Focus Area 4: Ethics
4. Self-Management

The idea of self-management as it relates to your role as a youth worker is a broad way of describing what it means to take responsibility for your own actions and for driving yourself to do things to the best of your ability.

Self-management is really about choosing to do more than you need to – not just doing the basic minimum requirements to get by – but holding yourself to your highest expectations, taking initiative, being accountable, and running your work life in an organized, professional way.

You take ownership of your responsibilities. You take pride in your work. Self-management is definitely a skill that takes your time and attention to develop. Once you master it, you will be a better youth worker and a very valuable employee to your agency.


As a youth worker, you have an ethical obligation to always do what is best for young people. While this may seem obvious at first glance, it is sometimes not so easy to distinguish, especially in the moment. When you are not mindful of your own feelings and emotions, you can easily slip into behaviors that meet your own personal needs instead of the needs of the young people you serve.

Consider an example of how an ethical situation can arise. It’s probably true you would prefer that the youth you work with like you. That’s a pretty common reality for most people. But, is being liked a preference or is it bigger than that, a need? If it is a need, that could have a pretty significant impact on how you work with youth.

Your ethical obligation to act in the youth’s best interest has to take precedence. If you have a strong need to be liked, you’ll want to develop a strategy to ensure you’re not responding from that need but to the need of the young person in the moment.

An excellent approach is to raise your own awareness and develop your ability to be mindful of your emotions. Check-in with yourself about what is driving your behaviors - why are you doing what you are doing? Whose needs are your behaviors addressing? These are important questions that you can’t afford to be complacent about.

At some point or another, every youth worker has made the mistake of acting in their own personal self-interest. You’re human, mistakes are going to happen. But, your obligation is to minimize the possibility of this type of mistake by always being mindful of how your own emotions can affect your actions.

An emotional check-in can help you accomplish this. It’s a process that is on-going and never-ending. It is a practice designed to keep you aware of the need to be mindful. An emotion check-in is a time to slow down and consider the situation and the factors that are having an emotional impact on your behaviors.

Here are some practical tips that you can use at any time, to help you become mindful about your emotional needs so you can choose instead to focus on the needs of the young person you’re working with:

  • Check your physical state. Is your body tense or relaxed? If it is tense there’s a good chance you’re feeling some negative emotions. To help understand why, do some deep breathing exercises so you can tune in to what emotions you’re feeling. If you are relaxed, you’re usually more likely to be in a state of mind to act in a young person’s best interest. But to be sure, move to the next step of the exercise.
  • Do some internal probing. Ask yourself some tough questions. Why am I doing what I am doing? Am I angry or frustrated with a young person for their words or actions? Did I respond, or do I feel like responding because of the way I’m feeling? If the answer is yes, you have an ethical dilemma and you should take a step back. Consulting with a supervisor or co-worker about the situation will give you another perspective to work from, without the same emotional charge as your own response.
  • Repeat often. Remember, this is not a ‘one and done.’ Emotion check-ins are something that you should build into your daily practice of youth work. In your work, you’ll find that some days you need to do this more times than other days. There are many variables that can lead to the need for you to be mindful of the emotions that drive your behaviors.

Learning to incorporate emotion check-ins may seem unnatural at first. You may even find yourself feeling somewhat defensive, as it may be hard to accept that you might not be acting in the best interest of youth. You likely entered the field of youth work because you want to help…and that is admirable. The best help you can offer requires that you be mindful about how easily – unconsciously – you could slip into meeting your own needs.

To be an effective and ethical youth worker, you have to know why you are doing what you are doing and develop a strategy to ensure this self-awareness is always present in your interactions with youth. You can and will get good at this by incorporating emotion check-ins into your daily routine.

The importance of self-awareness in youth work cannot be overstated. In addition to emotional check-ins, there are plenty of things you can do to strengthen your self-awareness.

Lindsay Walz is a youth work professional with a deeply personal experience that challenged her to master the art of self-awareness. She is a survivor of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. In her video, she shares helpful advice and easy practices you can use both personally and in your work with young people. You can also visit her website to learn more about her.


Now that you understand the concept of the emotion check-in and the importance of determining whose needs your actions are meeting, it is valuable to consider some of the different needs you will have. One strategy to conceptualize different levels of needs was developed by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist.

He theorized that there is a basic Hierarchy of Needs1 and that if lower needs like food/water and safety are not met; it becomes difficult for an individual to be motivated to focus on higher needs, such as fulfilling one’s potential. You can see how his theory is illustrated in the diagram below.

Maslow's hierarchy pyramid

Here’s a quick overview of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, from lowest to highest levels and a brief evaluation of how this can impact you as a youth worker.

1. Physiological Needs - These needs include those that are vital to survival, such as water, air, food, and sleep. Maslow believed that these needs are the most basic and instinctive needs because all needs become secondary until these physiological needs are met.

This lowest level speaks to the importance of self-care in youth work. Be certain you get plenty of sleep, eat well, and practice good work/life balance. You will not be performing to the best of your abilities if your own physiological needs are not met.

2. Safety Needs - Examples of safety or security needs include a desire for steady employment, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and shelter from the environment. Security needs are important for survival, but they are not as demanding as the physiological needs.

At the Safety level of need, you should be mindful about your employment. Clearly you need income to provide the basic necessities of life, but if your only reason for being a youth worker is financial or for the benefits, you are not acting ethically and will not consistently meet the needs of young people.

3. Social Needs - These include a need to belong, be accepted and be loved. Relationships (e.g. friendships, romantic attachments, families) help fulfill this need for companionship and acceptance, as does involvement in social, community, or religious groups. Maslow considered these needs to be less basic than physiological and security needs.

This level of Maslow’s theory is where your needs and the needs of the youth you serve can be easily blurred. Sometimes, youth workers are in the field for wrong reason…to be liked or be part of a group. You aim to develop friendships with the youth in your program to meet your own personal needs to belong, rather than keeping a professional relationship balance. This need should not be why you are a youth worker. You can be friendly with youth, but you are not a youth worker to be their friend.

4. Esteem Needs - These include the need for things that reflect on self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment. Maslow theorized that after the first three levels of need have been satisfied then esteem needs become increasingly important.

This level is a slippery slope for youth workers. You likely want to feel important and have a sense of power. Most of us get a strong sense of these needs when we have a job we like. This may not be an issue in most industries, but it is in youth work. Ask yourself, “Does my self-esteem come from power over youth or from helping youth succeed?” Remember, emotion check-ins help you solve ethical dilemmas like this. It can difficult to be honest with yourself, but you can do it.

5. Self-Actualizing Needs - This is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others, and interested in fulfilling their potential.

This is the apex of needs and it should be the goal of all youth workers. This is self-awareness that requires honesty, humility, and a passion to work for the greater good. It is altruism, the belief in or practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Self-actualized youth workers are motivated by a desire to benefit youth more than oneself for that youth’s sake.

The main thing to take away from Maslow’s conceptual framework is an awareness that your needs are fluid. You can likely expect to move between different levels at different times, given different circumstances.

Regardless of your level of need in this theory, it is your ethical obligation to be aware of your needs at all time and always act in the best interest of the youth you serve, to do what you can to prioritize their needs over your own.


Have you ever been around a youth worker who can speak in inspirational ways to youth, seems to be naturally charismatic, and really knows how to have lots of fun with youth, but they don’t have it together in the job responsibilities realm?

Examples of ‘not having it together’ include not being prepared for activities, having poor follow through on commitments, and being contradictory between what they say and what they do. Yeah, most likely you know a youth worker like this.

This whole area of ‘having it together’ is known as “self-management.”

Why do youth workers need to be good at self-management? The two primary reasons are:

  • Like it or not, youth are observing you – ALL THE TIME! Sometimes they absorb much more from what you DO than what you SAY.
  • Good self-management in the work setting is necessary to be productive and to accomplish important things.

Both you and the youth you work with will benefit when you take your work more seriously and yourself less seriously.

These three postings from the Youth Workin' It blog perfectly describe self-management in the field of youth work and provide useful tips to improve self-management. As you read through these excerpts, make note of any areas that you may need to make some improvement in: 

Excerpt from Blog Post 1: Things That Make You a ‘Professional’ Youth Worker

There’s a stereotype out there of many youth workers. Many see us as jeans/hoodie-wearing, video game-playing, trip-taking, candy-pushing, Facebook time-wasting, always-on-break, pizza-ravers. And honestly, those are some of the best parts of youth work, there’s no denying it.

However, there is another caricature of a youth worker that’s often very true. We tend to run late, put off administrative tasks, recoil from deadlines, keep our workspace more like a teenager’s bedroom than an office, forget to call people back (or avoid it because it’s an irritating parent or other professional), work unusual hours where it’s hard to track our movements and avoid report writing at all costs.

We’re often so caught up in the warm and fuzzy world of relating to youth and worrying about our next youth retreat we forget that we’re also an important example of how to conduct ourselves as adults.

Here are 7 dos’ for being a truly ‘professional’ youth worker:

  1. Do call people back. Especially parents, guardians, and other professionals. And youth. OK, just call people back.
  2. Do show up on time for meetings as the rule rather than the exception
  3. Do come prepared for meetings you have to attend
  4. Do foster good relationships with other youth workers and professionals in your local area and beyond
  5. Do keep your office inviting and comfortable for youth and as a positive place for administrative work and meetings
  6. Do take the time to plan your work. A 10-minute glance at some notes or a curriculum before the start of a group does not a successful program make
  7. Do keep a variety of koosh balls or candy on your desk. 

Excerpt from Blog Post 2: Steps to Managing Your Workload

Previously we talked about basic time management in your youth work or and how it can help improve your relationships. Today, we have a few practical ways you can improve your efficiency in your own tasks and workload through personal time management techniques. 

1) Make a to-do list - It doesn’t matter if you make it on paper, MS Word, your Outlook task list, or on your hand. Make a list. When people go to job interviews and they’re asked how they manage their time, they often say ‘I make a list and then I put it in order of priority…. etc.’ Except that most people don’t actually do that. They know the right answers for time management but they often don’t do the steps involved to make the most of their time. 

2) Review and Prioritize - Decide what’s urgent, important, both or neither. Do you have a deadline looming? Or did someone come to you in their own inefficiency and expect you to drop everything to assist them?

Often, we confuse what’s urgent for what’s important. And sometimes, other feelings come into play – we want our colleagues to like us, our boss to be proud of us or we just don’t want to do what’s boring but important, so we do what seems urgent first.

Make cuts and be honest about your workload, with yourself and others. There’s no gold star for being exhausted and overworked – you just begin to let your performance slip in other areas. 

3) Schedule when to complete the items on your to-do list - Some people like to work through their list and cross items off. If that’s a system that works for you and you do it – fantastic! Keep it up!

I like to use my Outlook Calendar (don’t have Outlook? Use Google Calendar) to schedule when I’m going to complete something. I estimate how much time it should take and put it in a slot in my day. I plan out my week on Friday afternoons since Monday mornings are always full of fires to be put out. I tend to leave the first hour on Monday for work that’s not as important/urgent, so that when something urgent comes up on Monday (and it always does), I can move my less important work back and it doesn’t really affect my output.

When you use your calendar and something changes in your day (a meeting, more pressing deadline, etc.), you can just move the blocks of time around easily and re-prioritize and schedule your time. I mark the time that I’m doing tasks as ‘free’ on my calendar, so people scheduling meetings with me don’t think I have meetings every day, all week long.

Find a system that works for you with workload time management. It’s about working smarter. If you have colored stickies or a notebook and these work for you, keep using them. But if you’re constantly missing deadlines, feeling overworked and wondering where the day went, you may want to consider a new time management solution. 

Excerpt from Blog Post 3: How to Improve Your Youth Work Performance in 1 Easy Step

Often youth workers have a hard time showing what they’ve done and therefore come under criticism from their supervisor, church board or other stakeholders. And honestly, it’s easily done. You do some planning, you grab a coffee with a colleague, you research some games for a youth retreat and book a venue for a service trip later in the month.

It’s easy to sit for a just a minute to research a youth group game or venue and have it end up taking 45 minutes, because you see this other link or think of that band you wanted to check out to play at your next big youth summit. Your coffee was meant to be a quick catch up and instead you end up extending it into lunch. You start by doing some planning and get sucked into a book you were using as a resource and end up spending an hour reading.

Here is one easy way to provide information about your whereabouts, and the added benefit is that you will most likely end up increasing your performance and outcomes: 

Write everything down you do each day and log the time (rounding to the quarter hour).

You will begin to keep better track of your time and this alone will help you use it more productively and will increase how much you’re able to do in a day. If you’re accountable to anyone – even if it’s just yourself – you’ll be more likely to accomplish more each day.

It will also help you be more aware of time you spend not really doing anything. What was once a couple of brief chats with coworkers in the office, when you’re tracking it, becomes more than an hour each day spent being unproductive.

Not that you can’t have the occasional chat, or the coffee that runs long or the research that goes off on a rabbit trail.

But this will help you get more from your hours each day and should help you keep your work at work and your life outside of work more fun and relaxing. This is because you won’t need to work as many extra hours or bring things home that you didn’t accomplish each day.

Reflection Exercise
When you’re being honest with yourself, you can probably quickly identify one or two ways you self-manage well on the job and one or two areas where you know you’ve got room for improvement. In fact, take 5-10 minutes right now to ask yourself:
What are my self-management strengths?
What areas could I focus on to improve my self-management skills?
Identify just one or two areas needing improvement now and commit yourself to making a measurable improvement in these areas over the next month. Even taking small steps will make a difference and soon you’ll have a new habit of self-management, making you a more valuable youth worker to your agency and to the youth you serve.
Reference Sources
1 Adapted from: Psychology: Hierarchy of Needs
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