Volunteer and internship placements abroad, especially those dealing with children and youth, are a responsible task. This text aims to provide some practical hints and advice for your volunteer placement or internship with children and youth.
Handling proximity and distance
During your volunteer/ internship placement, you should consider yourself a professional caregiver/educator and not a substitute parent! It is of course important to build up a positive relationship with the children at your project and to dedicate attention to them. However, it is key still to maintain a professional distance to the children and not to establish a too close relation to them as a too close relation can be harmful to a child’s development if the child loses an important reference person when you travel back home (and if there are other volunteers/interns, over time this will happen over and over again to the child!). It may sound a little harsh to you, but you are not in charge of creating strong emotional bonds to the children of your project. Close relationships with the children need to be created and maintained by the permanent staff of the project. They are the people who should play a stable and permanent role in the children's life.
Please see this example:
Anne is working as a volunteer at an orphanage for 5 weeks. She quickly takes a two year old girl who has Down syndrome straight to her heart. Anne visits the little girl every day and almost exclusively takes care of her by giving her a lot of attention, holding her and playing with her. When some visitors come to the orphanage during Anne’s placement and want to carry the child, the girl immediately starts to cry and wants to be carried by Anne instead. The matron of the orphanage finds this amusing and says that this has happened because the girl is almost „Anne’s own child“. Anne confirms this by saying that she thinks that the girl's behavior is really sweet and that she feels like a real mother to the girl.
Anne has established a very close relationship to the girl at the orphanage during her relatively short period of stay. She has certainly done so with her best intentions. She wants to give the girl the affection, love and attention that the girl lacks at the orphanage from Anne's point of view. Anne, however, has not maintained a professional distance to the girl. At least for the duration of her placement Anne treats the girl as if she was her own child and endeavors to take the role of the girls’ primary reference person, by almost exclusively taking care of her and building a very close emotional relationship with the child. With the end of Anne’s volunteer placement, the unavoidable farewell is imminent (and such farewells may repeat when several one after another volunteers do the same with the girl). This can lead to traumatic experiences when the child repeatedly experiences the loss of an important reference person.
Advice: We only choose projects and facilities for volunteer/internship placements where there are consistent caregivers for the children and youth. We are always happy to get feedback about your observations regarding the relationship between the permanent staff and the children at your project!
There are no "pet children" for volunteers!
Even if you think that some of your project's children are particularly "sweet" or "cute", your should treat all children at your project the same way!
Kitty is volunteering at a day care facility for children from 3-6 years. She supports the teachers of the project by singing with the children, playing and teaching simple English, Maths and computer skills. Kitty particularly likes little Abdullah, one of the children at the project. During playtime, Kitty often carries Abdullah and plays with him; if there are arguments between the children or if they are noisy, Kitty more often turns a blind eye on Abdullah’s bad behavior than she does with other children. She simply cannot not resist his cute button eyes and be angry with him, Kitty explains her behavior.
Kitty’s behavior is strongly influenced by her personal affection to Abdullah. She thinks that of all children at the project, Abdullah is the cutest. Interestingly, not only volunteers and interns are confronted with the the problem of “pet children“: Several scientific studies have shown that even parents and teachers unconsciously treat their children/students differently and that personal sympathies or outward appearance of a child can play a major role regarding the attention that is given to them.
Advice: When working with children, it is of high importance to pay close attention to your own behavior: Try to treat all children equally. Avoid to distribute tasks or attention unequally or to play more often with some children than with others. You shouldn’t have any favorite children in your project. Don’t let some kids get a preferential treatment over others because of your personal sympathies!
Come up with tasks and activities that include all children!
The caregivers at your project can help you to find tasks and activities that include all children and which do not contribute to building strong relationships to only some of the children, as described in the two above mentioned examples. If the team members of your project inform the children that you are only spending a limited time at the facility/project as a temporary volunteer and if they assist you with defining your own role and finding appropriate tasks, your farewell will be much easier for the children.
As a volunteer/intern, you can prepare a special "project", for instance a workshop (dance, sports, painting, arts, singing, etc.), bring games, come up with a playful and interactive way to teach English, or carry out activities to assist the cognitive development of younger children, including physical exercises, reading, singing, clapping games, etc. There are no limits on your creativity here! Children need these kind of activities to avoid that they their development is limited due to a the lack of positive and stimulating factors (for example, if there are not enough staff at the facility to further them).
Advise: Find out which activities you are going to be involved in at your project and prepare yourself before coming to your host country. If you need assistance, you can always contact your support person at World Unite! who can you give practical hints and information about games, didactic methods and teaching materials.
Respect the privacy of children and youth at your project!
Children have rights! This includes the right for privacy. As a volunteer/intern it is of high importance to respect and to protect the privacy of the children/youth in your project. This includes taking pictures and videos, and their publication.
For months, Laura has been looking forward to her volunteer placement at an orphanage. Once she is at her host country, she wants to share all her new experiences and impressions with her friends and family at home by publishing photos and short videos of the children of her project on Facebook and Instagram.
The so-called "rights to a persons’ own image" says that every person can decide whether their pictures, videos or images can be published. The children at your volunteer project will surely not prohibit you to take pictures of them - on the contrary - once they see you with a camera in your hand, they will most likely even encourage you to take pictures of them! However, publishing these photos can entail problems. Children are unable to foresee the consequences of having their pictures published online. Once on the Internet, the images will be there forever! Please consider: Will the children later be discriminated against because they have attended a social project, because they have a difficult family background, or because they attend a special school? When in doubt, it is better to refrain from publishing pictures. In any case, always ask the staff at your project to see whether it is okay to take pictures.
Advice: If you are taking pictures of people at your organization or in your host country, always make sure to present them in a dignified way. This means to avoid images that give the impression of superiority of the developed world over people in so-called developing countries, pictures which are merely pitiable, or those that glorify you as the "savior" of the disadvantaged.
Be aware of cultural differences in your host country
Mary from the UK volunteers at a community center in India for 8 weeks, offering language classes and other educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged families. Mary mainly teaches English to the children at the community center. During her teacher training, she has learned that group work and interactive teaching methods are most promising. However, in the Community Centre she faces 120 children who are only moderately interested in her methods and often do not behave in a very disciplined way, running around wildly or leaving the classroom without asking. Mary is frustrated and decides to only occasionally go the community center during the rest of her stay. From her point of view, the children have not shown enough interest in her teaching and no gratitude for her efforts.
As a soon-to-be teacher, Mary has a clear idea of how "contemporary" teaching should be like. But just because a teaching method works in the UK, it does not necessarily work in a slum school in India. In many of our host countries including in India, there are strict hierarchies between societal groups, e.g. between younger and older people, or between teachers and students. The children at the community center who are used to a strict, authoritarian teacher (being authoritarian is the way a teacher is expected to be like in India), noted that Mary lacks authority and that they do not expect any punishment for misbehaving. Mary struggles with the situation and is unsure of how to behave. A confident and consistent behavior would have helped Mary to create a trustful relationship with the children and to gain confidence in handling the new and unusual situation. For this reason, we put effort into the intercultural preparation of our participants, which is something we kindly ask you to take serious. Read more about this topic. Mary can surely bring in her own ideas and suggest teaching methods. However, it would do her well to observe how the local teachers structure their lessons and to accept advice and suggestions from them. Volunteers who are open to local practices and methods are likely to encounter more support and interest from their local colleagues.
In addition, Mary thinks that the children should show gratitude for her voluntary work in a developing country. This attitude demonstrates postcolonial thinking. You can find more information about this topic here.
If reading this text has made you feel in doubt about how to behave, or if it has created more questions to you than answers, please don’t hesitate to contact us! We are happily at your disposal for practical hints and advice about how to prepare for your placement in the best way possible. Several of our team members have academic qualification in psychology, social work and education and are happy to assist you if you need any help.