Managing behavior in youth programs

Encouraging positive behavior can improve youth participants and adult leaders’ experiences.

Managing behavior in youth programs

You might already have the expertise and the passion to deliver a great program, but young people or participants in general are often the unknown variable; they may be rambunctious or disorderly and can pose challenges. How you manage your group meetings or sessions can greatly reduce disruptions, avoid discipline issues and provide a quality experience. Whether you are a seasoned youth development professional or new volunteer, these tips or best practices will help manage the group and ensure a successful session or meeting for you and your participants.

These “best practices” are taken from the teaching realm, but can be applied to many youth programs and group environments. The benefit to your participants will be a safe, structured learning environment that allows them to get the most out of your lessons. The benefit to you is a much less stress, more accomplished and a more enjoyable experience overall.

A notable quote from Hal Urban in “Life’s Greatest Lessons” is, “What you permit, you promote; what you accept, you teach.” Having a structured learning environment and setting expectations upfront will benefit you in the long run. From my experience, a well-managed group setting starts on the first day. Discuss the goals of each individual and those of the group as a whole. How can these goals work together? What are the resulting expectations for the participants and the group? This step helps in establishing ownership and an understanding by the group. It also leads in outlining their roles, responsibilities and expectations. You now have common ground to work from and to refer back to if you do run into behavior issues or difficulty with participants staying on task.

Edutopia, a George Lucas educational foundation, has shared a list of “best practices in teaching” used by many educators. I have personally had success with many of these practices and will expand upon them while incorporating additional effective practices.

  • If you don’t have a well-thought out plan for your students, they will have one for you. Have an agenda or objectives for each session. The best meetings and classes are well-thought out beforehand. You may have to adjust along the way, but it is much easier to make adjustments than just “winging it.” Also, plan to set up the next activity while students are completing the current one – this makes for smooth and speedy transitions with little to no downtime. Or, have transition activities for those that finish early. This leaves less idle time for students to get distracted.
  • Design the end goals or end product first (also known as backward planning). This does relate to setting your goals and expectations for the group. Yet, if they can see or model a finished product there is less stress and uncertainty. Know what the group would like to accomplish by mapping out that plan and what each meeting will cover; this is what we want to accomplish and here is how we get there. Leave time for experiential learning, a cornerstone of 4-H Positive Youth Development, and allow students to “do, reflect and apply” their acquired knowledge during the program. The ultimate goal might be to explore and evaluate your mistakes, and that is fine. Ask yourself what you want them to take from the program or session on that day.
  • Share models with students of the product or outcome you want them to create or design. I like to refer to this as the cookbook practice. You give them a “picture” of what the recipe will look like once they have completed it. Mine never looks like the one in the cookbook, but it helps to see what I am or they are striving for. Provide good examples of work done previously by students. You can demonstrate the action or skill by giving them what “great” looks like and that can help you raise the bar and set expectations. That applies to modeling behavior too. What do you expect from you and them? What does a positive environment or respect for others look like?
  • Be a positive role model. As you teach the skills, you also need to model the behavior. How you approach the task and the attitude you show will influence student’s behavior. You have passion and letting it show can be beneficial as long as it is in a positive light. Students are looking to you for guidance, so if you show a positive attitude and adhere to the expectations laid out at the start, you can make their experience much more enjoyable. Also, be fair and consistent in your actions and discipline. This should be agreed upon early on and understood by all.
  • It’s OK to fail, everyone has. Be sure to create a safe environment for youth to try new things and explore interests. You want your participants to get out of their comfort zone and push themselves to develop, but you also want to let them know it is OK to fail. It’s what you learn from failure that often matters most. Having positive role models and experiences can allow students to flourish and learn from their mistakes and gain valuable skills. You set the tone and they will follow.

Seeing the smiles on young people’s faces is a big reason why we volunteer. Making experiences enjoyable and positive starts with good group management. With good practices and a positive environment, you can get there.

For more information on 4-H programs and teaching practices Michigan State University Extension offers, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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