Katie Mann
April 1, 2015

4th Wall is fortunate to have over 50 clients.  At some of these venues we partner with universities offering their students real world experience before they enter the field.  Some facilities have a built in peer mentorship program which helps increase the helper-student ratio.  And for all our clients we always welcome volunteers (after their background check, of course).

But lately I have been noticing a stumbling block for some of our university students, volunteers, and mentors:  Enthusiasm.  Although a great quality, when overused or misplaced it can actually hurt more than it helps.  Here are five reminders to being a great assistant.

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It’s not about you.
Volunteering is fantastic.  Not only are you helping someone else, buy you get that warm and fuzzy feeling in your soul.  It makes you feel good, which it should.  But if you’re not careful it can also make you loose your perspective: It’s about the students.  When going to help, or stepping in think “Am I doing this because there is a need here?  Or because it will look super impressive that I know something to say?”

The goal is independence.
It can be a little confusing to focus on independence when working with students with special needs.  They need you, right?  The extra supports?  Or else why would you have been assigned to shadow this person?  However, the goal– no matter if the special need is a mild learning disability or severe multiple impairments– is to have the student do as much on their own as they can.  I know it is painful watching a student with cerebral palsy trying again and again and again and again to open that tricky door handle, but they need to learn coping skills for when you’re not around.  Which leads me to my next point…

The best volunteers are invisible.
When doing your job perfectly, no one should know you are there, except the student.  At 4th Wall, the final showcase is on stage.  We tell our helpers to be as invisible as possible standing next to their mentees in the spotlight.  If their buddy forgets the dance moves, model it for them.  If they seem to have forgotten their line, wait, and then prompt them if need be.  The students are front and center.

Developing instinct takes time.
Everyone has been at the beginning.  It takes time to learn when to step in and help and when the student can do it themselves.  It’s a judgement call.  Teachers who have decades of experience still can make the wrong call in the moment of to prompt or not to prompt.  But practice does make perfect.  And as you get to know your buddy (if you are always paired with them) you’ll learn more when to help and when to hold back.

Sometimes you can’t help.  And that’s okay.
If something out-of-the-ordinary happens or an episode is escalating, it is more than okay to defer to the person in charge.  In fact, go get their attention!  If you’re just starting out your bag of tricks won’t be as deep as the trained professionals.  Something to remember too if they ask you to do something.

In the end know that we (the community of organizations that are run by enthusiastic volunteers) are grateful for you.  You are a crucial part to success and make a profound impact on the lives you shadow.  It is okay to make mistakes, we like when volunteers take a chance and put themselves out there.  Remember you are a helper not the helper and you’ll do just fine.