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  • Writer's pictureDavid OMalley

Accompanying Young People in Salesian Schools

Accompanying young people is a central role of teachers in Salesian schools. That accompaniment of learners is a helping relationship aiming to remove the obstacles to learning at many levels in a young person’s life. It includes and at times goes beyond the achievement of academic success. The word implies a process of journeying with the young person through growth and change. It implies a quality of presence where the adult engages with the world of the young person and understands their hopes and dilemmas from the young person’s perspective.

Accompanying is both professional and spiritual since it takes the adult into the mystery of a young life and at the same time roots them in the professional standards and guidelines of their school. In that sense all accompaniment, whether it is called mentoring or coaching or some other term, will have a spiritual dimension. That is because all these helping relationships touch questions of purpose and meaning in the lives of young people. Purpose and meaning are the bread and butter of spirituality.

It is not possible to engage with a young person about the poor quality of their work without touching aspects of their motivation. Why are they not bothered? What kind of self-image do they carry, what is the pattern of aspiration in their family? What events and relationships have made them reluctant to even try? Where has their hope and energy gone? Underneath the academic struggle there will be hidden obstacles to learning that need to be identified and those will remain hidden until the young person establishes a relationship of trust with their accompanier, mentor or coach. Don Bosco said.

Confidence creates an electric current between youngsters and the adult, hearts are opened and weaknesses made known.

Don Bosco Letter from Rome 1884

The coach, accompanier or mentor in a Salesian setting needs to establish a warm and friendly relationship of trust with the young person. Such trust may be difficult for the young person to establish, depending upon their own history of relationships with adults. Gentle, nonjudgmental persistence is needed. This is what Don Bosco said:

How do you break through this barrier of mistrust? By a friendly and an informal approach with people, especially in free time. You cannot have trust in your relationships without this friendly approach and where it is not evident there can be no confidence.

Don Bosco Letter from Rome 1884

Soul searching.

Don Bosco’s motto was “Give me souls, take everything else away.” He chose this because he wanted to make it clear that he wanted to protect and nurture the spirit of young people, their soul. The soul can be seen as that part of a person’s life that is in constant relationship with the mystery and meaning of life that some of us call God. It is the soul that engages in the search for meaning, that reaches out in compassion, that overflows with joy and creativity. It is the heart of being human. It is impossible to touch any aspect of a young person’s life without encountering aspects of their soul. Even though our culture would like to separate this spiritual dimension from the external world it is impossible to do so because we are all spiritual beings and often wounded spiritual beings at that.

Therefore, accompanying young people is a vital part of our work as Salesian educators. We are never simply instructors, nor just providers of knowledge, something deeper is happening in the educational relationship, we are saving souls.

Some specific thoughts on Salesian accompaniment in school

An accompanying community

The accompanying relationship must be a safe place, not only in the sense of safeguarding but also in the atmosphere within which it is conducted. The creation of a safe space is at the heart of Don Bosco approach to education. His original work in Turin, called “The Oratory” was an enclosed space with only one entrance that was staffed all day. He ensured that no danger could break through to the young people. He also ensured that the young people always had an adult in sight if things got out of hand. Don Bosco was convinced that young people were basically good and believed that if they grew up in a safe place they would flourish in their unique virtues and sense of vocation in life.

Informal one to one accompaniment and the word in the ear

In school that means that accompaniment happens everywhere that we can ensure a safe and optimistic space for young people and their teachers. The accompaniment happens naturally, constantly, and informally within the daily exchanges on corridors and in recreation. The accompaniment also includes young people journeying together through their school years, listening to their friends, sharing their advice, and deepening their trust in one another. The same can be said of colleagues as they work on common tasks, they too accompany each other through understanding, compassion, and advice. When those conversations happen the soul is engaged, meaning is sought after, direction becomes clearer, and resilience grows.

Don Bosco encouraged his staff to use the word in the ear, especially during free time. Catching a youngster in the yard and making an encouraging comment can have a strong impact on a young person because it is recognition of their inner life and an outward sign of the concern of the adult. You may say something as simple as “well done! Your uniform is perfect today” or you may ask about a member of their family or congratulate them on their team’s success. All these brief engagements strengthen trust, create a sense of belonging and strengthen the soul of young person.

Group accompaniment opportunities

Don Bosco used to gather all his students, especially those in the boarding section and offer them a thought to close the day. Often it was something that emerged from the day, sometimes it was a story, occasionally he would express disappointment with their behavior. He would always finish on an optimistic note so that their spirit was lifted as they ended their day.

Assemblies. In school the nearest we have to this experience is the assembly. It is an opportunity to guide, instruct, uplift, warn and strengthen the sense of shared community values. It is a form of whole school accompaniment. It reinforces the common spirit of the school and captures some of the elusive aspects of spirituality in a shared celebration of unity.

All small groups will have a similar dynamic of accompaniment. Don Bosco formed small groups of young people and gave them specific roles and he also encouraged some young people to form their own groups. These groups always included some activity, it could be sport, drama, music, or social concerns. They also included an element of learning guided by an adult as well as opportunities for prayer and celebrations. These small groups, apparently focused on producing a play, for example, also created opportunities to discover individual gifts and weaknesses that could be addressed either through the group or one to one with an adult. The accompaniment would be seen as a byproduct of the activity by the young people but the adult guiding the group may well see the accompaniment as the core purpose of the activity. Above all the activity and the roles adopted by individuals would give the adult leader an insight into the giftedness in young people and their passions that could lead them to a deeper sense of purpose and vocation.

Retreat experiences form another type of group accompaniment that can have immediate and long-lasting impact on the spiritual awareness of young people. Teachers who accompany young people on these experiences, especially residentials, discover new depths and a deeper respect for young people who open up their experience on retreat. They return to school changed, with a wider horizon and stronger peer relationships. Above all, their sense of compassion and care for one another seems to have grown in a way that has a lasting impact on the whole school.

Accompaniment can therefore be seen as a common theme that runs through all relationships in a Salesian school. Every conversation is rich with spiritual meaning when reflected upon by the educator. Every engagement with a young person is an invitation to recognise the holy ground on which we stand as educators.

The qualities of Salesian accompaniment

A passion for helping others

In a Salesian school the adult must have a passion for walking alongside others and helping them to grow. It is that genuine care that triggers the trust that allows the young person to let you help them. Otherwise, they will close up and resist and the experience will be frustrating and sterile.

An optimistic approach to people.

Don Bosco was always clear that young people were full of potential, and, despite a poor start, they could improve and lead a fuller life. When the accompanier has that attitude, it gives hope and courage to the young person who can then begin to change and become “unstuck” from harmful attitudes and memories.


To fully help a young person open and explore their own path forward you need to be non-judgmental. This means fully immersing yourself in the world and needs of the young person and not imposing your own opinions, thoughts, and judgments. Don Bosco realised that if a young person was already struggling in life, it was highly unlikely that it was wholly their fault but more likely it was due to the circumstances of their earlier years. With young people Don Bosco believed that compassion and understanding should precede any judgement.

Ability to listen

Listening is a core skill for accompanying. That needs focus and discipline, making good eye contact, remembering what has been said, not interrupting and reflecting on the emotional energy with which words are said. Listening also requires noticing pause, themes, circular patterns of conversation and knowing when to intervene in a conversation. Don Bosco had an amazing gift for listening to young people many of whom reported that he could look into their very soul. It is only when a young person feels that they really have been listened to that the accompanier and the young person are in the same place and understanding grows along with the capacity to change.

Keeps appropriate confidentiality

As a accompany you will be privy to confidences that young people will not have shared with anyone else. They need to be able to trust that you will keep all conversations confidential within the safeguarding disclosure policies of the school. It is important that at the start of your accompanying process that you make this clear. That does not mean that sharing your general experience with a supervisor is not allowed, but that supervision conversation is covered by the same standards of confidentiality as the accompanying conversation.


A great accompanier is one who can help motivate and inspire young people. Whilst personal motivation to change does need to come from the young person, an accompanier needs to be able recognize and feedback the progress of the young person so that they know they are moving forward. That appreciation of growth is experienced in Christian terms as a grace from God, a spiritual enrichment as well as an increase in competence or awareness. In Salesian accompanying it is joy that is the great motivator as the helping relationship develops. Occasionally the disappointment of the accompanier can also motivate the young person but only when a strong helping bond has been established.


A good accompanier relationship is based on honesty between the adult and the young person. For the young person to move forward they need to be prepared to be honest with themselves and their adult accompanier, but likewise the accompanier needs to be honest with the young person. A good accompanier is one who is prepared to give honest and appropriate feedback about their observations and who is also honest enough to say if and when their help is no longer appropriate.

Be a soul-searching detective

Accompanying can also be seen as a process of soul searching. The experience of mystery writers might be helpful here as their detectives employ specific skills to uncover the depth of a situation. If the analogy works, it suggests that accompaniers should.

• Ask good questions

• Offer Clues not answers

• Engage emotions

Reflect prayerfully on what they hear

• Expect distractions

• Provide support

• Allow time for struggle

• Be optimistic

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

Give me souls, take the rest away. Don Bosco

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