Every youth group faces it at times – disruptive or distracting behaviour, inattentive young people, or failure to follow basic safety principles. Below are some tips on how to get the best behaviour out of your young people and how to deal with them when things start going awry.
Firstly, a word from Hebrews 12…
“And have you forgotten that word of encouragement… “My child, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he corrects everyone he accepts as a child.” “He is educating you and doing what is best for you.”” Hebrews 12:5-11 (emphasis added)
Historically Speaking (Before things go awry)
Make a CONNECTION with each young person
Each young person needs to know you’ve noticed them, care about and respect them. If they don’t know that, they are much more likely to play up or show you disrespect. Find out about their interests and weave these into your talks and activities any way you can. For example, if they love roller blading, reset the Good Samaritan parable at a skating rink (see The Parable of the Good Roller Blader). If it’s basketball they’re into, reset the parable at a basketball game.
Establish GROUND RULES with the group
Introduce an activity where the young people get to write the rules or ‘code’ for the group. Just say “We want this group to be a safe, positive, inclusive, respectful environment”, and ask them “How do we do that? What should be our ‘house rules’?” Leave them to it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what they come up with. Ask your more arty young people to turn it into a colourful poster and hang it on the wall. For the next few weeks make an early reference to the poster as a reminder of your group’s culture. Whenever things start losing control, you can call out “Stop!” and rather than telling them off, point to the poster and ask them “How we doing with our house rules, team?!” This even works with our youth group at a CYF residence – it’s a challenge they warm to.
Explain rules and consequences beforehand
There should be no surprises. Before consequences are enforced, young people should always be given a choice e.g. “Ashley, you have a choice – either keep this up and be sent home or change your behaviour and participate fully in the group.”
Always follow through on consequences
See below for the two main consequences we use.
Nurture a CULTURE/expectation of respect, responsibility, positivity and caring
Through your own behaviour, by stating it as part of the welcome each week and by reinforcing the message when things start to slip, establish your group as a place where people are positive and respectful to each other. Expect the group to act accordingly, and let them know that you believe they can do so (rather than leaders having to be the ‘enforcers’ all the time).
Presently speaking (On the night)
Young people always arrive with an abundance of social energy – people they need to talk to, news they just have to catch up on etc… If they don’t get the chance to burn it off before you start, they will try to during your programme!
Acknowledge each person as they arrive
While it may seem obvious that you know they’re there – they don’t necessarily know that. If they don’t feel noticed by a leader, they will make sure they get noticed! An acknowledgement can be as simple as a nod as they enter, to asking after that thing they were worried about last week.
Use peoples’ names
Names are powerful. Hearing your name spoken helps you feel positively about a group and like you belong there. When you feel you belong, you’re more ready to participate.
Employ ‘control agents’
During talks or instructions, make sure other leaders or senior young people are distributed evenly among the group to gently “shh” anyone who starts talking or being disruptive. This early warning system nips a lot of disruptive behaviour in the bud.
In small group discussions or activities, arrange seating so all can see each other’s eyes. When anyone sits outside the circle, they feel disconnected and are more likely to drift or play up.
Managing Group Misbehaviour
When there is general group misbehaviour, start by referring to the poster of ground rules (see above). If it continues, use energizers to change the scene e.g. by getting them to stand up and move seats, or by introducing a quick, simple game or quiz.
To manage individual misbehaviour, use the following steps (provided by Murray Brown of YouthTRAIN and drawn from Teachers’ training modules):
- Look: At the first sign of talking or disruptive behaviour, simply look straight at the young person and catch their eye.
- Name: If it continues, say their name out loud in a neutral tone: “Humphrey.”
- State the obvious: If inappropriate behaviour continues simply say to the student what they are doing, e.g. “Sam, you’re talking while I’m talking.” Say it in a flat, neutral tone rather than as a ‘telling off’.
- Explain: If it still continues, look at them, say their name, and explain to them why you need their attention.
- Enlist: If they continue misbehaving, enlist their support. Say “I need quiet while I’m talking, can you help me out by not talking to Quentin ’til we break for supper?” As you ask this, nod your head. Our brain’s mirror neurons will usually kick in and the young person will start nodding involuntarily! Suddenly they’ve publically agreed to ‘help’ you by staying quiet!
- Relocate: If all else fails – only then do you relocate them by sending them from the room with another leader who will stay with them until the end of that part of the programme.
Discipline One on One
Always discipline one on one, not in front of the group. And follow-up warmly during that week with a text or phone call.
When confronting young people, Mike Dodge (Baptist Youth Ministries) offers this question-based approach for gently dealing with misbehaviour:
- First, present the evidence; identify the issue. Then ask …
- “Can you please explain, help me to understand?”
- “What message do others in the group get?”
- “What can we do to correct that (so it doesn’t happen again)?”
- What happens if it does?”
keep a positive atmosphere
If things get a little ugly and someone has to be removed from the room, return quickly to a positive atmosphere. No brooding!
The two main consequences for serious misbehaviour are: give them a week off youth group and/or report their misbehaviour to parents/caregivers. Once enforced, always follow this up with a friendly visit or hot chocolate/coke date which focuses on the positive: what you like about them, what they contribute positively to youth group and why a positive group culture is great for everyone.
Universally speaking (Understanding Human Behaviour)
Most misbehaviour stems from a hunger or need. Don’t ever catch yourself thinking that a young person is just naughty or ‘bad’. Try to work out what lies behind misbehaviour.
Neuroscience research shows that our brains are wired to build social rapport with others. We all have certain brain programmes that tell us to “Go and connect”; to “restore”; to “problem solve” and to “make sense of events”. When things go awry, trust that your young people instinctively want to get on. All they need to know is that you don’t judge them, that you genuinely care about them and that you respect them. People want to feel listened to and to be treated with respect. Demonstrate that, and you have the raw material to work things out positively for everyone.
When joining groups, people come with three sets of questions that will determine whether or not they will participate:
- INCLUSION: Do I belong here? Am I accepted here?,
- POWER: Do I have any influence here? Can I contribute?
- AFFECTION: Do I like this group? Am I liked here?
Personally Speaking (here’s looking at you)
- Check your own attitude re: the above questions that people bring to a group:
- inclusion (do I convey & promote acceptance?)
- power (do I allow young people to contribute?)
- affection (do I want people to enjoy the experience?)
- Model respect, honesty and openness. Leaders set the tone/atmosphere.
- Avoid getting personal (i.e. no naming, shaming or blaming) and resist taking offense.
- Keep your cool. Exhibit calmness and control.
- Establish rapport. Use names, eye contact and warm body language.
- Keep facilitation supportive & constructive.
- Acknowledge all contributions from young people positively (even comments that seem off topic!)
- Use respectful language; a firm but non-threatening tone.
- Keep instructions clear, use a clear speaking voice and tonal changes. Check that instructions are understood, giving opportunity for clarification if needed.
- Avoid favouritism.
- Affirm their interests/contributions.
- Remember – “Gentleness has more power than power.”
- Be an adult they can TRUST.
You can download a PDF version of this training resource here. Feel free to print and hand out these notes to your youth leaders.