Managing misbehavior when working with youth

There are many ways that youth misbehave while in our care. Let’s look at some of the reasons for misbehavior and some ways to manage or even avoid it completely.

Many times, those of us who work in the youth service field approach our roles with the absolute best of intentions. We are ecstatic about the fact that we will be able to present or lead an activity that will provide enjoyment to or shape a young mind. All too often, however, there is one young person in the group who seems determined to derail the activity and make sure that no one (especially you) is going to have any fun that day.

Children and adolescents misbehave for a number of different reasons. Behavioral expert, Linda Albert, PhD, has theorized in her book, “Cooperative Discipline,” that children misbehave to meet various emotional needs. They may be acting out to get attention or to avoid looking like a failure. They may be acting out in order to show you or the rest of the group that they are the ones in charge, or they could even be acting out of feelings of revenge toward you, the adult.

When you find yourself in a situation with a child who is misbehaving, it can be very intimidating and unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. With a little planning, patience and practice, you can navigate these disruptions and avoid them altogether in some cases.

We will start with a strategy for avoiding power struggles. One of the first things you can do is to establish a code of conduct with the group. This does not mean that you provide them with a set of rules that you have already written down. This is an opportunity for collaboration between you and the youth you are working with. Ask for their input on how they think they should conduct themselves. Gaining their buy in on the code of conduct not only gives them an opportunity to have some say over the rules but also provides a more effective means of accountability when necessary. This will greatly cut down on power struggles further down the road.

When a child does misbehave, don’t be too quick to assume that it’s just for attention. It could be a power play. If you confront the misbehavior and it escalates until it ends on the youth’s terms, that’s a power struggle. Or you may hear a phrase like, “You can’t make me.” When this happens, use a technique called the “graceful exit.” You might say something like, “You’re right. I can’t make you do anything. I just want to let you know that if you choose to continue disrupting us, then you will have to deal with ‘X’ consequence (according to the code of conduct you should have already established).”

In future articles, we will look at additional needs that are expressed through misbehavior. Until then, good luck and keep up the good work.

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