Challenging interactions: an ethnographic study of behaviour in the youth club
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Young people’s challenging behaviour in the school classroom and elsewhere has long been subject to research and policy attention. Despite inherent definitional difficulties, challenging behaviour is often constructed as a product of an individual young person’s pathology (whether biologically, psychologically or socially determined). Adopting an alternative starting point, this study focuses on a youth work setting and conceptualises challenging behaviour as something created in and through social interaction. The aim of this study is to contribute to a contextualised understanding of challenging behaviour as a social phenomenon that ordinarily arises when working with young people. As an exploratory study of everyday youth work practices, a year-long ethnographic study was conducted of an open-access youth club, located in a Scottish secondary school. Data were generated through participant observation, interviews, question sheets and written evaluation records. The data were analysed to identify significant themes facilitating the construction of a meaningful and accurate account of challenging interactions in this youth club. The thesis suggests that ‘doing’ and drawing attention to challenging behaviour functions to delineate the boundaries around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the youth club. Challenging behaviour plays a substantial role in the social interactions of this setting, linked to personal and professional identities. The youth club is described as a chaotic (dynamic, bodily and playful) space, where challenging behaviour is expected and normalised yet it is still identified and disciplined. The study suggests it is difficult to reach a subjective contextual definition of challenging behaviour because although certain types of behaviour are repeatedly acknowledged as problematic, in practice there are inconsistencies in whether and how these behaviours are challenged. Challenging interactions are argued to emerge in the negotiation of control over the behaviour of self and others. The research indentified ‘humour’ and ‘playfulness’ as significant in the construction, diffusion and emotional management of recurring challenging interactions. The study concludes that it is fruitful to conceptualise challenging behaviour as a social phenomenon - something created in the moment - in advancing an understanding of the complexity of working with young people perceived to be challenging. The findings, and limitations, of this study suggest that it would be useful to conduct further research into: the emotional aspects of challenging interactions; potential age and gender differences in negotiating challenging interactions; and the relationship between challenging behaviour, creativity and transformative actions.