Understanding Vandalism 

Published On: 9 April 2023

Reading time: 4 minutes

Vandalism is deliberately breaking or damaging something. It can be both upsetting and time-consuming to deal with, and it is not something we should have to deal with alone. This is one of those occasions where we may have to play the detective to understand what is happening and why.

There may be many reasons why someone has vandalised another’s property. It could be premeditated, or mindless, unthinking, spur of the moment. It could be because of frustration or anger at a situation. It could be a cry for help, an act of desperation. But it can also be a sign of boredom or simply trying to make your mark on the world. Many of us will have carved our initials into a tree or on the side of a school desk ourselves.

Remember, all behaviours are a means of communication. Understanding why someone has vandalised something is more important than the actual damage they’ve done.

Check your assumptions

It is sometimes very difficult to prove that a particular individual has damaged something unless someone saw it take place. Unless we are completely sure, we run the risk of accusing the wrong person. We have to remember our own biases and assumptions. Are we automatically assuming it’s one particular individual because of other behaviours they’ve shown in the past?

Challenging or confronting an individual in front of others, where they could risk losing face or feeling embarrassed, doesn’t help us understand the situation and can escalate the situation further. Speaking with them quietly at a time when we won’t be disturbed encourages them to share with us. We can ask open questions like, “I wonder if you could help me understand what happened?”

Keeping calm and being positive is important. We want to help them and understand the situation, not blame them. Reading their body language carefully can help. Reminding the individual that we want to support them and understand how they feel is important. There may be consequences that inevitably happen because of this situation, but we can focus first on working out what was going on for them at that moment.

Speak in terms of respect

If the individual admits to damaging something, it’s important for us to stay calm and avoid becoming angry with them. We can approach this as a problem they can help to solve. Asking questions like, “How will this person feel about what’s happened?” can help foster empathy, but avoid trying to make them feel guilty or ashamed about what’s happened. We can help them reflect on their actions and think about a positive solution.

If the vandalism has happened because of frustration, anxiety, or anger, we can think about how to teach alternative strategies for them to use when they feel this way. This won’t happen overnight and will need consistency between staff members so everyone is supporting the individual towards a common goal.

Offer the opportunity to make amends

For many individuals, it can be helpful if they can do something positive after the event. This may be helping to clear up a mess, repairing or making something new, apologising, or making a card for an individual affected. Many individuals will have their own ideas about ways they can “make things better”.

This is not intended as a punishment for what has happened, but an opportunity for them to repair and rebuild relationships. And then a line can be drawn under this incident. While we may need to record it in an individual support plan and share what has happened with colleagues, this is not something we will bring up again in the future, label them as, or hold over them.

Enlist the help of other staff and consult policies

What happens after an incident very much depends on the setting we work in. It’s important to follow policies and procedures, both the consider any reporting needed and further actions required.

If property has been damaged, it will need to be repaired or replaced, and promptly if there is a health and safety concern to reduce any further risk.

If an individual’s property has been damaged, parents/ carers or other family members may need to be involved. Far better to pre-empt this and be honest and open about what has happened, rather than covering it up or trying to dismiss or minimise what has happened.

Create ownership of physical spaces

A tidy, well-ordered environment shows we care. We can look around at the spaces we’re working in. We might not have much control over the space as a whole, but we can often make small changes to repair the wear and tear. For example, refreshing a display board, adding plants, and regularly clearing away clutter can make a space feel more enjoyable to be in.

Even better, we can get the individuals we work with involved too. If we let them see it as their space and give them ownership of it, they’re far more likely to care for their surroundings.