With the start of a new school year, I have heard multiple youth workers lament how there have been increasing disruptions within their ministries. Whether it’s students not respecting a speaker or one another, or inappropriate comments during youth group, or constant interruptions in small groups, this is a reality many of us face. And for many of us it can feel frustrating and discouraging. We begin to wonder if we are part of the problem or we just get upset to the point of perhaps yelling at a student. But instead of responding critically toward the student or ourselves, it would be prudent to step back and think about the situation at hand.
Before thinking critically about how to handle disruptions, I think it is helpful to think about the “why.” Why are these disruptions happening? Why do they seem to be manifesting in force right now? I believe if we take time to reflect on this past year and a half, we may see some rationale for why these disruptions seem to be occurring on a larger scale than prior years.
- Students weren’t engaging in interpersonal relationships due social distancing and schools going online.
- Students were engaged in relationships primarily online which allowed for anonymity and for increased boldness to say and do things they normally would not.
- Some students were not receiving the discipleship they needed and were therefore not developing in spiritual, emotional, and relational maturity.
- Students have forgotten how to engage in interpersonal relationships and their filters have been forgotten as well.
So what should we do if there are disruptions? How do we handle it well? Today, I want to provide you with some steps on how to handle these types of situations, but also to caution you to remember that there are never two situations exactly the same. There will always be differences, so how you handle the situation won’t always look the same. Therefore, these steps may not all be included, or the process for engaging the disruption may change. And that is okay. These are meant to be steps that simply help us see the whole picture and lovingly walk with our students even in difficult moments.
Speak with love.
Sometimes when disruptions happen we can respond in ways that are not always healthy. Responding with sarcasm, accusatory humor, or even saying something like, “Come on Nick, why do you always have to be distracting others?” will never help you get your point across nor help the group respect and follow after you. Instead, always speak in love. Look to model Jesus and seek to love even the most difficult student. We don’t always know what students are going through or why they are responding in the manner that they are. And when we bite back with a quick retort or cutting comment, that immediately causes students to pull away and build bigger and stronger walls. So always speak with love, be willing to be humble, and remember your calling. When you embody these things it will allow you to better engage and handle the situation at hand.
We are all really good at assuming. But just because we are good at it doesn’t mean we should do it. It is easy to assume how a student will respond because we work with them and know their family history. But we don’t know everything that is happening in their lives. They may be getting bullied. There may be abuse. They may be struggling with their identity. They may be having harmful ideologies. These moments when a student becomes disruptive are moments for us to step up and be the leaders that God has called us to be.
We are called to embody the love of Jesus and care well for our students. You may not know what that student is going through until a later date, or perhaps you will never know, but I can guarantee you this: if you respond in love, that will create a better opportunity for you to invest in and care for that student. On the flip side, if you respond out of frustration, more walls will be built and that student will become more withdrawn and less likely to trust. By seeking to understand and responding out of love you will be able to better assess and engage with the student and walk with them.
Don’t call out publicly.
This is a big thing to avoid, and if we are honest with ourselves we may be guilty of this. I think sometimes our propensity when students are disruptive or distracting is to respond in the moment. But when we do that we make it personal and we become the attacker. We have allowed for what the student is doing to be an attack on what we are doing and we take it personally because we are presenting the Word of God and students should listen and pay attention. But the problem now is bigger because instead of seeking to understand, we have made it about how that student is the problem and how we are the authority who will quell the problem.
Instead, what we should seek to do is love the student and engage with them personally. Show them that they have value and worth. Look to explain and seek to understand. See the student and not the issue. When you do this it allows you to invest into the life of the student and love them, which shows the student you truly care. I have often found when students are disruptive they are seeking to see if the youth leader really loves them and they are watching how they respond. They want to see if you are for them and if your words match your actions. So use this as a time to care for them and model Christ.
Look for the “why.”
As you engage with students don’t assume you know why they are acting out. Take time to dig deep, to ask them questions, and to get to the heart of the matter. There may be extenuating circumstances that are affecting the student and causing them to act out. We never know until we seek to understand and ask those questions. So talk with the student. Show them you care. Ask about their life. And seek to understand. When you do this you will begin to see the relational equity pay off and you will be able to engage at a deeper level with the student.
Do not use absolutes.
It is easy when talking to students to make statement like, “Why are you always the one who is disruptive?” Or, “Why do you never want to listen to the lesson?” Or, “Why must you always be a problem?” These types of absolute statements tell students that they are the problem and always will be the problem, and that they will never be anything other than a problem. This type of language is incredibly harmful and will stick with the student for much, if not all, of their life. So seek to use statements like, “Why did this happen tonight?” followed with concrete examples of other times if this has been repetitive behavior. But in that same vein, highlight how you have seen the student actually pay attention or be a leader. Don’t only focus on the negative, but seek to affirm and raise up the positive.
Challenge the student.
When you are engaging with a student and talking about the difficult moments, use this as an opportunity to not only highlight the difficulties but also to challenge the student. Speak truth into their lives. Affirm their strengths and what they bring to the group. Challenge them to be better and be the leader they can be. Help them to see that what they do matters and that they can help to bring about proactive and beneficial change in the lives of other students and the group. When you tell a student that you love them and see potential and great things from them, you are telling them that they have value and worth. You are telling them that they matter and are needed. This will help students see that they can and should be looking to be different and to lead out.
Bring in parents.
This is typically a last resort for me, because students hate having their parents know that they misbehaved. When a student is disruptive it rarely qualifies for bringing in a parent, but depending on the severity of the situation it may be warranted. In those moments do not seek to simply be right or prove your case. Share the facts and the reason it warranted calling in the parents. But also highlight that this is not something that means the student is cast out from the ministry. Let parents know you are for their student and for them, but that the behavior needs to change because it is negatively affecting the group. Allow for the parents to work through a solution and be willing to partner with them and the student. I would also say that whatever discipline the parents decide on, do not write off the student. Continue to love them, pray for them, and walk with them. It may not be received right away, but remembering that this student is still a part of your program and one of your sheep will allow for you to care them in real and tangible ways.