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Ohio State University Extension


Facilitating Positive Behavior in 4-H

4-H Youth Development
Joyce A. Shriner, CFLE, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development/Area #18 Leader, Ohio State University Extension, Hocking County

A preschooler screaming while running laps around 4-H members; teens on their cell phones; friends having private conversations; a member having a meltdown; 4-H members missing meetings due to other activities—these are a few examples of behavior challenges that volunteers may need to address during 4-H meetings. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide tips on facilitating behavior challenges.

Behavior is “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others” according to the Google Dictionary. Volunteers can help members learn to behave appropriately during 4-H club meetings and while representing 4-H at public events. Friendly 4-H behavior is achieved by structuring meetings and activities to accommodate children’s ability to pay attention, discussing expected behavior, documenting expectations, rewarding positive behavior, addressing negative behavior, and learning how to accommodate youth with special needs.

A Well-Planned Program

According to Konen and Elliott (1999), “Effective behavior management is rooted in good program organization and strong leadership. Well-prepared, relevant, and exciting programs will capture the imaginations and energy of the participants.” To set the ground rules for behavior, 4-H volunteers should share university guidance on the topic with 4-H families early in the club year. The Volunteer Standards of Behavior and Ohio 4-H Code of Conduct list basic expectations for participation. Beyond these, ensure that the meeting location is safe, the ratio of volunteers to youth is low and that no youth is ever alone with one adult. Allow the club officers to run the meetings, which should be kept short and on topic. Invite and encourage parents to attend.

Engage club members in deciding on the club rules (the by-laws). The by-laws may include the requirements for attendance, excused absences, reports, demonstrations, what constitutes a complete project, community service, etc. When youth are involved in developing the rules, they will be more likely to understand the rationale behind them, the consequences for breaking them, and be more inclined to choose to behave appropriately. Keep the number of rules to a minimum, and, only make rules that volunteers have the authority to enforce. After the by-laws are approved, ask each member to sign them to indicate understanding and agreement with them. Provide a signed copy to each family. When conversations to correct behavior are necessary, the signed by-laws can be used as a tool to remind parents and members of the agreement they made to follow the rules.

Plan meetings in which youth are actively engaged so they are less likely to be disruptive or display negative behaviors, which often result from boredom or lack of attention. Limit the club business meeting to 15-20 minutes; engage members in learning through demonstrations, health and safety talks, guest speakers, project work, or community service activities for 30- 45 minutes; and allow 15-25 minutes for team building and fun through recreation, refreshments, and social activities (Ohio 4-H Volunteer Handbook). Mix up the order of the meeting from time to time to keep members involved and on-time.

Reward Positive Behavior Publicly

Volunteers should model the behavior they expect from youth by treating others as they want to be treated. Encourage pro-social behavior by catching and recognizing members who are behaving well. Reward positive behavior with praise or other recognition such as a smile, nod, thumbs-up gesture, or high-five in the presence of other members. 

Address Negative Behavior

Volunteers should “carefully observe interactions among members so that they are able to quickly address potential issues” (Cassels, Post & Nestor 2015, p. 5). The way in which the volunteer responds to the behavior may de-escalate or exacerbate the situation. The Crisis Prevention Institute (2016) provides the following de-escalation tips:

  1. Be empathic and nonjudgmental
  2. Respect personal space—stay 1½ to 3 feet away from the child
  3. Use nonthreatening nonverbal communication—Be mindful of your gestures, facial expressions, movements, and tone of voice
  4. Avoid overreacting
  5. Focus on feelings
  6. Ignore challenging questions—redirect attention to the issue
  7. Set limits—Be clear, speak simply, and offer the positive choice first
  8. Choose wisely what you insist upon
  9. Allow silence for reflection
  10. Allow time for decisions

Often negative behavior is an effort to gain attention. Avoid rewarding minor misbehavior with attention. However, if the behavior is unsafe or disruptive, it should be addressed immediately and consistently. Use redirection, distraction, and logical and natural consequences to correct unwanted behaviors. To redirect, use a short phrase like “What are you supposed to be doing?” or “What needs to be done next?” or “Thanks for staying with us” to refocus the member’s attention. If members are beginning to misbehave because the current conversation or activity has gone on too long, use distraction to help them correct their behavior. Distract them by tabling the topic and moving on to another topic or part of the meeting, like recreation or refreshments. Consequences that relate logically and naturally to behaviors may also be used. For example, arriving late might mean missing recreation or refreshments if they were first on the meeting agenda. Failing to put away a cell phone might result in the need to give it to a volunteer to keep during the meeting.

The severity of the consequence should be related to the violation. For minor misbehavior—such as picking on the child seated next to them or chatting with others during the meeting—the volunteer can take the youth aside, explain the situation and need for correction. One approach might be, “Here is the problem, what can we do about it?” (Konen & Elliott 1999). If the behavior continues, a volunteer could be seated between the children.

Removing the 4-H member is a more serious consequence. The member is removed from the activity for a brief time. He or she is told to sit on the outside of the activity to calm down and think about the behavior until he or she is ready to re-enter the group and try again.

Isolation from the group to a different, supervised location for a significant amount of time is a more severe consequence. This allows the group activity to continue and helps the youth understand the severity of the problem behavior. If this level of consequence is needed, the club volunteer should have a conversation with the youth and his or her parents to discuss the behavior and remind them of the expectations for behavior if the child wants to remain in 4-H. Before he or she may return to the next club meeting, he or she must agree to abide by the club’s rules. Requiring parents to attend future meetings might help to resolve the issue.

The highest level of consequence may be permanent removal of the member from the club. Before this consequence is used, club volunteers should have a conversation with their supervising 4-H professional about the offending behavior(s) and plan to terminate the member.

Accommodate Special Needs

As higher percentages of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other neurobehavioral disorders, many 4-H clubs have members with special needs. Volunteers may need more education and help in this area (Mpofu, Ingram & Radhakrishna 2010). Volunteers can have an honest conversation with parents of special needs youth and ask for their help and guidance in meeting their child’s needs. Ask parents to complete the Winning 4-H Plan Request Form—Ohio 4-H’s accommodation plan for 4-H members with disabilities. Share the request with the county 4-H professional so he or she can arrange accommodations during county-wide 4-H events. Volunteers can also ask their county 4-H professional for assistance. This could include a request for a session on setting expectations and making reasonable accommodations for special needs youth during the annual volunteer training.  

Volunteers may use multiple methods to assure members behave appropriately during club meetings and public 4-H events. Those who provide structure and guidance to members should have more productive 4-H meetings.


Cassels, A., Post, L., & Nestor, P. I. (2015). The 4-H club meeting: An essential youth development strategy. Journal of Extension, 53(1). Retrieved from

Crisis Prevention Institute. (2016). CPI's top 10 de-escalation tips. Retrieved December 22, 2017, from

Google Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2017, from

Konen, J. H. & Elliott, C. (1999). Effective behavior management [Fact sheet]. Ohio State University Extension, Columbus.

Mpofu, C., Ingram, P.D., & Radhakrishna, R. (2010). Perceptions of 4-H extension educators and volunteer leaders toward the inclusion of youth with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder(s) in 4-H programs. Journal of Youth Development, 5(1) 16-28.

Ohio State University Extension. (n.d.). Ohio 4-H Volunteer Handbook. Retrieved September 24, 2018, from

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Originally posted Dec 3, 2018.