“I’m going to need you to go sit with them again,” I whispered into the ear of one of my adult volunteers as I walked up to the stage to do the weekly announcements. For what felt like the millionth time, I watched as a handful of my high school students goofed off, picked on the middle school kids, and made egregious noises during our opening worship song. If they had started their shenanigans this early, I knew I was in for another long Wednesday night.
They did not disappoint. By the time I got home, I had felt as if I’d survived battle. I crawled into bed feeling defeated and dreading doing it all over again in another week.
The good thing is I’m not alone. Every youth group has their discipline problem, from selectively disengaged to the runaway. In solidarity, I’m going to let you in on a few of the trade secrets I’ve learned over the years in hopes that our Trouble Kid doesn’t get pushed out the door, but instead is enfolded into the group and reminded that nothing they do can make us love them less (even if we want to flick them on the nose).
1. Follow up with a Positive Interaction.
If you’ve lost your cool on a kid or had to get on them for something, make yourself have a positive interaction with them before the event is over. This could be something as simple as walking them out to their car and hugging them goodbye, but it needs to be something positive and it needs to be soon after the initial conflict. I don’t know what magic is behind it, but I’ve watched my friend and mentor recover and build up so many relationships with Trouble Kids because of this strategy. Do it. It works.
2. Use the Oreo Model.
Our students constantly pick up on the negative things about themselves, spoken and unspoken around them. It’s our great pleasure as youth workers to remind them that they are good creations of God. When having a hard conversation with a student about behavior, start and end it with genuine praise. The effects of these positive words are endless on the student, but they’re also good for your soul and your perspective.
3. Clearly state your expectations.
And state them frequently. While adolescent brains are developing into more abstract thinking, they aren’t always there all the time. Giving concrete expectations, like “throw the ball gently to Jimmy” is more helpful than “be nice to others.” This way, you can also have a qualitative rubric when discussing conflict and you’re less likely to hear “well I just didn’t know!” in return. Less ambiguous rules also help students make more informed and wiser choices, empowering them to become better members of their youth group.
5. Make them decide their consequences.
Young people are really hard on themselves and, most of the time, they want to succeed. Have the student or group of students decide what the consequences of their actions are and hold them to it. This collaborative problem solving empowers students to take control of their fate. This also removes any kind of dictator-like stigma from you as youth worker and builds relationship between you and Trouble Kid.
6. Bring other adults in.
I’m just going to say it: not every kid in your ministry loves and respects you. But, they do love and respect at least one adult in the room and will listen to what they have to say. Having other adults involved also empowers your them to uphold the group expectations whether you’re present or not. Talking things over with another adult also keeps you from overreacting when you desperately want to thump them on the ear. Then you or the other adult can be the calming, non-anxious presence you need to manage conflict with a student.
These aren’t magic bean methods. They won’t fix Trouble Kid and they won’t fix the problems in the youth group. But they will empower and equip your students and volunteers and hopefully keep them around.
When I roll up to youth group each Wednesday night, I look for my Trouble Kids and I remind them of the plan we made together. I tell them how we’re going to enforce the rules that they set for themselves. Sometimes it works, sometimes I still feel utterly defeated. After weeks of the same routine, the defeats are getting fewer and far between, and we’re working on it, together, because it’s our youth group and we all belong.