Ask anyone who has spent any amount of time working in a park and rec program, and there is little doubt they’ll be able to regale you with tales of little Sebastian or Sarah who could not (or would not) follow a single rule. A child who refuses to get with the program can be a major drain on staff and volunteer time and effort, and ultimately does a disservice to all of the participants. While there is no silver bullet to take care of every potential problem behavior, there is something you can do to dramatically improve the likelihood that when behavior issues arise, they are quickly and effectively addressed.
Simply put, have rules and expectations that make sense to the children in your program. This seems pretty straightforward, right? Over the years I’ve seen rules that truly boggle the mind. For example, there was an after-school program in a gym (with no furniture or physical dividers) whose number-two rule was (wait for it) “no running.” That is somewhat like putting out bowls of candy and forbidding children to eat. In that setting, a no-running rule makes zero sense and will never be followed.
Rules That Fit
The first step in establishing rules and expectations that actively help eliminate problem behaviors is to let the activity itself determine and impose discipline whenever possible. In some cases, this is incredibly easy and happens almost automatically; in others, it takes more thought and effort. For example, in an archery program some of the safety rules make perfect sense (for example, don’t walk down-range until everyone is done shooting), and the consequences for failing to comply are apparent to even the most rambunctious and challenging child. In other programs—a toddler art and music class—the rules and accompanying consequences are less obvious and require some forethought and careful consideration.
Let’s use the toddler art and music example and look at a couple of challenges and rules/consequences that could be employed by staff members. Developmentally, toddlers have limited expressive (talking) and receptive (listening/comprehending) language skills and therefore are unable to understand most rationalizations that are not concretely connected in time and location. As a result, rules and expectations need to be logical and consistently enforced.
What do I mean by logical? A logical consequence is one that has a direct connection to the unwanted behavior and therefore can be easily understood by even a young child. For example, in the art class, if a child eats the paint, he or she loses the opportunity to paint for a short, 2- to 3-minute time period. By employing logical consequences, children can quickly connect their behavior and understand that, “If I do this,” then “This will happen.” The counter example is illogical consequences, where the consequence is not directly related to the problem behavior. Sticking with the paint-eating toddler, instead of losing the privilege to paint, a staff member threatens to withhold free-play at the end of the class. The disconnect between the time and location of the unwanted behavior and consequence reduces the likelihood that the problem behavior stops in the moment, and also damages the staff-child relationship when the free-play is withheld at a later (and to the child completely unrelated) time.
By The People
Another strategy that can be very effective in establishing rules and consequences that limit negative behaviors is to create a social contract with the participants whenever possible (children need to have some more advanced language skills, so this is probably best for youngsters age 4 and older). A social contract is an agreement facilitated by the adult leader/coach but is primarily created by the youth in the program. At the start of the first practice/class, the adult asks the children how they want to be treated and what consequences should follow if someone deviates from the mutually agreed-upon expectations. You might be amazed at how well even very young children can articulate positive behavior expectations (keep hands and feet to yourself, listen, be respectful, etc.), and correlating logical consequences. If something you believe is important isn’t addressed, staff members can always ask questions like, “What kind of words do we want to use with each other?” Do keep in mind that general (and shorter) social contracts tend to be more effective than ones that spell out every possible negative behavior. Once the contract is established, children typically take an active role in policing their own behavior; if someone is acting in a manner counter to the contract, their peers are likely to remind that person (and the adult) of any non-compliance.
Rules Are For Everyone
Again, this might seem straightforward, but I consistently come across programs in which adults don’t follow the same rules as the children, or worse yet, some children are given multiple warnings without a consequence, while others are constantly losing privileges. Once the rules and consequences are established (either by adults or the social contract), everyone needs to be held to the same standard, including the adult leaders.
Let’s look at one of my favorite sports—ice hockey—where behavior is a constant issue. Every youth hockey program I’ve seen or been a part of requires full equipment, including helmets. Similarly, every adult hockey program I’ve seen (including drop-in) requires a minimum that everyone wear a helmet (even on ice, officials wear them). The consequence for failing to comply is universal—no gear or helmet means the player is not allowed on the ice. That said, step into almost any rink on a weekend morning and you’ll find scores of youth hockey coaches on the ice without helmets (although they do tend to wear hockey gloves). This do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior does not go unnoticed by children, and it creates a disconnect that causes them to continually push limits and expectations to see if and where other exceptions can be found. It’s a natural desire to find the exception or loophole that leads to problem behaviors. By eliminating the exceptions, you effectively eliminate the need to seek them out. By following the same rules as participants (at the very least in their presence) and holding each other to the same consequences as young participants, we reinforce that fairness, equality—and ultimately safety—are top priorities.
The One Rule To Rule Them All
Finally, rules and consequences are ultimately in place so everyone can have a safe and enjoyable experience. Any rule that does not help accomplish this most basic need is unnecessary and by its very nature illogical. As you create expectations and/or a social contract, remind staff members why rules exist in the first place. This will reduce time spent dealing with problem behaviors and allow everyone to focus on the fun!
Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.