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Rethinking behavior management

By Courtney Johnson & Katie Ecklund

Two young boys making funny, squishy faces
No matter what age group we're working with, most of us have experienced this frustrating situation: You have a great program planned, you’ve got everything prepped, but when you enter the program space, things go haywire. Emotions erupt, youth are struggling to stay focused, arguments are happening, and your program plan seems to be flying out the window. At this point, you may be looking for strategies on behavior management. But is behavior management what’s really needed, or is it something else? 

Behavior management is the term we often use in programming to describe keeping order, and there is no end to the number of approaches out there. However, if we look closer, we may find the words themselves are problematic. Google the definition of management, and you’ll find "the process of dealing with or controlling things or people." Other definitions include, the "judicious use of means to accomplish an end," which in many cases, the "end" equates to compliance. 

Control and compliance is far from what effective youth workers do when they design programming. Our goal is to help youth build skills to communicate effectively, and to help them develop agency in their lives. Sometimes this means learning to express their emotions in healthy ways. Sometimes it means learning to build awareness around their needs and how to communicate them to others. It might mean learning to navigate discomfort. In any sense, when we examine what’s really needed in program spaces, it’s not dealing with or controlling behaviors, it’s tuning in to what youth need and helping them develop the skills to meet those needs.  

In program spaces, there is a balance between meeting the needs of an individual and meeting the needs of the group. However, when we’re able to effectively help a young person in a group, we’re not only reaching that individual, we’re also modeling skills for the group as a whole. It may take time and require flexibility, but the learning that can happen with this approach is every bit as valuable as our well-laid plans. 

So how do we do this? When challenging behaviors come up, we can start by asking ourselves some questions: 
  • How am I feeling? Are there emotions or behaviors that are triggering me? If so, can I take a moment to name it and regulate myself before addressing the situation?
  • Is there an emotion beneath the behavior? If so, can we help youth identify that emotion, "name it to tame it," and validate it? Can we help them safely express it and/or provide a safe space for them to feel it? 
  • Is the youth experiencing a physical need? Are they hungry? Do they have a lot of energy in their body? If so, can we help them identify and meet that need? 
  • Does the youth want to be there? They may not have had voice or choice in participating in the program. If so, can you discuss this with the young person and work together to engage them, or talk to caregivers about allowing them to opt out? 
  • Is the topic or activity pushing them into discomfort? Past experiences may make certain topics feel vulnerable or unsafe. Can we help youth identify what they’re feeling and/or provide safe alternatives? 

A lot of things that can happen in programming appear like behaviors on the surface, but are really attempts at communicating needs. By asking these questions, we can start to see the needs beneath the behaviors, guiding youth to build skills and better understand themselves. 

Are there any questions you would add to this list? How have you addressed the needs beneath behaviors in programming?

-- Courtney Johnson & Katie Ecklund
Extension educators

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  1. Love this blog entry Katie and Courtney! It is so important to think about the behaviors being "needs based" when we are frustrated when working with youth AND adults! I also am so happy that you talked about emotions in this post--something I am working on in the new year is really starting to pay attention to what is going on in my body when I'm feeling those "big" emotions that put me straight into disregulated mode. How can I name those emotions without adding a story to them? Emotions are data! Thanks for these important words.

    1. Thanks Amy! I appreciate your thoughtful reflection. I agree, noticing emotions in our body is an important first step to staying regulated. It requires practice, mindfulness, and self-awareness, but when we're able to do it well, it impacts both how we're able to respond and what we're modeling for others. Not to mention, emotional energy is contagious, so being mindful of our own energy and emotions has an impact on everyone around us.

      And yes! Emotions are data. I've found the RULER approach (recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate) from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to be one helpful way of working with emotions. Such an important topic. Thanks for engaging with this work.

  2. Thank you Amy for your reply! I want to highlight your reflection on behaviors being “needs based” for adults too. I think that is really important to note. I have found now that I better understand emotions, self- awareness and mindfulness with youth, that I have more empathy and patience for myself and other adults. Life-long learning at it’s best!

  3. When in a 4-H program having enough volunteers and adults to support the program is absolutely vital when it comes to being able to support the youth and managing the variety of behaviors. (James Rutledge!) I recently hosted an after school program that involved 70+ youth, and because of the number of volunteers, youth leaders and adult support, I was able to manage behaviors effectively and efficiently. I was able to observe youth in the environment, and for one youth behavior, just having me in close proximity to their group the youth was able to refocus and rejoin the group in a positive way. Another youth I observed was overwhelmed by all the noise. I was able to provide the youth a quick reset and then they rejoined their group. I find that many times there is more behind why the youth is exhibiting that behavior (emotions or physical need). Sometimes they just want and need a moment of your time...and giving them the opportunity to share can greatly impact the rest of their experience in your 4-H program.

  4. Thank you for adding this - it is important to have a youth-adult ratio that supports this work. Another element you bring up is the importance of getting to know the youth and building a safe, positive relationship. This allows you to understand their needs better, and builds trust. Sounds like you're doing great work in recognizing needs and supporting young people in your programs!


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