not punishers

creators not punishers

At the 2nd ETS conference, ‘Quality Bonus’ (March 2022), a small workshop took place about the FOCUS learning project and included a presentation of the web site, the publication and all the resources. In the workshop discussion one of the participants asked if we had something about, “holding young people accountable for their actions” in the publication. I said that we did not and initially did not see a connection to learning in youth work. But then I suddenly realised that moments where young people have done “something wrong” or are in trouble for something or are being challenged about something, these are amazing moments for learning.

Creating Learning Opportunities

One of my favourite books on youth work is a small publication from 1980 by Mark Smith titled, Creators not Consumers. In the story of the ice skating trip, on which the publication is based, Mark Smith describes how the young people are given the responsibilities to organise everything and how some of them succeed and how some of them screw up. The important thing is that all of the actions of the young people are seen as learning opportunities. Where one of the young people was not able to complete their task or did it wrong the youth workers were on hand to go though the problems with them and encourage them to try again. 

While this example is not about young people breaking a rule or misbehaving in some way, for me the concept is the same, it is about young people screwing up. Rather than telling a young person off or punishing them for getting into a fight or making graffiti on the wall or being sexist or homophobic towards another young person… as a youth worker we have the opportunity to go through what has happened or what they are doing and encourage them to try another way next time. We have the possibility to turn this situation into a learning opportunity.

Challenging Behaviours

A behaviour that is considered problematic by us may not be by the young person, do they know the house rules or are they coming from a different cultural attitude where such a behaviour is not considered as “bad” but is considered as normal – for example talking about and exhibiting far right principles and values. The behaviour being shown may be the result of something going on in their lives and is a way of seeking attention or fighting back against a world that “hates” them. A certain behaviour by a young person that we find objectionable may be their solution to dealing with some challenges they are coming across in their life. They may be bored, they may be hurting, they may be angry, they may be pushing boundaries, they may be just being an annoying, spiteful, hurtful adolescent (not a judgement just a reality, we were all adolescence and some of us were just like this at times).


When a young person does something wrong, society punishes them: detention at school, being grounded by parents, arrested by the police, sanctioned by social services, put under restrictions by probation, banned from skateboarding in this park, being shouted abuse at by the neighbours of the street corner they like to hang out on. One of the keys to youth work is to buiId a strong, adult – young person, relationship that is based on mutual respect and while acknowledging there is still a hierarchy, avoiding as much as possible making this a core part of the relationship – something that many of the institutions / groups above cannot do by the nature of their role.

So What Should We Do?

So what do we do as youth workers do when a young person exhibits challenging behaviours or does something wrong, something that requires an authoritative response from the youth worker? What is our responsibility, what should be our response? 

In some cases there will need to be a strong intervention to defuse a situation, especially if physical or verbal violence is being used. Whatever the situation, we need eventually to find ways to talk with the young person or persons and find out what is going on. Why are they being late for every session on the youth exchange, why the violence or graffiti or bullying… In many instances, at least at the beginning, there will probably not be a reasonable answer, maybe they will get defensive or start verbally attacking you or blaming others.

Regardless of this our role is to try to get to a position of understanding the young persons perspective, where they are coming from and where this behaviour has come from. This can be done by endeavouring to connect with them using questions, creating a dialogue, using active listening, and ensuring they know they are being heard. And part of the answer is trying to get them, through this same dialogue, to understand that they have done something wrong and that it has consequences for them and possibly for others.

Easy to say, not easy to do, high emotions can block any means of dialogue, the moment of the “crime” may not be the moment to talk, it can be better to let things calm down and speak to the young person the next day or a few days later.

Regardless of when, what could this look like in reality? I want to briefly explore 4 possible approaches for working with a young person who has done something that demands such a response from the youth worker.

Asking the young person to decide what the consequences on them should be

I was just watching one of my favourite TikTok creators @wellandsepticlife (24 May) and James Butler, the guy who owns Well and Septic company, was sharing about having to discipline employees now and again and how much he hates to do it. His point was that, when he has to take disciplinary action, how can he know how long an employee should be suspended for? He states that he does not know the full story behind why this employee behaved in this certain way that led to this discipline action needing to be taken, he does not know what they need as the employee. So he has adopted a policy of asking the employee to take responsibility for their suspension on the basis that they are the best judge to know when they are ready to come back to work; “you are suspended, you are suspended until you are ready to come back to work and only you are the judge of that, so go home, think about it, take some time and we will see you back when you are ready”. 

Is this something that could work in youth work, would we be willing to speak with a young person, to go over with them what has happened and ask them to decide what should be done and rather than imposing a punishment?

Restorative justice – what can they as the young person do to make things right?

The concept of restorative justice exists in a small number of countries and cultures around the world, it is also an approach used in conflict transformation work. Here the point is not to punitively punish – because you committed crime “X” your punishment is “Y”. Here the concept is to look at what has happened, to try and understand why it has happened with the person involved and work out with them what they can do to make things right – or as right as possible. If you take from the community then it is only right that you give back to the community (this is a very generalised and simplified explanation of restorative justice, please check it out if you want to know more).

Maybe they come up with the idea that they repaint the wall that they tagged. Maybe they would be prepared to meet with the young people they offended with their discriminatory language, to learn about how and why the words used were offensive and hurt. Maybe they would be willing to volunteer in the youth club to help set up and clear up on a youth club night. Maybe they would come up with the idea that they could attend and support an event or activity organised by other young people.

Exploring the consequences of their actions

Getting the young person to explore the potential consequences of their actions, the basic question here is, “If “X” behaviour continues, what are the different things that could happen?” Then using further questions to encourage the young person to explore the possible answers to the first question.

  • What kinds of reactions might come from the other young people?
  • In what ways could this change the relationship between the youth club and you?
  • What actions might the youth club have to take?
  • How does it make you feel when you see the other young people / youth workers upset with you?”

Guiding the young person through this process is not going to be easy or straightforward, the questions will need to be tailored to that specific young person and the situation that has happened. There will most likely be a lot of denial and blaming of others, but even if small steps can be taken here, it is a big thing for many young people.

Young people as community

If other young people are coming to you complaining about this young person because they are being a bully, making graffiti on a wall, damaging the property, being offensive, sharing hate speech or promoting far right conspiracy theories, encourage them to talk to the individual(s) concerned. If there is a strong sense of ownership from the other young people, they will want to defend their physical space, the individuals that make up their group, and their normally “safe” space. When they see the building as their own and maybe even painted parts of it themselves they will probably feel offended by others who tagged it with graffiti.

This will almost certainly need some prior work with those young people so they are not verbally attacking the individual and can construct how to say what they want to say in a constructive way, so they can express their annoyance or hurt in a way that puts the message across that the actions of this individual(s) has an affect on them and they want it to stop.


The actual approach we take with the young person who has done “something wrong” will vary according to our relationship with them, their relationship or connection to the youth organisation, the severity of what they have done or been involved in, and the level of the emotions involved in that moment. But before anything, we need to engage with the young person(s) and bring calm to chaos, not add to it. It could be in that moment or it might be some days later, whenever it is, it’s important to get that dialogue started in order to understand where this young person is at and try to discover what is behind these actions. If we can get some forward steps going, great. The next challenge is to get the young person to see the learning that has taken place for them and then how they can transfer that learning to their everyday life (see chapter 4 of the FOCUS learning publication).

However, in reality things do not always go so smoothly, the young person may reject all our attempts at trying to engage them, their emotional / mental state, aggression or violence may be beyond what we can deal with. Then the learning is ours, knowing when to step back or pass on to someone with the right background or qualification who will be able to work with this young person. It may also be a long line of rejections by this young person but we keep going, if nothing else to show them that we care, and maybe one day we break through – even a little bit – and they acknowledge something of their responsibility… that’s youth work!

It is about young people screwing up. Rather than telling a young person off or punishing them for getting into a fight or making graffiti on the wall or being sexist or homophobic towards another young person… as a youth worker we have the opportunity to go through what has happened or what they are doing and encourage them to try another way next time.

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