Can adventure programs use EQ to transform the lives of struggling youth?
Many outdoor education or wilderness therapy programs claim to bring about lasting change, but what metrics are they using to evaluate it? In South Africa, a wilderness gap year program uses Six Seconds’ SEI assessment to measure improvements in emotional intelligence, with some real results. One key is collaboration and the other is the personal approach. And third, is the rich natural beauty of the setting where the adventures occur.
Jan Heenop grew up on a farm in South Africa, surrounded by wildlife and nature. He spent a lot of time alone, and the skills he needed for survival were bush smarts and a gun, not social and emotional intelligence to get along with other humans. Now as an adult Jan has studied to be a pastor, and has studied and embraced EQ. These days he shares his love of adventure and learning through iALA, a gap year outdoor program for youth 18-25. The program teaches skills from ocean survival to tracking and guiding, from outdoor leadership to teamwork, all using self-discovery and the Six Seconds “Know, Choose, Give” model.
Four years ago Jan began studying emotional intelligence and other personal growth theories. He wanted to understand how integrating EQ principles into an outdoor adventure program might change the lives and future goals of his young participants. Jan did a research project where he measured participants’ EQ before and after the program using the Six Seconds’ SEI assessment. The goal of his program is for young adults to start to develop a sense of responsibility for success in their own lives and define their own noble goals. He found there was a measurable increase in several areas of emotional intelligence. His results are summarized in a report you can read here:
How Can the Excitement of Adventure and the Quiet of Reflection Coexist?
“One day they swim for 50 meters then 100 then 500, then a kilometer. I tell them, ‘let’s take the KCG model. What you do is, you’re going to evaluate the situation and think what you know about the environment, what you’re going to choose to do, and what you think about it.’ They do it in teams of 5-7 students, they reflect on this, KCG, what happened as a result? “
Without that reflective piece, Jan says, students would not develop deeper learning, change their behavior, and cultivate a positive mindset. “The difference here is by giving the opportunity to explore and experience themselves and reflect on the activity, they understand what it is doing to them.”
Jan says it’s not enough to send people on harrowing hiking trips or put them through stressful physical trials, as so many outdoor learning programs do.
“It is not activities that change behavior, it is the therapeutic process being built up by the Six Seconds Coaching methodology linked to the adventure stimulus that causes the positive effects to stimulate personal growth.”
Shouldn’t Youth be Pushed to Develop Grit?
Programs like Outward Bound have focused on a combination of endurance building and psychological group dynamics in order to bring about personal growth and build self-confidence. IALA takes a different approach.
The “break them down to build them back up” models are not as effective, Jan says, in building positive mindsets. There is, he says, some growth that happens if EQ is combined with putting the brain in “survival mode” through adventure.
“The whole thing about the survival brain is just the stimulus to open up the brain to act as a sponge, instead of going back to the comfort zone. When jumping off the cliff, or surfing a big wave, you must do it again and again to have flow. But growth isn’t there. I am convinced about the fact that we need to measure ourselves in order to work on personal development.”
Individually Tailored Programs Work Best
Not all students can do all of the activities. Jan meets them wherever they are and supports them in growing personally.
“I have one guy who has Asperger’s. I am not treating him as a patient. He is a human being. He has been through a lot. He has a problem with social interaction. The parents have asked us to help him go into society and to be able to socialize. He can’t do everything. He’s not a super hero. His challenge is not to be tough, it’s to survive the social interaction. “
Results: Growing Emotional Intelligence
Heenop’s research illustrates an average increase in emotional intelligence of 20%, which puts it in line with other similar findings of therapy focused on adventure as stimulus. He writes, “If we look at our methodology, we must admit that our clients were only briefly coached on the depth of emotional intelligence as we have focused on developing a vocabulary for emotional intelligence by making them aware of the terminology and possible benefits.” The following graphs show the percentage increase across all EQ competencies and the difference in pre- and post-program SEI assessment scores.
Jan Heenop is now considering a PhD to further study how pairing adventure with emotional intelligence might help youth set positive patterns for their futures.