What Do I Do When Students Are Disruptive?

January 07, 2020

What Do I Do When Students Are Disruptive?

Finding the Tools to Help Deter Disruptive Behaviors.

By Rev. Brent Dearnell

Through lunch conversations with youth ministry leaders, round table discussions at trainings, and youth ministry coaching sessions this question has recently come up a lot. It comes up for good reasons. As a youth leader you are not resourced or trained like other adults in these students lives. I remember from my time as an inner city middle school teacher there are a number things I did in the classroom to diminish disruptions but when things went bigger than those we had after school detentions or even the principal’s office to help. As a high school soccer coach disruptions were far and few in between but when they came up running a few extra laps around the field or extra time on the bench during games were easy and effective.

However, as a youth pastor detentions, the principal’s office, and running laps isn’t really an option. This being said, whether it was at a middle school after school program with 150 students that just got out of school or our weekly session with our regular students and the friends they may have brought, there are a number of tools from the toolbox I regularly use from my experience as a teacher and coach.

The Toolbox

Tool 1 - Clear Expectations - One of the biggest and easiest tools to use is establishing clear and consistent expectations for students when they are at the church for worship, student ministry, or just to hangout. I also found it very helpful for these expectations to be simple and easy to remember (for me and for them). Here are the expectations we use (not that there perfect but just to share an example:

  • Respect each other.
  • Respect the adults on the staff and student ministry team.
  • Respect the church and all the church provides for you.

Having clear expectations is great but we also need to have students continually be reminded of them. My practice was if there were a number of guest we would review them as part of the welcome. My welcome EVERY week at the after school program, “Hello, my name is...we are glad you are here...teaser about plans/theme...to make sure we all have a good time I wanted to let you know there are a few things we expect of everyone here...”. I did my best to review these expectations once a month at our weekly sessions and tried to do them randomly and not in response to earlier behaviors. This also makes having a conversation with students easier as well. Instead of debating about a particular behavior I just ask, “was that respectful to...?”.

Tool 2 - Prepared Team - Working as a team is way more effective than having one “bad guy” to hide from. When I have talked about this idea with my team I compared it to the difference between fishing with a net and a spear. The net approach helps keep expectations clear and consistent all the time and not just in front of the main leader. In order for this to work you volunteer team needs to be equipped and empowered. Share that you want them to help keep the expectations and exactly how you want them to respond (consistency in response is key). The real power from this tool comes when the team is spread out among the students and not huddled together in the back. Proximity is both a deterrent and early detection part of this game changing tool.

Tool 3 - Respect Student’s Growing Identity - When it is time to actually respond to a disruption I do my best to follow this simple rule: Congratulate Publicly and Correct Privately. Instead of yelling across the room at a student, I try to remember how their friends see them is incredibly important to them. No one wants to be called out in front of everyone. I try to go to a one-on-one conversation away from everyone else. This gets the student to understand the situation and they as an individual are important to you. There are plenty of times I have failed to use this tool, but when I have it has been very effective.

Tool 4 - Matthew 16:23 Principal - I only get this tool out when a student seems to have consistent issues. In Matthew we read, “Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”’ Jesus loves Peter but saw this specific behavior was going to hold back the mission of the group. I do not call the students Satan but just ask a direct question: Are you with us or against us? If you're with us then... but if you’re against us then it is not fair to everyone else for you to hold us back.

Tool 5 - The Hammer - Be a place for all people BUT do not lose focus on the mission. This doesn’t happen often, but be prepared to recognize if one person is stopping the group from reaching the many. If this is the case, it may be time for the student to take a short break. Matthew 10:14 says, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” These were clear directions Jesus gave to his disciples as he sent them out into the world. I call this the hammer because once this happens it is like striking a nail with a hammer and it can not be undone. Due to this, I as the main leader am the only person who gets to use this tool. I never go to permanent break because of the transformation and grace offered through Jesus Christ. Breaks can come more than once.

Hopefully opening up this toolbox has been helpful or a good refresher for all of us. I know writing it was good for me. If you want to go deeper or talk more about these strategies shoot me an email! Click here to email Brent!

Rev. Brent Dearnell

Brent is married to Sara and is a father to four young children. He has served as a volunteer, interim, and full-time youth pastor, discipleship pastor, and executive pastor. Before going into ministry full-time he was a middle school teacher in an urban environment as well as a varsity soccer coach. He is passionate about helping young people live into their passion, faith, and call. This passion is why he is one of the cofounders of Colocate Ministry Consulting and serves as one of our coaches.