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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‘Confirmation’ as an opportunity to launch relational group discipleship.

A few years ago I had a conversation where I caused a Vicar to cry. I’m not proud of it. It wasnt clever of me, neither did i think i was being provocative, neither insensitive, or insightful.

The vicar was recalling the progress that they had in their local school and describing the process of advertising, ‘selecting’ and developing the confirmation group in a local cofe school, they were a few weeks into the course and getting ready for the ceremony itself, or it had happened a few weeks previous, i cant remember exactly, but you get the picture.

The church also had a youth group, which met on a weekday evening. A kind of open club, with largely social games, activities and some faith content or activity, nothing ‘heavy’.

The Vicar was talking about how the hope was that the young people who had been confirmed would start going to the youth group. for no other reason that he would let them know about it, and some of their friends in higher school years go to it.

What i said was ‘well, _________, the problem with that is that you have built the relationship up with them, created a group space for them as a group where they feel safe, and comfortable discussing possibly deeper spiritual things and after being confirmed, this group is dispanded and they dont have the opportunity, in this group to continue being discipled by you’ – The youth group isnt the place for the kind of discipleship, effectively, that the Vicar in this situation had actually started. Yet they had begun to create a group where young people trusted them and a space opened up to discuss things of faith. The most intentional faith group for mostly ‘unchurched’ young people in the diocese. It’s then that they gulped, took breath and were on the brink of tears.

I didnt think this was a particularly rocket scientist thing to say. But it revealed something of a ministry and activity first culture in the church and relationship second. As long as young people attend ministries, doesnt matter which ones, or how, then this is the requirement. Or a failure to recognise what was being created in the form of group discipleship, and relational connection with the member of the clergy, and no real desire to maintain this, or see discipleship through beyond a ceremony.

Practically; What if every confirmation group is started at a time – near the beginning of year 6 so that there can be a whole year of establishing a group dynamic before they head to secondary school. Can clergy dictate this with the school?

What if it occured outside of the school and in a local church/community centre – so that this space becomes familiar to the group and part of its identity – (when confirmation groups in schools become harder to maintain. )

What if the young people know from the outset that part of the confirmation is a continued process of learning and developing after confirmation ceremony and that they have to think of activities and discussions they want to discuss further once the formal confirmation group is finished.  Just so its not just to be thought about at the end..

What then, if every confirmation group (say there is 10 in the group) continues to meet with the clergy & volunteer once a month or fortnightly after the confirmation ceremony for 6-12 months – what kind of group work is developed, what opportunities for discipleship would this bring, what training for formational leadership could this spurn in them? (or alternatively they could ‘go’ to a youth group) 

What if this group continued to develop spiritual curriculum, relationship and faith throughout the next 7 years- building on what they started – yes a few might ‘drop off’ but it might be the best way of ensuring some kind of small group for young people of a certain age as they progress through the ages?

How do you go about helping the group continue? ask them, plan with them, pose scenarios and options. (dont buy a resource, every group will be different to the previous)

Then another group starts the next year.

And the next.

Until every year group has one group in it of 6-10 young people – all are different because of different interests, issues, choice of topics, learning methods. 1 group per year band. Yes they might mix and do socials together, but they have key group identity as the confirmation cohort of the year 20__. They neednt invite their friends to the group, in one way – that is what the open youth club is for, to a degree. (and inviting new people to this type of group rarely works)

Currently the church only keeps 1/3 of its young people.  If 6 year groups of 10 young people are confirmed at 11 (60) and say 2 of each group drop out, and only 8 of the 10 start. Then 6/10 in a group might just stay until they are 18. Especially if they are trained and discipled well, given opportunities to serve in the church (and change the world), develop skills and find their identity in the local church. I think from 1/3 to 6/10 might represent a 100% increase, and yes i know this is hypothetical. But if the scenario above is replicated then currently barely any who are confirmed are involved past 12.

Yes i know itll involve man/woman power and resources. But it might need 6 people (+ stand bys) to work with the clergy in each group, if they each meet once a month then this shouldnt be too much of a challenge. And if the oldest group – the ‘first’ ones once they get to 15-6, part of their discipleship is to mentor and help with the new ones… then theres a ready made cycle and further training ground for disciples.  What if this was core volunteering for the church, discipling young people. Not youthwork, not scary young people – but giving young people the opportunity to be discipled.

It might involve a change in culture. It might involve a re prioritisation of tasks, or a training of clergy in relational group work, education and some youthwork skills, or it might involve realising that the future of the church and young people into its future calling is staring at them in the face, but it means a shift to continually invest and build on the mechanisms in place, effectively building and using the young people who are effectively sent to us in the confirmation group and making the best of this gift. Honing and encouraging long term relational group work discipleship. The clergy cant be consumed with discipling young people , can they?  Well i guess this might have to be another culture shift, one like all the other ministries will yield long term results. And have more impact than a considerable amount of meetings and emails that clergy have to also deal with. Is it adding pressure to the clergy to do more, yes, well if people are concerned then they need to fill other gaps, to help out in this work.

It can work, ive seen it, it takes time, and desire and patience. Youth ministry isnt working, but confirmation as a ceremony and an opt in for young people to explore faith – might be an opportunity to develop, to reconise the gift horse that might be starring us in the mouth.

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