Understanding & Addressing Challenging Behaviour

Youth Work supports young people where they are. Sometimes, this can mean you will need to understand and address challenging behaviour. Prepare your volunteers to be sensitive to the causes of this behaviour and find ways to limit it in the group.

Challenging Behaviour might involve conflict between young people or confrontation with youth leaders or those in authority. It can be provocative, threatening and/or disturbing. Whatever the circumstances, these conflict situations can generate strong emotions.

Challenging behaviour does not just happen – there are often underlying causes.  If the youth work volunteer is aware of the potential underlying causes, it is possible to empathise with young people and to find more constructive solutions. See below for some potential underlying causes of challenging behaviour, with ideas for possible constructive approaches for support.

Personal/medical issues (such as mental health issues, attention seeking, low motivation, boredom): 

  • Support young people sensitively
  • Build positive relationships & give encouragement to young people
  • Support young people to get involved
  • Signpost young people to appropriate external specialist advice and support

Group issues such as peer group pressure, reputation:

  • Build positive relationships with young people
  • Encourage young people’s involvement in deciding youth group activities

Family and external issues such as lack of parental control and/or encouragement, family and personal problems, erratic attendance:

  • Support young people sensitively
  • Build positive relationships and give encouragement to young people
  • Signpost young people to appropriate external specialist advice and support

Youth group organisation issues such as inconsistency of management, inappropriate activities, clash of values:

  • Work within the code of practice for your youth group
  • Use the Plan – Do – Review approach to designing appropriate activities
  • Work with volunteers and youth workers to ensure good communication and a consistent message

There are many ways to help limit challenging behaviour:

  • Maintain relationships and build trust by being honest, fair and consistent, and having a sense of humour
  • Develop positive body language, maintaining eye contact and aiming to look relaxed, confident, assured and calmly assertive.
  • Look for positive behaviour and comment on it: praise can be instrumental in changing attitudes and boosting self-esteem
  • Be aware of what can make a conflict situation worse (talking over and interrupting, showing disrespect by looking disinterested or looking away, and mood matching by responding to anger and a raised voice with the same thing)

You can also consider the Three Steps to Conflict Resolution:

1.) Listen to what the other person has to say: In conflict situations, people often talk over each other and focus so much on getting their own point across that they don’t hear what the other person is really saying. Take a moment to focus in and really try to understand what is being said.

2.) Tell them how you feel and what you think should be done to resolve the problem: Be assertive and inform group members that conflict can only be resolved if both parties are prepared to address the problem. Everyone involved must be able to express their opinion.

3.) Negotiate a mutually agreeable solution: The goal in any conflict resolution is to achieve a win-win result for the people involved. Compromises are essential but it is important everyone leaves feeling that there are no losers.


Bullying is never acceptable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Youth workers have developed a number of ways to tackle bullying. All have the underlying aim of developing young people’s self-esteem and self-worth, through building confidence and skills to deal with conflict.

It’s a good idea for youth groups to establish a charter, code of practice, or ground rules that lay out the type of behaviour expected at the youth group.  This is most effective when young people, volunteers and workers come together to agree the content.

See a Sample Anti-Bullying Policy

What is included will vary between youth groups, but normally includes:

  • Respect each other
  • No bullying
  • No fighting
  • No name calling or swearing at each other
  • If you bully or are being bullied you can talk to any of the workers about it. They will listen to you and try to help you.
  • Everyone has a responsibility to stop others being hurt or upset by bullying. Tell a worker if you or someone you know is bullying or is being bullied.
  • Look after the equipment and the building.  If something gets broken or damaged, tell a leader.
  • If you are going to leave the premises, tell a leader.
  • Listen to instructions
  • Get involved and give activities a go (but no one will be forced to do anything they don’t want to do)

Many youth groups have a copy of their code of practice / ground rules displayed, as a reminder to young people, workers and volunteers.

It’s also important to ensure that young people know and understand the consequences of breaking the rules.

This practical exercise encourages new volunteers to think through their response to a conflict situation.

Imagine the following scenario occurs at the youth group:

An argument starts between two young people, you do not witness how it starts or what it is about.  The argument quickly escalates to shouting and name calling. 

Think about the role of the volunteer youth worker:

  • How should the volunteer youth worker react?
  • What should the volunteer do to try and resolve the conflict?
  • How might the young people involved in the conflict situation be feeling?
  • Is there anything that can be done to reduce the likelihood of a similar conflict situation occurring in the future?

Discuss your thoughts with other volunteers or the induction supervisor.  If more than one new volunteer is undergoing induction, this can be done as a group exercise.

Learning Outcomes

Volunteers who complete this exercise should:

  • Be sensitive to some of the underlying causes of challenging behaviour, and be aware of bullying as a particular type of challenging behaviour.
  • Learn how to develop constructive approaches and ways to limit challenging behaviour.
  • Learn their youth group’s approach to resolving conflict.