How might we respond and learn from young peoples challenging behaviour?

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Whenever there is a question and answer session involving volunteers and developing community based youthwork, this is the one question that is almost certainly guarantee;

What do you do with young peoples challenging behaviour?

and it is a great question. Behind is often a combination of exasperation at what is going on, as well as a desire that the young people connect and benefit from what is provided and that the volunteers in question want to work with them. Maybe not every time, but most times. And most times, our reaction to challenging behaviour is a reason why young people dont continue with participating in the group.

Before thinking through the issue it is worth thinking through what it going on in the wording of the question. For, the reality is that we all encounter what might be challenging behaviour all the time by other people, especially by people who are in authority over us, or where there are public spaces. What i am saying is that adults display challenging behaviour too. Whether thats in the PCC meeting, or the open saturday coffee morning, or the bus home. I dont think the ‘young people’ element of the question is unfair mind, but it is worth thinking through how we encounter challenging behaviour around us, and how we adapt, ignore, challenge or deal with it in the everyday. So, being with people and working with people is likely to create situations where challenging behaviour exists.

The first thing we to look at in the situation is ourselves.

The reason being, is that this is the bit of the situation that we ourselves can control, to a large extent – before we look at what is going on, and the behaviour of the young people.

It is worth asking questions like:

What kind of expectations do we have about young people and their behaviour?

How much ‘chaos’ is tolerated?

What kind of environment do we want to create?

What are the aims and objectives of the group/activity?

Do all the volunteers know what is expected of themselves?

Is there anything in the setting that could be a trigger?

What are the power dynamics on display?

These are important, as they are something we can do something about. To a large extent, we do need to reflect on what we, as a group of volunteers. are able to tolerate and cope with – but at the same time realise that there might be stuff that we do, or dont do, that acts as a spark for the behaviour itself. The behaviour itself might not be challenging, but because of our expectations, then we feel we have to do something about it. Not every, sometimes not any, group of young people playing in the park are anti social theyre just young people playing! , yet young people playing, running, shouting and letting off steam in some areas could be a cue for phone calls to the police, because of fear and expectations. Our expectations might often shape how we perceive the behaviour. So it is worth looking at ourselves, volunteers, culture and expectations of the practice – and whether we want conformity from young people to our ways, or be open and young person led – or somewhere in between. The former is much more difficult, but it can be often what is implied when we try and use techniques to calm young people down. Which is fine, though actually not fine, in a formal environment like a school, but the open youth club or after school group – is not a school is it? At least id hope we’re not thinking ‘well they wouldnt behave like this in school’ – I would hope we’re not expecting young people in our church groups to have to behave in the same way they have to in school…

So… To the Challenging Behaviour – what is going on?

The fundamental thing to do is to understand that in one way or another we are triggering, or continuing to trigger young peoples challenging behaviour. If we try and understand what is going on, this is the only conclusion that is completely true in every situation of it. We are doing something to trigger it.

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The key thing is to work out what it is!

There is something we are doing that creates stress in the young person that they are reacting to.

We need to look for patterns. When does the behaviour occur ( at the beginning, or end of the session? – or when its time for the God-slot ie when a type of control is exerted) Is it to a particular person/volunteer?

Are young people bored, because they are under-challenged by whats going on?

These questions are more important than trying to disect what the problem is ie physical, verbal, sexually explicit, aggressive, non complicit, etc. Most of it will be triggered by something. Young people are making an emotional reaction to the situation, are either fighting against or flighting from – through putting up barriers of their own.

Even if we try and think through the situation and try and understand it, sometimes our judgements are incorrent, and we risk making assumptions, what we cant deny is that something acts as a trigger, and that something needs to be reflected on and thought through.

I remember a situation where young people would like to play football in the church car park at the same time as church was on, was this challenging behaviour? the church congregation thought so. But this space was where young people played every evening, it was near to their homes and was in eye view of the kitchen windows. It was a safe place to play, that was made disrupted and created a stir only once a week, when a whole load of people parked their cars to go inside the building. Whats the cause of the challenging behaviour? What is the trigger in this situation?

There are countless others. The distress near to the end of a weeks residential ( when ‘going home’ starts to loom in view), the distractions during the conversations, destructive behaviour when others get attention, spoiling the fun of others, being suggestive, testing boundaries, there so much that a young person or group of young people could be doing, that we might determine is challenging. And it is. The challenge is to us.

The challenge is – how might we raise, change or adapt our ‘game’ to be able to continue to work with the young people? (at least id hope this is the case, rather than ‘how can we get rid of them so we never have to see them again‘..)

And we might have to and need to adapt. Id go further, and say that we do need to adapt.

We might have to create the kind of space where a young person might be less likely to be disruptive, or show the behaviour, or cause harm to themselves or others or property. Maybe the open youth club is ok, but the small group work isnt, maybe the detached session is a better space to interact so both parties can walk away, than the open club. If the space is too formal, like a school, such as mentoring, then there might not be an alternative – the question there is whether we as youthworkers have lost the informal voluntary ness of the relationship, and so a young person might take time not to be challenging. Its an experience i know well from mentoring young people where we never got out of the ‘calm’ room for an hour…

The challenging behaviour might be a reason for us to reflect on and then change our approach.

The challenging behaviour might also be a reason to reflect on the needs of that individual

The challenging behavour might be because young people are trying to tell us that they’re bored, not involved and not interested- it might not be challenging enough or participatory enough. They want to have control, but are given none.

I remember the situation where a young person was showing disruptive behaviour when part of a group – but when they were asked for their help with one of the leaders, completely changed. That person was used to caring for younger siblings, they knew how to be responsible, they didnt like being treated as a one amongst many. They could raise their game, but it took a brave leader to give them the space to do this. (it wasnt me)

What if instead of trying to deal with the challenging behaviour we view it as a learning opportunity? I guess thats what ive been suggesting all along. What if we see the disruption a moment of spiritual disruption, God trying to speak to us through the young person, a provoke. If young people are disruptive, and it is boredom then maybe we need to think, and think fast.

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There is no good just being reactive to the challenging behaviour. But it will cause a reaction, a challenge and a moment for collective reflective practice. It is also an opportunity to develop new strategies, or practices or thinking about the why, how and what of working with particular young people, especially if we still want them to experience and receive something positive, support, love or an experience that might enable change or transformation.

It might be that we need to get outside help and guidance, to go through further ideas, and get support – and that could be someone like me, or other local youth workers, diocesan youth officer type person, outside support could really benefit you. As working with young people is not, and never has been easy, they will keep you on your toes, its part of the fun of it. It is always challenging, no, but sometimes it is. What we might have to realise is that our behaviour towards young people might be challenging too.

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