How to handle challenging behaviour

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When Scouts goes well, it’s a joyous thing, creating connections and lasting memories. However, sometimes certain behaviours can present challenges. We spoke to authors and educators Paul Dix and Noël Janis-Norton to get their thoughts on how volunteers can help to promote positive behaviour      

Words: Asad Zulfiqar | Illustration: Lucy Sherston


What is challenging behaviour?

Firstly, the term ‘distressed behaviour’ might be used instead. Challenging behaviour makes the behaviour about the difficulty it places on the adults, while distressed behaviour changes the narrative to focusing instead on the source of the behaviour: the young person’s distress. The behaviour ranges across various forms of disruptive
or anti-social behaviours, such as physical or verbal abuse, or anything else that presents challenges for an adult (and the young person too).


Why does distressed behaviour happen?

There is no ‘one cause fits all’ for distress, but the biggest reasons are the most obvious ones: fear, pain or anxiety. If a young person joins a new group, or feels afraid
at home, or is being bullied, then they will very quickly become uncomfortable and eventually display this in their behaviour.  

Beyond the more alarming causes, a lot of challenging behaviour can
be borne out of simple curiosity. The type of behaviour that may be encouraged in general, may not be helpful to adults during specific situations. All behaviour is communication; trying to understand the source of the behaviour can help in trying to lessen their distress.


How should adults promote positive behaviour in young people?

Use descriptive praise and reflective listening. Instead of criticising their behaviour, frame your interactions with young people by pointing out specific parts of their behaviour that you want them to keep doing, such as ‘You didn’t interrupt me,’ or
‘You weren’t bossy today’.

Reflective listening has two simple steps: try to understand how the young person is feeling, then speak to them about your understanding of their feelings. This will let them feel heard, prompt them to reflect on their feelings to new depths, and is useful to both the adult and the young person in forming a relationship.


What reactions could inadvertently escalate a situation?

Tutting, eye rolling, crossing your arms, letting the child know ‘You’ve made me upset or angry’ – anything that displays your own emotions while ignoring the young person’s. Your own feelings are irrelevant to the situation, so leave your ego to one side. It is important to prepare for success, rather than trying to pick up the pieces if things go wrong.


How might our own life experiences affect how we react to distressed behaviour?

Massively. It’s very healthy to be aware that everyone, yourself included, has unconscious biases. It’s also very evident when you look at national statistics. More boys than girls are excluded; more working-class boys than middle- or upper-class boys are excluded; a disproportionate number of children of colour are excluded. Behaviour in boys tends to be louder and more boisterous than behaviour in girls, who can behave just as ‘badly’, so to speak, but less obviously and prominently than boys. It’s easy as an adult leading a group of young people to focus on the more apparent behaviour, but not as helpful as catching all the behaviour.

This example focuses on gender biases, but we have biases that operate on a class and a race level, as well as other social characteristics. Unconscious biases can be specific to specific types of behaviour also; some adults may overreact to being interrupted, whereas they remain calm during physical violence among young people. It’s important to catch these in ourselves, and plan to minimise them.


What reactions can effectively de-escalate a situation?

When you’re aware of your unconscious biases, it’s important then to be sure to plan your language. Instead of saying, ‘You’ve dropped that piece of paper on the floor,’ which invites a defensive reaction, say, ‘I notice you’ve dropped a piece of paper,’ which invites conversation. 

By planning your language as a group of volunteers, it makes you a team instead of individuals leading young people. You can’t get played off of each other, because you’re all focused and employing the same strategy and style. It’s important to not pass judgement: you are not the judge of these young people, but are meant to be leading them through activities. 

One effective strategy is to speak calmly in a situation away from the group and ask a young person, ‘What’s going on?’ This avoids passing judgement and shows you
are interested in finding out what they are struggling with, again inviting a conversation. You could also ask the young person, ‘How can we move on?’ Most young people are aware of appropriate natural consequences or ways they can restore, rebuild or repair relationships following their actions.


Four useful steps in de-escalation:

  • Move nearer to the young person; sometimes by simply being closer, the young person will relax their behaviour.
  • Instruct them to do what you want them to do instead of what you want them to stop doing, ending the instruction with a ‘please’. Avoid repeating yourself.
  • Either remove an object if that is the source of the disruption, or remove the young person from the situation by taking them to the side and allowing them to calm down.
  • When they’ve calmed down, however long it takes, revisit the event and encourage them to reflect on what happened.


What are the best strategies to use after an incident of very distressed behaviour?

Remain calm, acknowledge the young person’s distress and focus on the outcomes you want to achieve in the activity you’re doing. Try to make time to ‘check-in’ with the young person later in the session; this can help to ensure they know you are not holding their behaviour against them. This also offers them a chance to move on and have a fresh start. Again, it’s important to leave your own emotions at the door.


Why does challenging behaviour affect leaders and other helpers?

We’re all human beings and so we all get affected by other people’s language. Of course, we’re going to have our feelings hurt in some way here or there. We won’t always be pleased with our group or certain members. However, we can’t let that get in the way when we’re still leading the group.

Don’t complicate matters; focus on the outcomes and make sure everyone, volunteers and young people alike, does the same. Make sure you talk with the other leaders in your section or group – often it’s reassuring to know that other volunteers have had similar experiences. This is also a good way to begin thinking about different strategies or solutions for the future.


How can I support young people to feel safer in their section?

Make them feel heard, seen and listened to. Encourage them to engage with the activities; let the young people shape them. Try and have fun with them. If you can get them smiling they will be much more responsive than if they’re bored or distressed. Treat new members with extra attention if it makes them feel more welcome, and encourage them to connect with each other. It’s fine to break into little groups, but if they can mingle with others as well it will help grow their confidence.


Who can I go to for more advice and support with challenging behaviour? 

If you are new to Scouts, ask your training advisor or manager about Module 15: Promoting Positive Behaviour. The Scouts also have a safeguarding team available to speak with. Contact or ring the safeguarding team on 0345 300 1818 (this includes an out-of-hours system for urgent calls). We understand that sometimes this will be a difficult call for you to make. We’ve also compiled various resources on challenging behaviour on our website, which you can find here. 

Paul Dix is a best-selling author and educator who focuses on behaviour, and is the director of behaviour specialists Pivotal Education. His latest book, When the Adults Change, Everything Changes, is available in bookshops and online.

Noël Janis-Norton is a best-selling author, educator and big fan of Scouts, who focuses on behaviour. She is also the global director of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching. Her latest book, Calmer Easier Happier Screen Time, is available in bookshops and online.

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