Volunteers Working with Children
Volunteers who work one-to-one with children want to have an impact on the child's life and usually have very high hopes and expectations of themselves. Therefore it is important for the supervisor to clearly outline what the role is and what it is not. This includes outlining the boundaries of the relationship, which are sometimes quite "soft" and hard to define. A tutor's job is easier to define than a mentor's. The supervisor also has to be clear about the support s/he will provide so that the volunteer knows what to expect from the supervisor.
Supervisors need to be clear about the do's and don'ts. Boundaries are healthy and necessary for many reasons, among them liability and risk management. Supervisors need to articulate the needs of the client and identify how the volunteer can help. Because volunteering with children can be both rewarding and frustrating the good supervisor needs to be a cheerleader. The volunteers have high expectations of themselves and will look for signs of progress, which they may not necessarily see. The supervisor must continuously encourage and support, while also providing gentle and sometimes direct guidance.
Supervisors of volunteers in one-to-one relationships also need to ask the volunteer, "How are things going and how can I help?" Often volunteers don't ask for help because they don't know what to ask for. Supervisors also need to help the volunteer identify what approaches are working in order to provide encouragement. It is important to say things like, "I have noticed an improvement in Maria's self-confidence. You are really making an impact."
Supervisors also need to be sensitive to volunteers' frustrations and boost their morale with words like, "I know it's hard to keep Joe's attention, but you are doing a great job. Here are a few other ways to...." Supervising one-to-one volunteers is high maintenance work. The volunteers are providing a service that the family and the school cannot provide. If your agency has put a lot of time and effort into screening and training the volunteers, then it is only logical to also put time and effort into nurturing and supporting them. A good supervisor will make volunteers feel welcome, appreciated, supported by boundaries and guidance.
Debra Lynne, Director of Volunteer Services and Events, The Children's Aid Society New York, NY
Please share your experiences supervising volunteers in special settings/assignments.
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