Ask Rooted: How Do You Handle a Disruptive Student at Youth Group? Part Two

disruptive student

Picture this: youth group is going relatively well from week to week, and you sense that students are getting more comfortable sharing. And then one night, that kid shows up…you know, the one who makes inappropriate outbursts in large group or takes your small group on a million tangents? (We’ve all been there!) In these moments of disruption, we want to communicate the grace of the gospel rather than our aggravation. We asked our Rooted writers to share their best tips for dealing with disruptions in a grace-filled way.

We hope you’ll join us for our next Rooted Webinar Monday, January 30 at 1:00 p.m. CST on a related topic: “Keeping Small Group Time on Track.” Panelists Cindy Lee and Mark Rector will join host Chelsea Erickson to share wisdom about facilitating small groups that foster fruitful discipleship. The hour-long call will feature an opportunity to brainstorm together as well as time for Q&A. We invite both vocational and lay youth workers to sign up!

Brian Ryu, Youth Pastor at Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, MD

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m preaching the gospel passionately. I notice a bunch of students huddled together, talking and giggling. I take a deep breath and lift up a quick prayer that they might refocus. When the chatter continues, I ask for their help and support during our service time. They look up briefly and offer a half-smile; my nudge has little effect. I continue preaching, trying not to let their behavior get under my skin, but in fact, it does. It really does. Oftentimes, my redirects have little effect in my youth group. As a youth pastor who has also worked in a school setting in the past, I am cognizant of the effects that disruptive behavior can have on the life of a community. 

When a student blurts out something inappropriate, I know I need to respond in some way. When I do, it rarely comes out polished, despite my having rehearsed in my head. Sometimes I will have to pull a student aside who gets up and trolls around during a serious time of sharing and look him or her in the eye and say: “You know that it’s not about you.” 

I have to remind myself that it’s ultimately not about the student or about me. Youth groups are comprised of deeply broken people—myself included, and it is God who works through the mess. My reaction to my students is telling enough of my own brokenness. When disruptions take place, and they will, I have to remind myself that God is able to break through the most apathetic, hard-hearted (and -headed), self-centered students, and I am one among them. May our God who pours out grace upon grace, who is able to nudge hearts according to his time, strengthen us in his wisdom to become effective ministers of his gospel to our most difficult and disruptive students. They are, after all, in need of the same grace that’s been allotted to us.

Matt Brown, Student Pastor at The Gathering Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO

When considering how to handle a disruptive student situation, I delineate between general teenage unruliness and targeted disobedience—in other words, the kid who is disruptive on purpose. In responding to this student, we need to balance grace and truth. The kid who acts out on purpose has a reason for doing so, whether it be a broken home life, a perceived need for attention, or something else. As we respond to the situation, grace and love should flourish in our attitudes and actions; however, that doesn’t negate truth. No student has the right to ruin youth group for everyone else. With those two things in mind, here are some practical tips for dealing with targeted disobedience.  

First, it’s prudent to take advantage of times when you see the disruptive student doing something right. Take every opportunity to notice and affirm those moments. Encourage him when he is doing the right thing. Get to know him and ask him questions about her life. As you build relational equity, a student will be more likely to listen to and understand your loving correction. It’s also helpful to clearly communicate expectations to everyone. I have three expectations that I tell my students every week at youth group; 1.) Be respectful 2.) Be engaged 3.) Have fun.

If a student is particularly disruptive one night, pull her aside afterward and communicate the reason for the discussion (i.e. she was disrespectful during teaching time). Explain that next week, you hope that with God’s help, she will choose to follow the expectations. If not, an adult leader she knows will become her buddy for the night to help her focus. If after several opportunities for growth her disruptions are still derailing the group, it’s always best to talk to parent or guardian in effort to work together. When a student’s behavior is truly egregious or damaging in some way, it’s okay to ask them to take a break until they can follow the clearly-outlined expectations (in the meantime you or another adult leader could reach out for some one-on-one or small group time with this student). I have found that one-on-one conversations generally are effective. 

Rebecca Lankford, Veteran Youth Minister and Rooted Staff in Birmingham, AL

It can be so easy to become frustrated when small group or a Sunday school lesson gets off track due to a student’s interruptions or tangents. My primary word of advice would be an echo of Ted Lasso: “be curious, not judgmental.” Most likely, a student isn’t disrupting your group time out of malice. Use the behavior as an opportunity to be curious about what’s going on in his or her life. Is this student feeling left out at school? Neglected at home? Bullied on the field? This could be at the heart of the behavior. 

With this in mind, perhaps talk to this student separately after small group. Express that you care about her and love that she is coming to youth group. If you feel comfortable with the student, perhaps ask her candidly how things are going at home and in school, using that as an opportunity to point her to the root of her behavior. Explain that you value her voice, but that you also want to make sure small group is a place where everyone has a chance to contribute. Most importantly, remind her that no amount of disruptive behavior can separate her from God’s love. 

Practically, on Sunday mornings, we recruited an adult volunteer to be assigned to a particularly disruptive student with a severe case of ADHD. It was this adult’s job to quietly engage with this student, and perhaps take him out of the room for a break when needed. This made it so that the teachers and youth leaders did not have to constantly be calling the student out and thus drawing attention to him. In this way, the student could continue to be a part of youth group in a way that was appropriate to his needs.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years. She and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells, who delights them with his little boy energy. Chelsea holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. She is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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