Ask anyone who has spent any amount of time working in a parks 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.