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Disrupting the Cycle of Disadvantage

24 October 2016 at 9:17 am
Wendy Williams
Dr Michael Cavanagh is the deputy head of Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney and was a key contributor to The Helmsman Project. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 24 October 2016 at 9:17 am


Disrupting the Cycle of Disadvantage
24 October 2016 at 9:17 am

Dr Michael Cavanagh is the deputy head of Coaching Psychology Unit at the University of Sydney and was a key contributor to The Helmsman Project. He is this week’s Changemaker.

The Helmsman Project is a not-for profit organisation running adventure-based coaching programs with the aim of helping students from disadvantaged communities develop critical life skills that will help them achieve their potential and avoid entry into the welfare system.

Through weekly coaching sessions and challenging adventure education experiences, participants learn to develop a sense of hope, self-regulatory skills and increased resilience.

Cavanagh, a leading researcher in the field of coaching psychology, was a key contributor to the development of the innovative coaching program, which is complemented by a longitudinal randomised control trial.

He has more than 20 years experience in facilitating personal, group and organisational change.

And he has designed and facilitated training and personal development workshops in Australia and internationally, for a diverse range of entities including government, mining, media, brewing, financial services and legal organizations.

Cavanagh has also led the world’s largest coaching research project into leadership development.

In this week’s Changemaker, he talks about the benefits of early intervention, disrupting learned helplessness, and the truth behind the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”.

How did you get involved with The Helmsman Project?

Through the two founders of the project, John Naylor and Andrew Stainer… I taught them at Sydney University. I am the deputy director of the Coaching Psychology Unit at Sydney University, and they asked me to come along and head up the coaching working group.

How can early intervention disrupt the cycle of disadvantage?

So, one of the things that the cycle of disadvantage does is it inculcates a sense of hopelessness and inability to make a difference in people. So when people feel like nothing they do makes a difference, then they do nothing. It’s a process called learned helplessness.

Early intervention can disrupt that learning. If you can help people notice that when challenges come and setbacks arise, they can be resolved, and that through self-regulation and setting goals, they can actually make a difference to themselves and to others, it tends to help make them more resilient into the future. It disrupts the learned helplessness.

Why does The Helmsman Project target Year 9 students in particular?

What the research suggests is that the earlier the age that you can make the shift, the more effective is the shift. Research shows that Year 9 is a critical age for young people. The attitudes they develop and decisions they make during this time have profound implications for their future education and employment.

In some senses, Year 9 students are a bit harder to work with than older children because they are a little less self-regulated than older children. However, changes that you make at this age, can have a bigger impact.

What are the benefits of an adventure-based coaching program?

One of the ways that you can build hope, self-regulation and resilience, is by putting people in situations that are outside their normal comfort zone, if you like, outside their normal experience; and that’s anxiety producing. One of the ways we try to deal with anxiety is we try to avoid it; in adventure education, you can’t avoid it. The problem with avoiding things is that you never learn that you can overcome them. For this reason, the adventure education is an integral part of this process. It’s about placing kids in situations where they are outside their comfort zone so that they can learn that they have the capacity to meet a wider range of situations, challenges and complexity, and still be successful.

The delivery of The Helmsman Project is complemented by a longitudinal randomised control trial which you oversee along with Professor Herb Marsh. What results are you seeing from the program?

The data we have collected so far hasn’t been analysed yet. We are still in the process of collecting data. However, the anecdotal evidence, and some qualitative studies that we’re doing, suggest that the young people, particularly when they have met challenges that are well outside their comfort zone, they experience themselves as being much more capable and they feel like they have grown and succeeded.

For example, amongst those who have participated. some go on to become school captains in later years, so that’s some anecdotal evidence that what The Helmsman Project is doing is having a positive impact. We’ve also had some anecdotal evidence from teachers, principals and parents who have identified significant changes for the better in their kids.

One parent thanked us for “giving them back their child”. Some other young people show major changes in things like the level of detention and disciplinary issues that they are having.

What is the ultimate goal?

The ultimate goal in this work, in my view, is to help create what I would like to call Helmsman Villages. You know the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. So a lot of our world at the moment is very individualised, we focus on individuals, and part of what this program is about is helping people notice the power of working together, collaboration and networks, and how together we are stronger than we are apart. So part of my dream for the program is that both the participants and the schools that are involved start to develop that sort of focus on networks. That’s why one of the critical parts of the program is what we call the community project. The kids actually work on something that is not just for their benefit but is something that gives back to the world and usually involves them getting in touch with and working with others.

Who or what inspires you?

This is sort of a hard question to answer. In terms of this specific work, helping people to see themselves more positively, to see the opportunities, the potential that is embedded within them particularly when they work with others, that’s the thing that is inspiring for me.

What are you reading at the moment?

Interestingly, I am reading a book on robotisation and automation, and it is called Humans Need Not Apply. That’s really looking at the way complex adaptive systems in society unfold.

Do you have a favourite saying?

I do and it’s this: “The quality of the conversation determines the quality of the relationships and the quality of the relationships determines the quality of the system”.

It helps just to notice, I think, how we actually create systems of all sorts from marriages through to organisations. We do it through the way we talk and what we talk about, and focusing on that can be quite helpful.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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