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Simmer Down Now

We recently received an email from our friend Joe that asks some great questions about discipline:

I’ve struggled with disruptive and goofy kids who like to sabotage games, interrupt worship, and distract during teaching. Part of it’s my fault: I’ve been a buddy, not a shepherd. Now I’m playing catch-up. Near the end of last semester I spent three weeks warning certain individuals. When there was no change in behavior, I had some of them leave the room with another youth worker. Parents were mad! And although I had several good conversations with parents, many feel their kids were wrongfully accused. Our normal meetings are about to start up again, and I’m contemplating putting together a discipline policy that I’ll send home along with other information. Is it unwise or rude to send home a discipline policy to parents who know I’m struggling with their kids? Do you have a sample discipline policy?

Thank you!

If you don’t have troublemaking teens in your youth group, just wait-they’re an essential part of a youth worker’s job description, and you’ll see your fair share soon. And when they come, you’ll need a plan for how to deal. Because there’s nothing worse than students ruining your youth program (except maybe parents, other youth workers, or alien spaceships-all of which can do great damage as well).

When it comes to disciplining students, there are two extreme approaches many youth workers adopt: 1) Punish the unruly teen, and 2) let bad behavior continue so you aren’t labeled the “bad guy.” The first approach is dangerous; youth workers who go this route are often too abrasive and confrontational, going in guns-a-blazing to deal with disruptive teens. The second approach is dangerous as well; youth workers who do this tend to be too soft on students, easily becoming pushovers.

So it’s important for every youth ministry to adopt solid systems of discipline that fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Without a discipline system and clear communication about its elements, students either will run over you or be afraid of you-and both outcomes will breed parents who don’t trust you (not to mention their kids).

Before you do anything, keep in mind the two levels of discipline:

Level 1: Preventative Maintenance
The moral? It’s better to encourage an ally than to beat an enemy. Because I’m a non-confrontational kind of guy, I really love this philosophy. One of my favorite things to do with a student who’s starting to get out of hand is to take her aside when we’re not in the middle of a meeting.

My message looks like this: “Hey, have you noticed how the other students laugh when you act out or do something funny? You’re a leader in this group! So, I’m wondering if you can help me out: When it’s time to pay attention, can you help me get other students to pay attention? And when it’s time to worship, can you help me get other students to stop messing around? Imagine what God can do in our group if everyone followed you, as you led them spiritually?”

The whole idea here is for the teen to realize her potential as a leader in the group. This is what I told one student a couple of years ago-and that student soon became a huge leader in our youth group. He just needed some vision and direction with his energy.

Level 2: The System
Every youth group should have a protocol to follow when it comes to discipline. Preventive Maintenance could technically be the first “level” of discipline, but that should be something that’s happening a little more naturally and informally-and likely, more often. Discipline happens (hopefully less frequently) when the preventive maintenance isn’t working.

The following are the three steps for establishing a system of discipline:

1.Decide on the consequences of bad behavior.
2.Communicate them.
3.Follow through.

The first step is the toughest one. This is when it’s up to you and your own discernment. I recommend you intentionally plan a logical flow of events/actions to take, each a bit more severe than the one preceding it. The following is a sample of what has worked for me in the past:

Step 1: Point out the disruption in front of the group. Of course, this needs to be done in a fun, I’m-acting-like-I’m-just-teasing-so-you-can-save-face-but-we-both-know-what-this-is-about kind of way. I typically just make eye contact and say, “Dude, stop. Thanks.”

Step 2: Pull the kid aside. Either you (if you’re not on stage or leading a game) or one of your youth leaders have a serious talk with the teen outside the youth room. This is when you say you’re glad he’s here, and you’re glad he has so much energy, but youth group isn’t the time and place for his behavior, and he’s distracting from what’s going on.

Step 3: Try some (non-disciplinary) one-on-one time. I have a friend who had a girl in his youth group who was so disruptive that he had to take measures with her that he’d never taken with any teen. After several weeks of frustration, he and his wife took the girl out for ice cream one night and just talked to her about life and made friends-after that, she was totally different. She became a leader in the youth ministry.

Step 4: Contact parents. If the first three levels haven’t worked, it’s time to get parents involved-just make sure that if you told a kid you’d contact his parents, do it. Remember that even though this kid needs correcting, that doesn’t automatically make his parents bad people. Often parents have no idea how their teens behave at church. Simply tell them you’re having trouble with their teen and could they talk to the teen for you. Tell them exactly what the teen has done, and what actions you’ve taken thus far. Be sure to let them know you told the teen that you would call them, and he was still disruptive.

Step 5: Parent conference. Still nothing has worked. Now it’s time for you and parents (and, if appropriate, the teen) to meet and decide what to do about the teen’s bad behavior. One thing I tell parents if we get to this step is, “I love him, and I’m glad he’s here. But if I can’t trust him, he can’t be in the room with the others. I have to be able to minister to all of the students the best that I can.” Most parents understand this. At this point discuss further action. Some options could include:

      • letting the teenager come to youth group, but only if his parents attend.
      • the teenager can keep coming, but only if he agrees to help set up and take down the room for the next three months.
      • the teenager can come to youth group, but he has to agree to meet with you after school one day a week for the rest of the school year. (This is an added bonus. Now you get one-on-one time or even discipleship time with them!)

Step 6: Removal. If nothing else works, my very last resort is to bar the teen from youth group. Hopefully the previous steps prevent this last resort.

Communicating the Discipline System to Parents
Our friend Joe also brought up the possibility of communicating the discipline system/procedures to parents-a great idea! In fact, I believe everybody should know exactly what will happen discipline-wise. My friend Daniel tells his students every single week his three levels of discipline:

Level 1: A leader will sit by you.
Level 2: We’ll take you outside for a chat.
Level 3: We’ll call your parents.

This is very easy for his students, staff, and parents to understand. Also it makes it easy to see where students are in the discipline process.

If you want to communicate discipline procedures to parents in a letter, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. (You don’t want parents wondering if it’s retaliation against the “mean kids” in the group). Instead I’d send them a newsletter or pamphlet about the youth ministry and what’s happening in the coming season, along with the discipline system/expectations for students.

It’s not too difficult to establish a system of discipline. It does take clear communication and a little backbone to follow through. And like our famous Emergency Broadcast System, it’s always better to have a system ready before the emergency strikes!


Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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