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New form of treatment for marginalised young people

A working relationship involving Professor Jan Tønnesvang, Authorised Psychologist, Aarhus University, Marianne Schøler from, and Ungdomscentret (the Youth Centre) under the Social Administration Department of the City of Aarhus has resulted in the development of a new form of treatment intended for marginalised 14–18 -year-olds. The aim is to help these young people become better at charting a course for their own lives.

[Translate to English:] Fokus i den nye form for behandlingstilbud er på, at den unge selv er med til at identificere de ting i deres liv, som de føler er problematiske og de ting, de gerne vil have hjælp til at klare. Foto: Colourbox

Professor Jan Tønnesvang from Aarhus University is working with Ungdomscentret i Aarhus (the Youth Centre in Aarhus) on a new project in which he is teaching staff at the centre to apply a new theory in the area, which he terms ‘the theory of qualified autonomy’. The intention is to help staff establish how best to support the young people in becoming involved in taking control of their own lives.

The focus is on helping young people to identify things in their lives which they find problematic, as well as the things they want help in dealing with first. These may not be the same things that others see, and this is what Professor Jan Tønnesvang means by ‘delimiting the individual’s life challenge’. The next step is to help the young people develop their capacity to take care of themselves:

“As I see it, the development of the individual and his/her capacity to take control of his/her life depends on his/her ability to master four fundamental life skills. These have to do with human technicality, sociality, reflexivity and sensitivity,” explains Professor Jan Tønnesvang.

Together, these four skills constitute a complete concept for understanding what is required to live life in a good, healthy way. Technicality has to do with practical skills, i.e. the ability to do something in the tangible world. Sociality refers to the capacity to enter into social relationships. Sensitivity is about the ability to register and regulate feelings and emotions, and reflexivity is centred on the ability to think things through, i.e. to use the skill of consideration.

The young people are involved

By focusing on the four life skills, the staff at the centre can help the young people towards ‘qualified autonomy’, which is all about becoming complete people with the energy, drive and willingness to live life to the full.

Cognitive life interviews play a key role in the work to identify life challenges and reinforce qualified autonomy. This is a new approach to working with young people, which Professor Jan Tønnesvang has developed in collaboration with Marianne Schøler, who is also a psychologist. The cognitive life interviews are centred on encouraging young people to understand and recognise the importance of their fundamental needs. In the same way as there are four fundamental skills for existence, there are also four fundamental needs.

The fundamental life skills and needs

There is a need to be seen for who you are, a need to belong, a need to be able to pick out a course, and a need to be in control of yourself and your own life. Once the young people recognise the importance of these needs and learn to manage them, they will find themselves better equipped to participate in and create a good life. The cognitive life interview starts with this and simultaneously applies effective cognitive methodology to assist young people in relating to their issues. What Professor Jan Tønnesvang and the Ungdomscentret staff are attempting to do is to assist young people in charting a course in their own lives, learning to stay on the course (or to change it, if necessary), so as finally to become themselves in the course such that the course transforms into a life course.

“From research, we know that work based on the recognition of people’s fundamental needs leads to positive development. We also know that cognitive methodology is effective in dealing with numerous life problems. By combining the focus of the vitalisation model on the four fundamental needs with the cognitive methodology, we are attempting to create a way of working with young people that involves the best aspects of the two approaches,” explains Professor Jan Tønnesvang.

The qualified autonomy model paves the way for a new paradigm in the field, i.e. that there is not just one method to use when working with children and young people. On the contrary, it shows how best to support children and young people in learning to deal with their own lives. In this way, qualified autonomy may prove to be a framework that can be used in multiple contexts including school, after-school activities and youth centres.


The project was launched in 2012 when the staff at Ungdomscentret completed the different learning modules in the project, and the young people became involved through interviews conducted in spring 2013. The staff at the centre keep logs detailing their thoughts and ideas, as well as descriptions of the actions they have taken, and this is subsequently assessed and evaluated.  In addition, the young people are asked to complete two questionnaires: one at the start and one and the end of the interviews.

The Social Administration Department of the City of Aarhus works with systematic result documentation within most types of input – including the area of young people. This documentation is used to generate knowledge concerning the effect of the measures implemented, on the basis of the young people’s background, development status and goals.

The knowledge collected not only supports the working relationship between the authority/scheme in the follow-up on the treatment plans, but also underpins the dialogue between the authority/scheme and the young people and their families. The knowledge collected is also used for targeted skills development within the schemes and for reporting the effects of the measures to managers/politicians.

One of the intentions of the research project is to demonstrate how the qualified autonomy model can be applied directly in connection with result documentation in the field of young people, contribute to ongoing skills development within the schemes, and facilitate reporting at management and political decision-making level.

Today, Ungdomscentret and two schools – Risskov Skole in Aarhus and Buskelundskolen in Silkeborg – are working to apply the theory of qualified autonomy. In May 2011, Aarhus City Council adopted a variation of the model as the basic model for the 95% goal in the Municipal Youth and Leisure Teaching Programme. It is also currently being used in several youth and leisure clubs and in a 0–18-year-old perspective in the Grenå vej Øst area of Aarhus. 

Additional information

Professor Jan Tønnesvang
Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences
Direct phone: 45 8716 5796
Mobile phone: +45 6020 2633

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