February 09, 2021

Lead With Empathy: Trying Behaviors Are Reflective of Trying Times.

By Ben Trentelman |  

Are we tired of loudly proclaiming “WHAT A YEAR!!!” yet? As we steadily approach the one year anniversary of our societal lock-down last March, I am happy to say that there is some hope on the horizon. While the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has gotten off to a messy start, it has started nonetheless. Admittedly, questions loom about when we as afterschool providers will get our shots, but we know they’re on the way, eventually. As the distribution rolls out, we’re having more conversations about our hopeful return to some form of normalcy. We may be months or even another year away from seeing exactly what normal will look like, but it is coming.

As we face this eventual return we are going to have to acknowledge the unique situations that we have all been in over the last year. Many parents are working from home, many students are still attending school and afterschool programs remotely, and those programs that are operating in-person are doing so in a much more limited capacity with restrictions on activities and enrollment. It has been a year of unease and constant transition with zero predictability. In working with youth, we should all understand that youth thrive and are most likely to succeed in well structured and predictable environments. This has been a jarring year, and I can’t count the number of times since last March that I’ve found myself in a surprise funk that has impacted my mental and physical state. I don’t think I’ve been alone in suddenly facing bouts of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that if I am feeling these things, it is safe to assume that the kids we work with are feeling these things as well.

As children are experiencing this mix of change and far-ranging and unexplainable emotions, they may not be able to identify or express what they are feeling. In not being able to express or discuss these complex emotions they may manifest in challenging behaviors. It is common for youth to seek control in their lives when things seem out of their control, and acting out can be one form of seeking that control.

As we work with youth we are going to first have to start with ourselves by acknowledging our own mental state, the challenges we are working through, and how that may manifest. Are we less tolerant? Irritable? Short-tempered? Coping with our own issues can make it challenging to support youth through their struggles. So make sure that you and your team have an effective system of support for one another. Take time to debrief and check-in. Make time outside of program hours to talk if you need to, and make an effort to acknowledge how you are responding to situations with youth. Avoid power struggles and engaging in negative exchanges. Before an activity begins, consider what challenges you may encounter and mentally prepare yourself with rehearsed strategies to positively redirect behaviors and engage with youth in a productive way. Creating a positive and safe environment for youth has to begin with us, and we need to embody that which we expect to see from the kids in our programs.

Next, acknowledge that there are so many external factors that may be influencing the behavior of youth in our programs. Don’t take things personally and don’t jump to disciplinary actions. This doesn’t mean to write a blank check for mayhem in your program, but instead, think about how you approach accountability and explore opportunities to build trust and clear expectations with youth. Look for opportunities to allow youth to express and acknowledge hard feelings during every activity. Create space for meaningful conversations about complex feelings, and allow youth to share their experiences. Through these exchanges, we can develop a better understanding of how youth are feeling and foster an environment of understanding and trust. It is very important for kids to understand that they aren’t alone in the feelings they are experiencing. This doesn’t mean that every activity needs to be a sharing circle or feel like a group therapy session but instead engage in dialogue while doing another activity. Arts, games, and athletics are opportunities that can support organic conversations and may allow youth to open up. Think about how you can incorporate conversations into your normal activities.

Utilize your team in supporting youth. If you are a coordinator or director, try to maintain some flexibility in your schedule to make sure you are available to support struggling youth so other staff are able to continue facilitating activities. Some youth may need a little more personal and one-on-one attention to work through things. It is also important to make sure your team is aligned in how you are supporting behavior, communicating clearly about situations that arise, and how to support youth through them. Maintaining strong communication with parents and other partners like school-day teachers and counselors can also help you better understand circumstances youth may be dealing with, helping to align the strategies in your program with support at home or at school. 

We are all learning how to navigate every step we take at the same time right now, and we have the opportunity to grow together. By acknowledging the personal distress and uncertainty we are feeling, we will build stronger relationships. In these unpredictable times, we have to be the predictable force in the lives of our children, which will give them the stability to act in more predictable ways. 

If you would like additional resources to support positive behavior management in your program, make sure to check out UAN's Program Quality page and Resource Library