Working with Youth: From Frazzled to Dazzled: Part 1 Back »

Written by Andrea Knox, former SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development & Resiliency Field Specialist.

Each person brings their own unique talents and experiences in working with youth to their role as a 4-H volunteer.  While there will inevitably be a youth or two that disrupt group learning and fun; key techniques can help prevent many of those behaviors and leave the group feeling dazzled rather than frazzled!  In Part 1 of this series we discussed the process of developing group guidelines.  This time we are going to focus on what to do to prevent problem behaviors, techniques to prevent such behaviors can be categorized into three general areas; Planning Ahead, Taking an Interest in Each Child and focusing on Positive Interactions.  The University of Illinois Extension provides the following useful tips for each category:


Planning and preparing ahead of time gives more time for youth to work at a task, which in turn provides you with flexibility. Plan activities carefully - read, understand and practice or think through giving directions for new activities.

Schedule and Guidelines:

A predictable schedule and rules provide the structure needed for a feeling of security.

  • Make the meeting/program schedule predictable (i.e., each meeting begins with the president calling the meeting to order and the group saying the pledges, etc.)
  • Have clear guidelines.  Have the group develop and vote on the rules.  Post them and consequences for not following these rules at each meeting.

Materials & Equipment:

  • Make a list of necessary materials and prepare them at least one day before the group meets

Transition Times:


  • Create a quiet signal to help bring the group together.
  • Provide "gathering" activities to get youth interested when they first arrive.
  1. Doodling: newsprint or a blackboard where youth can write/draw
  2.  Music: Have music playing when youth arrive
  3. Games:  Have games that allow for adding new participants


  • Make sure you have the group’s attention before you speak.  Have them face you, sit down and/or stop action.  Use the quiet signal, if needed.
  • Use “pause” phrases to get ready for action.  Instead of saying, "Now we are going outside" which will result in them bolting to the door, try saying, "After I finish explaining what we are doing, we will be going outside."
  • In addition to telling youth what to do, explain how to carry out your directions.  Instead of saying, "Move the chairs to the wall," you might say, "If your birthday falls during the first half of the year, you may move your chair quietly to that wall and then come back and sit on the floor."


As you plan for youth activities, take into consideration each person’s interests, learning style, personality, and the environment they come from.  Below are a few tips for planning for these individual differences.

Shy youth: 

  •  Pre-assign youth partners.
  •  Have ice-breaker activities that ensure that all youth participate.
  •  Call the youth by name and encourage their participation, assistance, etc.

Forming small groups:

  • To encourage new friends or stop cliques from forming, use ideas such as: a deck of cards, matching toys, or birthday months to divide groups.
  • To form interest-based groups allow youth to choose from several activities.

Early finishers:

  • Plan open-ended activities that extend until the time period ends.  (i.e., Instead of "write three ideas for the project,” say "You have five minutes, write as many ideas as you can think of.")
  • Use early finishers as helpers for those who are having trouble.


  • Younger children are more interested in the process; older youth want to complete an item and have the activity serve a purpose and be meaningful to them. 
  • Set up the activity so that completing it can be simple or complex. (i.e., younger members complete three texture rubbings, while older members may asked to do three rubbings that show different types of lines)
  • Refer to Volunteer Research Knowledge and Competency (VRKC) lessons that contain details about Ages and Stages of Youth Development and how to plan age-appropriate events and activities.


The members of a group want to be accepted. Those who do not feel like they are part of the group will tend to lose interest and create disturbances.  To prevent this, it is important to promote acceptance and cooperation among the group rather than competition!

How do we encourage acceptance?

  • Accept each person for who he/she is - try to understand what is going on in the child's life. Show concern, ask about interests, and give praise and attention.
  • Separate the child from the behavior when approving or disapproving of their actions.  Instead of saying, "I am angry with you,” try saying "I am upset that you kicked Tommy-that really hurt him." In this way, you show that you accept the child, but not his action.
  • Help members of the group to be considerate of each other. Encourage open dialog among members of the group and assist them in rephrasing inappropriate statements if necessary. They too can learn to separate the person from the behavior.
  • Look for ways in which each child can contribute and feel valuable to the group. Everyone has a special talent to share. If a member is being disruptive, give him/her a job to do. This will distract from the disruptive behavior and allow them to feel helpful.
  • Promote a cooperative environment rather than a competitive environment. Plan activities that require all members of the group to work together. Set goals that compare the individual to him/her instead of others.  Instead of saying, "Sammy is cleaning up faster than you" say, "You did so well cleaning up last time; let's see if you can do that again this time.”

Tips to prevent problem behaviors will make a big difference.  However, problem behaviors will likely still arise from time to time.  The final article in this three part series will discuss techniques on how to deal with problem behaviors when they do arise.   


University of Illinois Extension 4-H Volunteer Development

“Behavior Management: How to Keep Your Cool While Working with Youth Groups”

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