Blog: building life skills with the arts

Doncaster is one of the Department of Education’s Areas of Opportunity – areas in which the government is working to help local children get the best start in life no matter what their background is.  In particular, opportunity areas aim to build young people’s knowledge and skills to provide them with the best advice and opportunities.

Making sure that young people are equipped with the life skills they need to thrive in everyday life is an important part of this – through building life skills such as resilience, problem-solving and confidence, people can make positive steps and be socially mobile.

In Doncaster, there are various programmes and projects in place in which the arts are being used to improve people’s life skills. Talent Match is one example of this; a Big Lottery funded national programme which aims to help young people aged 18 – 24 who have been out of employment or education for at least 12 months. Participants tend to have very low confidence and self-esteem, and often have negative experiences in their pasts; many also have conditions like autism and/or experience social anxiety, though a diagnosed condition is not a pre-requisite to take part.

The programme we run at darts is part of the Sheffield City Region Talent Match programme, which is currently in its fifth and final year. Below, our Talent Match Coach, Bob, discusses how the Talent Match programme has used the arts to develop participants’ life skills and improve their well-being, the benefits he’s observed, and his favourite parts of being a coach.

“In simple terms, the ‘pot of gold’ in Talent Match is to get the young people into work, but actually the way participants develop between starting the programme and reaching that end point is even more important. That’s where the arts come into it – I use arts techniques to better people’s understanding of each other, of work situations, of what employers want to see.

For example, I use drama masks quite a lot – I’ll line the masks up and ask people to pick out which facial expression might appeal most to an employer. Sometimes people really struggle with that, and might even pick the grimacing one because they’re finding it difficult to wrap their heads around an interview situation from the employer’s perspective.

The masks are a really useful way of helping people learn how to read the expressions and body language of other people. I’ll have participants wear the masks, and ‘become’ the masks – become the expression or emotion your mask is portraying. I’ve seen people transform in that situation, like wearing the mask over their own face has really allowed them to become someone else. They start to understand how our thoughts affect our body language, and our body language affects our thoughts.

We develop people’s confidence, self-esteem and essential skills in loads of different ways – from learning circus techniques to taking part in drama games with our visiting artist Val, to playing Frisbee as a group! It really works – if you’re going to be ready to catch the Frisbee at a moment’s notice, you need to be maintaining good eye contact and identifying people’s body language.

My favourite thing about being a Talent Match Coach is working with the young people for 2+ years. I can give them long-term support; even if they find work, I can still help them if they need me to. I’ve met some really lovely young people and professionals too. For me it all boils down to making a positive difference in people’s lives.

One of the biggest success stories in Talent Match is a young man I worked with who was homeless to begin with. We got him into an apprenticeship so he was able to move into supported accommodation, but his apprenticeship pay barely covered the costs of the accommodation and he was getting down about it and considered giving up. I was on hand to support him though and he did finish the apprenticeship – at the end he told me it was the first thing he had ever completed. He managed to get work in the financial sector after that and now he’s got an amazing job and travels all over the world for work! He’s kept in touch – we spoke just last month and he’s hoping to visit at the end of the year.

Another young man was sleeping on the streets when he first became involved with Talent Match. He had Asperger’s and found eye contact really difficult. We worked on his communication skills, and he managed to secure an apprenticeship with a local firm. He ended up winning the national competition for Apprentice of the Year and went down to the House of Commons in London -even though he’d previously really struggled with public transport. As well as winning the award, which was obviously incredible, he was given a permanent position by the firm who’d taken him on as an apprentice. On paper, that would be the ultimate success of Talent Match – but it doesn’t end there. He’d always dreamed of living in Finland, and through developing his confidence and belief in himself, he’s gone on to achieve just that.  

It’s not all about the huge success stories – every win is a win. If someone improves in confidence, or develops better self-esteem, that’s a Talent Match success. It takes time, but it’s worth it. The important thing is that we help people to appreciate that they can do more than they think they can.

If Talent Match had a success formula, I’d say it’s the person-centred approach. Everyone is treated as an individual and it’s a vital part of the programme – everybody is different and everybody has their own skills, desires and fears. Talent Match is built around them.”