On Establishing Positive Social Norms

Practitioner Tip Tuesday

On Establishing Positive Social Norms

Whenever I work with a group of 4-H youth I am reminded again what a wonderful job 4-H does at helping youth learn positive, respectful, and team-oriented behaviors. On the occasion that I work with youth who have not been in 4-H, I typically have to start with establishing clear expectations for the time we will spend together. In these cases I engage the youth in establishing a “community covenant,” which is the groups’ promise to each other about the things we decide are important for helping the group be successful. For example, being on time, putting phones aside, taking turns talking, and inviting others to express their views. It amazes me how taking 15 minutes to have the group identify and agree on these promises has such a positive impact on how the session goes. I forgot to do this one time with a group of non-4-H youth, and the session started out on a very bad foot – because no one knew the expectations! So after a while, I called the group back together and we worked out a community covenant together. From that point on the session was a success. The youth were not be “bad” they just had never been coached, let alone empowered, to establish expectations for their time together.

But 4-H youth, pretty much universally, know these expectations and carry them from setting to setting. In doing so they contribute to establishing positive social norms with their peers- clear expectations for behavior and interactions that allow the whole group to enjoy their time together. I love that older 4-H youth teach the younger youth these expectations, and one of my favorite examples of this is a “Code of Conduct” video that a group of 4-H youth from Georgia made about positive social norms for National 4-H Congress.

Watch it.


It will make you smile.

I watch it anytime I need a little feel good boost (not kidding!)

It is important to remember, however, that positive social norms have to be established. How else will youth know what is expected? One way 4-H establishes expectations for positive social norms is through the 4-H Code of Conduct. But positive social norms are more than just a list of rules; rules, after all, can be broken or not enforced and therefore rendered meaningless. Social norms are “bigger than the rules.” They are the values of being together that a group embodies; values that determine behavior. Positive social norms set the stage for all youth to feel welcome and secure, and that is why establishing them is one of the eight important criteria for high quality youth programs (want to learn about all eight?)

I mentioned earlier that I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4-H Volunteer specialists at the National Extension Conference on Volunteerism in May, where I tapped into their expertise for ideas to teach the 4-H Thriving Model. One simple idea for establishing positive social norms that I received is an activity that engages youth in completing sentences. This activity can be used at 4-H meetings over time to continuously develop positive social norms. For example:

  • In our 4-H club we: _________________
  • In our 4-H club we avoid:_________________
  • In our 4-H club when we feel __________________ we will _____________

Unfortunately, the authors of this great activity did not list their names, or I would give them credit!

What sentence completions can you add to this list to help 4-H programs establish positive social norms?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold





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Counselors can learn to help campers set Social Norms for their cabin group in the Creating Camper Constitutions E-learning module in the Setting the Stage unit of the Oregon 4-H CCAST Resource library. This is a great way to team build on the first day of camp!

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