Behaviour that challenges

Handling challenging or distressing behaviour in your unit

Sometimes members can behave in ways that are challenging and distressing to themselves and those around them.

On this page:

In Girlguiding, the five essentials show our commitment to caring for the individual. As part of this, all our members should be considerate to the needs and wants of others. This helps us all have a great guiding experience.

Sometimes members can behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, to themselves and those around them. There can be a range of reasons motivating these behaviours, but leaders and others in the unit should be sensitive when dealing with behaviour that's challenging. By showing understanding and building good relationships we can reduce the distress caused.

What is behaviour that challenges?

The way people behave always has a purpose or intent behind it. Some disabled people can find it hard to communicate what they want or how they're feeling, so react in ways that are challenging.

This can cause distress and anxiety for the young member, the wider group or for volunteers.

These behaviours could be:  

  • Aggressive or harmful - such as hitting, kicking or biting others.
  • Destructive - such as breaking things.
  • Cause injury to them or others - such as banging heads, pulling or poking eyes.

They might not have much control over this behaviour and might not recognise it as a problem for others.

How they communicate and how they feel can be affected by: 

  • Their impairment: some impairments can cause involuntary movement or make it hard to control behaviours.
  • The environment: some people can find certain environments distressing, for example where it's loud or there are people they don’t know.
  • How they've learnt about interacting with others: if someone has learnt structured ways of communicating, they can act differently if those methods aren’t followed.

For example, Adele is on the autistic spectrum and becomes distressed when someone stands too close to her. She feels safer having people at a distance, and she wants to feel safe. This is her intent.

When someone stands close to Adele and doesn’t move, it becomes very frustrating as she can’t explain her need for space. Adele could then hit the person near her to get that person to move away. This is the behaviour.

This results in distress for the person who got hit and people around them, and they find the behaviour challenging. If there had been another way of understanding Adele’s intent, that behaviour could have been avoided.

At times we can all be challenged by another person’s behaviour. How and when this happens can depend on many things like:

  • Who we are, our knowledge, skills and experience.
  • The time and place. Factors like our energy levels and how many people we're working with.
  • Our previous experience of this behaviour: are we used to it or is it new to us?
  • Our connection to the person: do we know them well and have a trusting relationship with them?
  • Our expectations and understanding: any information we have about them.

We use the phrase ‘behaviour that challenges’ as it stops us labelling a young member or volunteer as “challenging”.

Instead of putting labels on a person, we should try to understand what causes their behaviour and what their intent is. 'Behaviour that challenges' is a description of the experience. It reminds us that we all have different comfort levels. Some things may be challenging in some settings but not in others. It’s as much about us as it is the other person's behaviour.

For example, some leaders really enjoy working with a rowdy group of Brownies. Others find that tough and want to work with older Guides in smaller groups.

It’s not that the behaviour of the Brownies is bad or wrong, but that it’s more challenging or harder for some leaders to manage and meet their needs.

How to respond to behaviour that challenges

As Girlguiding volunteers, we should treat all members with sensitivity, dignity and respect. That means that when we respond to behaviour that challenges, we need to be sensitive to whatever has caused this behaviour. We also need to consider the health and safety of everyone involved when we decide what to do.

Many children, or their parents or carers, can explain how they prefer to communicate and what will help them stay calm or avoid behaviour which others may find challenging.

Use the adjustment plan for young members to help have this conversation and to plan ways to support the young member appropriately. Not all behaviour that challenges will be linked to a disability, but you might still find the adjustment plan form helpful.

If you're worried about a young person’s behaviour, talk to them about it clearly and calmly. They're behaving this way for a reason. Try to understand if there are things that trigger the challenging behaviour.

In these conversations do your best to:

  • Stay calm and non-confrontational. Explain your worries in simple terms.
  • Avoid blame and guilt. Focus on the consequences of the behaviour.
  • Give clear, concrete examples of behaviour that's been challenging.
  • Listen. They might be able to tell you what the intent behind this behaviour was.
  • Focus on finding a solution. Work together to understand what you can do to help.
  • Understand. Find out what support they have in other parts of their life – can this be provided in the unit meeting? 

It may be that there are wider needs or issues that are affecting how they behave in guiding activities. Their parent or carer might not realise the level of support that the young person needs. Using the Girlguiding adjustment plan will help you all agree what you can do to make sure that the young person is correctly supported.

Once a plan is agreed, make sure you plan to review it with the parent or carer and see how things are going. You might need to then adapt or change the plan, depending on how things go.

Sometimes aggressive or disturbing behaviour happens when other members in your unit unknowingly trigger it. Speak with the young member, and where appropriate with their parents or carer, about what they find difficult or upsetting. And talk about how you can let others in the unit know what to do to help.

You can:

  • Download our communication passports which can help the young members describe their likes and dislikes.
  • Develop a code of conduct as a unit so everyone can agree what behaviours aren't acceptable in the unit. This stops anyone from being singled out.

Have clear ways that young members can ask for extra support. For example, if they arrive feeling anxious or frustrated, they could tell people themselves directly or wear a yellow or green badge or bracelet, so others know what kind of day they’re having.

Making simple changes to how your unit runs can help accommodate members who need additional support:

  • See if a young leader or specific support volunteer can work with the young member as their buddy.
  • Have introduction sessions in your unit where potential new members can see how they’d get on in the group.
  • Offer a choice of activities. Choose similar activities at different levels of complexity or give members the choice between group or individual activities.
  • Have a quiet space available. Could you identify a place where girls can go if they need time alone or a moment to breathe? Make this available to anyone if they need it.
  • Be flexible with the length of meetings. Some members might find an hour too long and they can engage better for shorter periods of time. Maybe they can come for the first or second half of the meeting?
  • Share tasks – sometimes it’s boredom that triggers the difficult behaviour. Keep everyone occupied by sharing practical tasks that need to be done.
  • Demonstrate the activities. Sometimes behaviour that challenges is a response to misunderstanding. When running activities, try showing each step or guiding them through the activity together. Different young members may require higher levels of assistance.
  • Do new things little and often. When introducing new things, do it in small doses. This helps build confidence and reduces anxiety.
  • Give activities a set time. Let young members know how long an activity will last and give a 5 minute warning before it ends. This can help if change makes a member anxious. You can use our visual timetables to show the plan for the whole unit meeting too.


See our information on reasonable adjustments for more ideas.

Remember it’s okay to take a break. You can always contact your commissioner or other leaders to ask for support in cases like this.

You can also try:

  • Being open with your team about behaviour you're finding challenging and why.
  • Keeping records of specific incidents which have been challenging or which have resulted in distress or harm to a young member or volunteer.
  • Looking to recruit a volunteer specifically to provide support to someone. This can take time so agree it with the young member (and parents or carers) in advance. You can use the unit helper role description to recruit someone specific.
  • Agreeing regular breaks and rotation for volunteers giving more intensive support to a young member.

Remember, no volunteer should ever strike or restrain a child. Any physical interaction like this should be reported proactively to your commissioner or our safeguarding team.

As much as possible, keep in touch with parents or carers and talk about how things are going. Be open about any concerns and work with them to agree a plan. Be honest about where you might need help and extra support.

At times you might need to be clear about how long something will take to put in place, like finding a buddy or getting extra equipment. Make sure that parents and carers are aware that we're a charity and that all our activities are run by volunteers, so you may not be able to meet the same support standards as the young person’s school, for example. 

There may be times where you can’t reasonably make adjustments for some young people because of cost or need for additional volunteers. Every effort should be made if it's reasonable to do so. But some young people may have needs that can’t be accommodated, and this is ok.

If you’re struggling to offer the necessary support to a young member, reach out to your local commissioner or your special needs advisor. If you're concerned that you can’t meet the needs of a disabled member and you need to discuss things more, contact [email protected].

It's against the law to treat a disabled person less favourably because of anything relating to their disability. This includes anything which is the result, effect or outcome of their disability. For example, having an assistance dog or needing time off for medical appointments. This can also include behaviour which is a result of their impairment. This only applies if you know or could reasonably be expected to know that the person is disabled.

You should make reasonable adjustments for the person to accommodate their abilities and behaviours. Not agreeing to make any adjustments would be unlawful. We have some guidance on making reasonable adjustments in your unit.

When it comes to challenging behaviour, there's no one single adjustment that will work for everyone. Each situation will need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Below is one example of how reasonable adjustments could be made:

Together a unit agrees the standards of behaviour for anyone taking part in activities. This includes listening to instructions and not hurting others. The leaders explain that members should not break these rules.

One young member, called Mia, has a learning disability. Due to her disability, Mia doesn’t always understand when to be loud or quiet. So sometimes, she shouts loudly, even at times when everyone has been asked to be quiet.

The leaders knew about this because they had talked to Mia’s parents. They know that Mia doesn’t understand so they and the other young members don’t mind if she shouts. This is a reasonable adjustment they've made to the standards of behaviour they apply. It supports Mia to be a part of the unit.

The following week, Mia’s behaviour escalated. She was not just speaking out she started to get increasingly aggressive to volunteers and other girls. The leaders talk to her parents again. They agree to try other ways to manage this, such as sitting her to one side while she calms down. The leaders are also going to seek funding to get one-to-one support for Mia. They keep a record of everything that they agree to do with the parents, so everyone is clear of the support needs and the reasonable adjustments that are being tried and put into place.

You should keep looking for ways to do things differently to try and remove any disadvantage that a disabled young member may experience. Some impairments can change over time and this can affect behaviour. The key to this is talking regularly with the young person and their parents or carers. It’s also helpful to keep a clear record of what has been tried.

The law recognises that there might be times where lots of things have been tried, but further adjustment is unreasonable given the resources of the group. If you feel you have made all the adjustments you can, contact us on [email protected] to talk about the potential next steps.

Girls who’ve been excluded from school

School exclusion can be a difficult time in a girl's life when things feel unstable. By including them in guiding, you're giving them a space to grow and fulfil their potential.

Girls may be excluded for challenging behaviour, either for a temporary period or permanently. When girls choose to remove themselves from the school environment, they're known as a 'school refuser'.

Girls and young women who are in danger of being excluded, or who've been excluded, from school are facing a period of great change and instability. By including them at your regular unit meetings, you can provide them with continuity and boundaries. More than that, guiding offers them a safe space where they can build their confidence and self-esteem through our programme of challenge and adventure.

Being excluded from school is an extremely isolating experience so guiding enables girls to keep in contact with their peers, maintain their current friendships and develop new relationships outside of the school environment.

Importantly, other young members and volunteers in guiding can provide support and be positive role models for girls who have been excluded as they learn to respect others around them.

Focus on the individual 

Every case of exclusion is different so focus on the girl in your unit. Bear in mind that problems at school don’t always mean that girls will show the same behaviour in guiding. MindEd - a free educational resource on children and young people's mental health - has a pathway for Girlguiding that'll help you respond to young members' individual needs.

Set guidelines and boundaries

Follow clear rules that've been agreed by the unit and are followed by all girls in a consistent way. You may not see any difference in behaviour between girls who are excluded and those who go to school.

Think about communication

Challenging behaviour can be related to communication difficulties. Make sure you're aware of our guidance around inclusive communication.

Focus on the positive 

Many girls who've been excluded will be used to hearing negative statements. Focus on the positives of what all girls can achieve.

Be flexible

Give young members opportunities to make their own decisions about how they attend regular meetings. Make sure you only ask them to commit to what is reasonable for them.

Don't tell other girls and leaders about the girl's exclusion without their, or their parent’s, consent.

A young member who has been excluded may wish to talk to you as an adult that they trust and have regular contact with. They may also choose to speak with any young leaders in your unit, so make sure that you're available to support young leaders too.

This is an important responsibility, so if a girl turns to you for advice or support, make time to listen. If you're in the middle of a group activity, tell her that you'll carry on your conversation after the activity has ended. Make sure that you follow through with this and are consistent. Be honest and do your best to answer any questions that a girl might have - as long as it's appropriate for you to do so.

See our full guidance on safeguarding members.

Where to get support