trauma and circumstances has played in shaping her students’ responses and behaviors. Every educator and staff member at YCC works with their students on developing coping skills. And when asked, YCC’s learners can speak to the coping skills that are helping them: listening to music, taking a walk, taking a break, thinking of pleasant imagery.

“I’ve made it through a lot of rough patches, like a lot of people here,” said one GED student. “I never wanted to come here, but at the end of the day, I’ve learned a lot.”

Shane Zahn is in his third year teaching auto technology at YCC.

“I want my students to know that at the end of the day this is an auto class, but it’s not about working on the cars. It’s about making better choices and knowing that you’re capable of doing something,” said Zahn, who works with his students to help them develop a growth mindset and a willingness to try again when they don’t get something right the first time.

“We’re all so close,” said one YCC student, a seventh grader. “They ask us questions about our life, what we’re doing. Trying to feel how we feel.”

Josh Tripp, who is in his third year teaching physical education at YCC, also strives to empathize with his students, while at the same time challenging them.

“I’m not strictly teaching them healthy lifestyles. I work on the social-emotional aspects of things,” said Tripp, who explained that he might change an activity students are familiar with or excelling at to challenge them and encourage them to try new things and problem-solve. “When they’re no longer an expert, they feel uncomfortable. But how do you deal with that? That’s a real-world application.”

“I started from nowhere, from a different country, I never had anything,” said one student working toward their GED. “Now that I’m here, I have the choice to make something of myself. I’m going to go and take it.”

Affirming hope when the future is uncertain.

Sometimes YCC staff have to help their students find hope when everything else fails – like when students with pending charges can anticipate incarceration on their eighteenth birthdays.

“They pick them up on their birthday and transfer them to orientation at the penitentiary before they’re classified – maximum, medium or minimum prison,” said Pfaff, who has three students currently awaiting this fate. “You just continue to affirm them, tell them that we still work closely with the adult education professionals. There are plenty of caring adults there, too.”

Students who don’t earn their diploma at YCC can count on YCC staff to facilitate the process through correspondence and do their best to further their education while in North Dakota’s adult facilities. Seeing what their learners are capable of, and helping them to recognize it for themselves, doesn’t stop when students are released, or when they graduate.

“If they don’t have a future, then we don’t,” said Jost-Olson.

Tripp wants his students to feel hopeful and ready for their futures.

“If you’re going to be a productive part of society, you can do it at 15. You don’t need to wait until you’re 19,” said Tripp, who attests that he doesn’t look up what his students’ charges are. “I want them to know that I don’t care – I care about what you’re doing right now, what’s going on and what I can do to help.”

A personalized, reflective approach to behavior management at YCC aims to keep students in the classroom.