10 Ingredients of a Great Participation Workshop

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This post is a re-blog of a MyAPT classic, originally written in July 2013 by GIFT Young Sessional Worker, Rachel Vowden.Bad participation workshop venuePicture this.

You’re a young person, invited to take part in a local CAMHS participation workshop. That’s great, but it triggers a lot of anxious feelings for you. You rush in the morning to get ready for an early start and have a long walk to the outskirts of town where the workshop is being held. You’ve never been here before so you have difficulty finding the place, but you spot the building easily by the grotesque, stained concrete walls and the creepy dark windows that are half boarded up. Dead weeds litter the floor and the steps up to the door are uneven and have a magnitude of fag butts lying around.

You don’t want to go in but you’ve been spotted and the door opens to reveal a woman with a sour face, calling for you to come inside before you let the cold in (even though she’s the one holding the door open). You’re led silently across a creaking floor, through the maze of the building’s insides. This building is old, very old. There’s even stains on the ceiling where water has leaked through and it bears not to think about the dark patches on the floor or where they’ve come from. You join a small group of equally nervous looking young people and are left alone in a brilliantly lit room until a flustered couple walk in.

“We’re late, so let’s just get on with this” says a lanky woman who looks like the wind could push her over. She’s dressed very formally, making everything else in the room look cheap.

“We want your hypothetical thinking on the topic of the fundamental issues arising in the admission of adolescents and then we want you to consider how inside psychological therapies, be it cognitive or behavioural therapies, we use metacognition and how that benefits the overall process in which we deal with psychological issues” says the short, stocky man with small, wondering eyes.

The woman, who looks like she wanted to be anywhere but here, stares blankly at her phone, probably wishing someone will call so she has an excuse to leave early. Silence fills the room as there is clearly a gap in understanding. Clearly frustrated, the man tries another technique.

He passes everyone a crayon and a piece of paper and asks everyone to begin by writing down a word to sum up their experience of starting therapy. The only word you can think of is “easy” as really you didn’t have a bad experience of starting therapy. This doesn’t please him, and he opens up the question to the rest of the room, explaining that if we didn’t come up with problems, there was no point in us being there.

After a long morning of everyone shuffling in their uncomfortable chairs and thinking hard about how to satisfy the demands of the adults, lunch time finally comes and you’re free to go. You hated your experience and you swore never to be so gullible next time. You’ll probably never come to a participation workshop again.

doing a participation workshop wrongWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Looking at the above experience. Would you go again if you were that person?

This is purely made up, and okay maybe a little dramatic, but had it been a young person’s experience, we’d never expect them to be enthusiastic about participation work.

Here’s a list of wrong things from the story, turned into good points. These are the ingredients we want and expect from a good participation workshop:

1. The Right Destination

Somewhere public? Somewhere easy to get to? Somewhere that’s easy to find? All these things matters when picking the destination. It’s also important to have support getting there. From personal experience, if I hadn’t had the local Youth Participation Worker pick me up and take me to all the participation events I would’ve chickened out a long time ago and not had the chance to develop into the confident young person I am today.

2. Good Timing

Let’s face it, what young person likes to get up at the crack of dawn and leaps out of his or her bed to travel somewhere early? And I’m pretty sure most adults don’t want to either!

It can be late morning (to help prevent the build-up of anxiety over the day) or early afternoon (for those who need to travel a bit further) or even late afternoon (so people can not miss so much school/college). Every young person is different in what they need so it’s important to consider this when creating a participation event.

3. A Friendly Building Atmosphere

If it’s run down like in the story then no offense, but does anyone think young people will come back? Not everyone has the courage to walk up to a strange place and enter. Certainly not if it screams “run away!” The building needs to project a ‘safe’ feeling.

4. Friendly People

From the moment a young person gets involved with participation, everyone that young person meets should be friendly towards them. Sounds simple… but you’d be surprised!

5. Comfy Rooms

We’re not talking large comfy sofas and a cocktail bar (full of soft drinks of course!) but it would be nice to have some sort of comfort. A nice floor, modern furnishings, enough chairs for everyone…just the little touches that make it a nice place to be. And if the place screams creativity it makes it a lot easier for the people in the room to be creative. If you’re stuck in a white room what is there to inspire you?

6. Casual Clothing

Trust me when I say jeans and t-shirts are more than welcome. It feels a little uncomfortable being surrounded by suits since it’s not a formal gathering. Besides, surely they must be boiling?!

7. Easy Language

It’s very easy to get carried away with all the jargon speak when you’re older, but as a young person you don’t know it yet. So we need a simpler way of saying things or, if there’s no jargon-alternative, then the jargon needs explaining!

8. Keen Workers

It’s important to have adults that are engaged as much as the young people. If they’re enthusiastic and happy with what everyone does, it makes the participation experience a lot better.

They should also have names! Otherwise they might as well be called Bob.

Being supportive as well as keen is a big thumbs up.

9. Treated For Your Age

Young people aren’t toddlers. That being said, young people like fun, creative activities. There is a balance. I’ve experienced it, where young people have been given something enjoyable to do and yet some responsibility along with it. The day is never too taxing, the activities are fun, and most importantly they mean something so that young people leave feeling like they’re actually making a difference.

10. Other things to think about

  • Organisation of the day
  • Brain food/refreshments- dietary needs are checked and considered
  • Introductions from everyone at the start so people get to know a little about who they’re working with
  • Speaker on behalf of nervous people who don’t feel they are confident enough to talk themselves in front of strangers/larger groups of people
  • Suitable for all age ranges and all age ranges welcomed
  • Welcoming atmosphere that makes people feel like they want to come back
  • A safe place for everyone no matter what they struggle with
  • Rules or guides i.e. no putting others down, saying they’re wrong etc

That’s my most important ingredients for a good participation workshop. I’d be really interested to hear your views or hear about any other ingredients you think should be in the mix!


About Rachel Vowden

Rachel is a young person living in Devon. For the last four years she's been helping Devon CAMHS to improve their services. She's talked locally and nationally about her experience of using CAMHS and then of supporting them to improve. Rachel is an experienced interviewer and workshop participant.


  1. This is an awesome post, Rachel. I love your sense of humour and the way you use it to make some really good points about how participation work should be carried out.

  2. Lol this story of bad participation really made me laugh!! Especially the mans jargon! Highlighted some important points, and gave great tips! Thanks

  3. Its 9 months later and this post still makes me laugh(!) and think about all the small and big ways we can make user involvement events enjoyable and meaningful for young people.

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