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How to handle difficult and disruptive students

Difficult and disruptive studentsWe’ve all had them — students who cause trouble, play on their cell phones all night, are disrespectful, and generally seem mad at the world. Although we love these teenagers as much as we love the others, sometimes it feels like we’re constantly sacrificing the quality of the ministry to all the other kids for the sake of that one (or three or whatever).

When I had my first encounter with this kind of situation, my sr. pastor at the time gave me this advice and I’ve followed it ever since: “Never sacrifice the ministry to all the kids for the sake of one or even a couple.” If, because of one or a couple disruptive students, other kids in the group are not receiving the attention they crave, the spiritual input they seek, and the time to focus on God that they need, then a course of action is needed.

Here’s the plan I usually follow. Of course, every situation is unique, so this should be tailored accordingly, but here’s a framework to help you get started, anyway.

1. Talk with them privately. Ask why they come to youth group because their actions make you feel like they don’t want to be there. Affirm them as a person, but confront their actions. Give them a chance to change their attitude on their own.

2. If it continues, talk with them again, but this time tell them that if things don’t change by next week, you’re going to talk with their parents about it (if applicable). Follow-through the next week by calling or meeting with the parents if nothing changes.

3. If the issues continue after that, talk with your sr. pastor about the situation and present him or her with the following plan:

First, talk privately with the student again and tell them they have 1 more week to change their behavior. If things aren’t dramatically different at youth group next week, they will be on a 4 week probation from youth group. At the end of 4 weeks, they are welcome to return and try again.

However, during that 4 weeks do NOT just send them away. Always discipline with the idea of restoration in mind, just as Christ does for us. Either you or another adult must meet with that student one-on-one every week outside of church. Go to Taco Bell and just talk about life and spiritual matters. Just because that kid is not permitted at youth group for 4 weeks doesn’t mean they still shouldn’t get spiritual encouragement from you and your ministry.

4. If you’ve met with them one-on-one every week for 4 weeks and really loved on the student, the chances are pretty high that their attitude problem will be gone when they return because they now have a new respect and trust for you, the leader. But, in the rare situation that their disruptive behavior continues, then you must put them on probation again, this time for 3 months, 6 months, or whatever you and your adult staff deem appropriate. But only do so knowing that you or someone else on your team is going to meet with that student one-on-one every week during that time.

A variation of this is to start meeting one-on-one with the student outside of church even before you get to step number three, which I’d probably advise anyway if it’s at all possible. The difference is that the one-on-one meetings are still optional, whereas in step number three, the individual meeting time is required if the student is going to be permitted back at youth group again.


Posted on November 20, 2008

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  • PJ

    insightful!
    I’m all about 1 on 1s, however, am getting swamped with work!
    I’m going to pass this on to our junior youth team!
    Thanks a bunch!

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  • I like this plan because it is not the typical easiest path of least resistance route. Although I’ve only dealt with these kids in a camp setting you are right to say the group shouldn’t sacrifice for on kid. And that the solution, although beneficial in the end, is way more work for the leader and thus can test the heart of the teacher in the process.

  • rob

    On the cell phone issue, since September we have been using one of those hanging shoe caddies as a place to store phones as students check in to service. Each space is labelled with a name of a student for their phone and or ipod. It has worked well. We laid the foundation for it a few weeks ahead of time and explained to everyone the reasons for it – both students and parents.

  • sarah

    What if “that” kid is causing others to stumble and the attitude problem is spreading to kids that were once respectful. How do you get these kids to understand why “that” kid isn’t going to be at youth group for 4 weeks without them losing respect for the youth pastor?

    • It depends on the size of your group. If it’s smaller and everyone knows everyone and what’s going on, then the first week “that” student is gone, sit down with the group and explain what you just explained in your comment. That’s what we did. Make it clear that you care about each individual in the group and aren’t willing to sacrifice the group for the sake of one person. Share it in a way that’s about you caring for the group. But ultimately, this is really about you being the leader and what’s right more than it is about being respected or even liked. If you don’t do something that needs to be done because you’ll lose respect, then the students are in control, not you, which is fine sometimes, but probably not if the group is suffering as a result. Just make sure you have the support of your pastor and church leadership first.

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