Working With Difficult Children In A Group Setting

December 19th 2018

I was asked recently to present at a 4-H Leaders conference on the topic of working with difficult children in a group setting. As a counsellor, I work with a variety of individual people and groups on various topics. I always count on there being one person or child that I struggle connecting with. I have learned to view this struggle in a positive light, a chance to grow and learn. It is my hope that you will learn how to make this struggle a positive driving force in your life too.

Let’s start at the beginning . . .

How you show up is going to affect your group of highly sensitive, impressionable, sponges. If you walk into your group and haven’t shaken off the irritation you felt at the car who cut you off in the parking lot, stole your parking stall, and made you late, your little kiddies are going to pick up on those feelings and feed off them.

You need to make sure you walk into your group as you mean to continue; happy, calm, enthusiastic, and curious. Your way of being is your responsibility and your presentation WILL set the tone for the group and the rest of your time together.

Kids are People Too!

What are three things that every person is looking for and deserves from their fellow humans?


Young or old, big or small, every person deserves respect. No one is better than another person – no matter what. No adult is better than a child, respect will not be given if it is not first offered. If you walk into a group of kids thinking that you are better than they are, that they will give you their respect just because you are an adult and they are not, is a recipe for disaster.

I am not saying that you need to have formal introductions and sit down to high tea with your pinky finger extended. I am talking about the implicit understanding that all people deserve respect. I am talking about a belief, a way of being, an unspoken acceptance.


People did not evolve to be alone. We are social beings and we naturally form our own social groups. Group facilitation is about taking an artificial group and creating connections through shared experiences, beliefs, and interests. As the leader and facilitator, you are the role model.


Free will is a priceless commodity. Taking away free will is a punishment. Yes, you have a curriculum to get through so the choices you can offer are limited but you still have the ability to offer them. You are working with kids, you need to be as creative and curious as they are.


I have yet to actually talk about what to do with a specific difficult child. That is because building a positive relationship in the beginning, BEFORE difficulties arise, can stop problems before they start. Use this time constructively to get to know the kids, understand what their tendencies are. You will likely be able to identify the kid(s) who will need extra attention, use the concepts above to develop a positive relationship with each child.

Children have a greater capacity than most adults give them credit for. Children in groups can help to regulate each other. This is a currency you can use if you connect with each child and keep a close watch on the pulse of your group. On the flip side . . . one child can dysregulate an entire group if you are not aware of the undercurrents.

A word of warning . . . Be aware of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Slow is Fast & Fast is Slow

I have a saying I use in competition to help keep me centered and focused; Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast, Fast is Slow. It just means that in any task the slower you move the smoother your actions with the least amount of wasted effort or time. The faster you go the more mistakes you make resulting in more effort and time wasted.

What I am saying is . . . TAKE YOUR TIME!

Kids need structure without rigidity. They need to know the schedule of events so that they can choose how they want to allocate their time and efforts, what activities they want to do. But when things don’t go as planned they need to know that you are understanding and flexible.

Structure can be as simple as a verbal run through of the sequence of events for the group. Don’t keep things hidden, especially from younger kids. Young kids do not yet have the mental flexibility to shift from one activity to the next easily. Young kids are concrete thinkers, they are black or white, yes or no people. They do not understand compromise without support and encouragement from others. And they can easily become stuck on one idea.

Scenario . . .

You and your group are transitioning from one activity to the next. Little Joe is not helping clean up. In fact he insists he is not finished and starts pulling more objects out to use. The other kids are lined up and ready to go but you can see they are starting to get agitated and bored. What do you do?

You are already late, what does it matter if you are 5 minutes late or 10 minutes late?? Being on time has already become an unattainable abstract idea. Give it up. Deal with what is right in front of you. If you try to rush when you have already experienced difficulties you will NOT be successful. Take the time that has now been forced on you to connect with the child and help them, sometimes all they need is to feel seen and important. It doesn’t hurt you to give them that. Take the extra time when you have it (or build in extra time) to build a positive relationship and take extra time when you need it (or are experiencing difficulties). And do not be afraid to ask for help! Get some support to move the other kids on to the next activity while you focus on Little Joe. Learn from the experience with the goal of making the next transition easier and smoother. Ask Little Joe how you can help him next time there is a transition, you might be surprised by his answer.

Remember. . . difficult kids are often just sensitive kids who are overwhelmed or over stimulated.

Smooth Transition

Transitions are where breakdowns happen – change is hard. Remember I mentioned that young kids are concrete thinkers? This means they struggle when moving from one activity to another. To make transitions smooth and successful the group needs to be prepared.

Prep for Transitions

  • Time warning
    • Wrap up what they are working on
    • 10 – 15 minutes is usually sufficient but gauge your group and adjust as needed
  • Time warning
    • What needs to be accomplished before moving on?
    • e.g. clean-up
    • 5 minutes; again gauge what your group needs
  • Last Time warning
    • 1 minute
  • Transition (finally)

Depending on your group, you may not need 3 time warnings before a transition. This is for you to judge, by now you should know your group and what they need to make them the most successful.

Here are some tips for when you are struggling with one particular child;

  • Take your time
    • Make them feel important, do not brush them off
  • Be on their level
    • Physically
    • Give your undivided attention
    • Use active listening
  • Acknowledge their feelings
    • Empathy
    • I can see that you are (insert emotion). Here is what we can do (insert choice). Which would you like?
  • Boredom is Bad
    • Give them a job, give them the feeling of self-confidence by placing your trust in them and ALWAYS CYCLE BACK
  • Keep them close
    • You will more quickly notice changes or difficulties beginning to arise
    • They will be more likely to attach to you as their co-regulating partner
  • Notice the little things
      • Give genuine, positive approval

By noticing the little things and giving attention to a child in a positive way you are beginning to create a positive cycle. Most people only pay attention when situations are not going as expected, therefore the only way a child can gain your attention is by creating chaos and disruption. Don’t fall into this trap. Always be attentive and give recognition to positive actions which creates a desire in the child and the group for more positive attention. Celebrate Success!

Finally . . . It Takes TWO!

Always ask yourself;

1. What did I do to create this situation?

2. How am I contributing to this issue?

Be willing to accept and consider feedback from other people and sources. The most valuable feedback you can get is from the person you are having difficulties with. Ask the KID! As a group facilitator your job is to help children experience, learn, and grow. You should require the same thing from yourself. You are going to make mistakes. Identify the mistakes, learn from them, and move on to new ones. Have compassion for others and most importantly, have compassion for yourself.

Remember . . .

Sometimes outside forces intrude and you have no control over this. All you can do in this situation is your best. The hope is, by actively creating a positive relationship beforehand, both you and your group can handle the situation with a minimum of difficulties.

Here is a book that I reference frequently when I am working with groups. Perhaps it will help you like it has helped me;

The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation: Tips & Tools; by Jennifer Stanchfield, MS.

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