Behavior Issues: Disruptive Behavior
What do you do when students seem out of control? How do you deal with disruptive behavior?
You won't have to lead a class, small group, or discussion very long before you realize that things don't always go like you've planned. At times it will be something unexpected and out of your control: the electricity goes off, a tornado siren sounds, or you suddenly feel sick. These things happen. Many things are outside our control.
However, what do you do when a student seems out of control? How do you deal with disruptive behavior? What are some strategies to build a culture in your group where positive contributions dominate and disruptive ones are minimized?
Disruptions can take on various forms, from the harmless to the intentionally harmful. Kids can--without knowing it--take over a group. They can also sabotage it on purpose. As leaders, we must be prepared.
Some interruptions are innocent enough. Maybe it's on off-base question, a contribution that seems way out of left field, or a kid who dominates discussion by always having an answer. Other times kids don't mean to be disruptive, but for some reason they are preoccupied, always messing with stuff around them (even other students), or constantly tapping at their cell phones. Usually, addressing this behavior outside of your group meeting is the best way to deal with this. Sure, you have to correct it in class, too, but try not to make a big deal out of it. Instead, casually address the matter with a student later.
We had a kid in our ministry who was constantly talking during our meetings. He would fidget in his chair, whisper to his friends, and be a general distraction to everyone around him. I grabbed him one day and made a deal with him. "I want you to grab a pencil and some paper, and I want you to draw anything you want while I'm teaching today. Just don't bug people around you. Okay?" He did so, and was not a distraction at all! Better still, I asked him what I taught on and he could recite everything back to me. It wasn't that he didn't want to pay attention, but that he couldn't. Sketching helped him release some energy while still being engaged in what we were doing. Sometimes kids just need some help settling down.
Other times, though, disruptions take on a more intentional and harmful form. Kids can be harsh to one another, use inappropriate language, or even lash out at leaders. These cause awkward moments, and it is true that other students are watching to see how we react. I have handled this poorly and well, and rather than just tell you what to do, I'd like to offer some encouragement with a couple of stories.
We were having a big outreach event one night at church, and many non-Christians were present. Our church kids were engaged in the activities, but some of the kids from the neighborhood were watching to see what it was all about. A few of them--at this outdoor event--were sitting on their bikes smoking. A few things ran through my mind as I approached the kids:
1. They were the reason we were having the event. They didn't know the Lord. My conversation with them and attitude toward them mattered.
2. They were too young to be smoking legally.
3. Smoking offends some people and is harmful to others with allergies, etc.
My conversation with them was pleasant, straightforward, and honest. I got to know them, learned their names, introduced myself, invited them to join in the fun, etc. I also let them know that there were welcome--that night and anytime--but that they can't be lighting up when they were there. Interestingly enough, they didn't get mad and pop a wheelie on their way off our property. They put their cigarettes out and stayed the rest of the night. I felt good about laying the expectation out there, but letting them know they were more important to me (and, of course, to Jesus) than their habit of smoking.
On another occasion, I was preaching from our stage when a young lady was basically making a big scene by talking to the other girls around her. One of our female sponsors, who was at least thirty years older than the students, walked over and politely instructed them to pay attention. One of the girls rolled her eyes at the adult who had approached her.
I was incensed. I get paid as a staff member at my church, but these volunteers work for free. Disrespecting that woman was not cool with me, and I told the student so. I called her out right there from stage, in front of everyone else, and corrected her behavior. I was not patient. I was not loving. I was right--she shouldn't have done it. But I was also wrong--I embarrassed her and made a bigger scene than she had!
I apologized to her later, but I believe the damage was done. In fact, I haven't seen her in weeks.
Drawing from these two real accounts, let me offer some general observations:
1. Kids are imperfect. They are going to distract, disrupt, and disrespect.
2. We can choose how we come off to kids who do the above things.
3. How we choose to treat kids says a lot about what we believe about the Gospel.
4. We should never embarrass a student, no matter what they do.
5. In the context of our relationship with a student, we should plainly lay out the expectations of how to behave during our events. When those expectations are violated, we should be prepared with simple discipline measures.
6. We should make parents aware of any problems that persist, and ask for their help in dealing with it.
7. We should be patient. I know a lot of on-fire Christian adults who were the biggest troublemakers in their youth groups.