How Should You Respond to Youth Behavior?

Back to School season means new routines and rhythms, and a chance for a bit of a reset in afterschool. The current state of the COVID pandemic as of the writing of this blog (August 2021 in case you are reading this from ~* the future*~) has some things still up in the air, but regardless of how your site will be operating this fall, it’s not a bad idea to take a few moments to take a look at your Club’s behavior expectations, see what could use an update, then get everyone on the same page. But before you do that, you need to be clear on what kinds of behavior you need to include in those expectations.

Broadly speaking, behavior is an observable action and form of communication. You don’t want to just react to behavior. You want to support youth by understanding and helping them to understand what they are communicating with their actions, and then use that information to adjust their environment and teach skills that support positive behavior. Learn more about what this means in the ClubX Blog post What Is Behavior Really?

It is important to clearly define behavior within your Club’s or Youth Center’s policies. If you do not have clear definitions for behavior, it may be open to staff interpretation, and how staff interpret a young person’s actions can affect how they respond. Clear definitions help everyone interpret actions in a similar way. Your Club should create specific definitions that work for your youth, but generally speaking, there are three categories of behavior we may see in afterschool:

Positive behavior is defined as an action that communicates a young person’s thoughts and feelings in ways that promote safety and connection with peers and Club staff. For example, a young person helping a peer with homework, or a young person helping staff set or clean up an activity.

Concerning/Challenging behavior is defined as an action that negatively impacts a young person’s participation in Club activities or relationships with others. For example, a young person refusing to clean up a game, or a group of youth excluding one member.

Unsafe behavior is defined as an action that places other youth or staff at risk for immediate physical, social or emotional harm. For example, fighting, running away or throwing items at staff or youth.

I love that positive behavior is included in this list! So often we only focus on the negative, but a powerful way to encourage others to display positive behavior is to name it specifically, and then call it out when it is seen! Including positive behaviors in youth-led group agreements and emotional check-ins also allow youth to support and encourage one another. What might happen if you mention positive behavior as much as you mention negative? How might that change the experience of youth at your Club?

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Once you’ve defined the types of behavior you may see, its time to outline how staff should respond when they see it. It is important to respond to all behavior in ways that center youth and help them identify and communicate their feelings. It is also important that staff responses promote positive behavior and honor the youth’s family and cultural values. Outlining expectations for how staff should respond to behavior can help youth development professionals respond more confidently and calmly to all types of behavior. Be sure to cover them all, including positive! For example:

  • Positive Behavior: Staff will respond by sending a note of appreciation home about the positive behavior, thanking the young person aloud, or giving them a Club buck.
  • Concerning/Challenging Behavior: Staff will respond to concerning behavior by using a calm voice, pulling youth aside, and finding a safe space before processing what happened.

Responding to unsafe behavior is a bigger issue. Behavior becomes unsafe when actions place youth, staff or volunteers at risk for immediate physical, social or emotional harm. Unsafe behavior is different from concerning behavior, and understanding the difference between them and responding accordingly is important. It is critical to their safety, and the safety of others that youth development professionals receive adequate training and support on how to respond to unsafe behavior.

You can learn more about creating an Unsafe Behavior Policy, as well as tools to guide your staff through all of the discussion and planning in this post and so much more, on the Plan page of the Behavior Support Toolkit.

Revisiting these policies on a regular basis, both to make sure they are still working and to remind staff and youth of what they are, is vital. Those of us who work with young people know that they are always surprising us, whether by the initiative they can take as leaders with their peers, or by trying out some new prank they saw on TikTok that we have never seen before! When something happens, if staff is clear on how you define the three categories of behavior, they will know how to respond appropriately. If staff respond to concerning behaviors differently, it can be confusing for youth, and potentially lead to more behavior concerns. Be sure to keep lines of communication open and consider things like daily huddles or weekly staff meetings to connect about new issues that may arise.

Everyone understanding behavioral expectations will create a Club culture that supports and encourages youth, and will allow staff to focus on safe play, exploration and skill-building, and most importantly on FUN!

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How do you support youth in understanding their behavior? Are you using the tools in the Behavioral Support Toolkit? We want to hear! Contact us by commenting below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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