Last time we discussed some of the common myths surroundig discipline in youth ministry. Now the question remains: how do you build discipline into your youth ministry? Here are a few things I’ve learned the hard way:

Be Proactive

Don’t wait for problems to emerge before attempting to fix them. Instead, talk about the rules you’re setting, the relationships you’re trying to build, the possible areas of temptation for troublemakers, and try to cut off trouble before it arrives. Put yourself in the shoes of your most mischievous student–what could he or she possible do? Thinking like that while planning your events will help you recognize a whole slew of issues that could arise and help you plan your discipline accordingly.

You don’t need to spend a lot of time dwelling on the ideas of punishment, rewards, or penalties to your small youth. Simply set your expectations up right away, and have a plan in place and ready for when issues arise–and remember, always enforce consequences fairly and consistently.

Zilch the Explanations

Don’t spend time listening to the “explanations” for bad behavior–the reality is that they’re simply flimsy excuses. Your students will just use these explanations to shift blame elsewhere, which does nothing but distracts and demoralizes you. Focus on what you can actually do to better the situation, instead of spending time listening to your kids perfect their creative story-telling ability.

Highlight Ownership

The more teens feel they ‘own’ the group, the more they’ll help to police it themselves (‘Hey, stop that, Timmy, you’re screwing it up for the rest of us!’). A good youth ministry aims to build a sense of pride and identity within its members, as well as an open attitude towards new people. The dynamics of your group should encourage kids to develop their own sense of self-discipline and ownership.

Work Together

If you have a team of leaders or volunteers, make sure you work together. Share approaches, support each other, pool information about those teens who need more help and guidance than others, and back one another up. Ensure that it’s impossible for kids to play one leader off against another, because your communication systems are carefully set in place in advance. I’ve learned the hard way that even the most trustworthy teens will attempt to sabotage what leaders say in order to get what they want–so be prepared for that and always stay on the same page as your leadership team.

On Your Knees In Prayer

Never underestimate the power of prayer. Immerse yourself in God’s Word on a regular basis, and pray regularly for discernment and wisdom as a youth leader. It’s not an easy job you’re doing, but God Himself has called you to it–and as a wise friend once told me, “God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.”

What happens when you do need to discipline your students? How do you handle that? Here are some helpful hints I have for the actual act of disciplining:

Pull Students Aside Individually

Never, ever attempt to correct a student in front of the whole group. Remember, no matter how much bravado you think your students have, middle school is still a time of fragile self-esteem for most students. Instead, pull your problem child aside in private and begin a conversation. Make sure someone else is prepared to handle the rest of the group while you’re dealing with this individual in another location.

Be Clear On What They’re Doing Wrong

Address the issue directly, and if it’s causing a problem with the entire group, help your teen see how his or her actions are distracting everyone. Usually a student will know just how disruptive they are, but sometimes you have a kid so self-absorbed that they don’t realize how they are affecting those around them. Point it out gently.

Show Grace

Be strong and firm, but be quick to follow up with grace and love. Have firm statements to express your true feelings (“You will never do that again because that is not appropriate”) but make sure you end with a positive statement, such as “You know I still love you and this behavior won’t change my opinion of you.”

Encourage Good Behavior

Keep an eye out and lavishly praise students when they do follow your rules. Verbally comment and point out those times when your students listen to you and do things well. Your affirmation will be all the more poignant to those who have felt your wrath–er, righteous anger.

Follow Up 

If need be, set a follow-up time to make sure that your teen has made the appropriate changes to his or her behavior. You can use this time to build a stronger relationship with this student, and this bond will not only likely prevent that particular problem from happening again, but will also keep the door open for correcting future bad behavior in a loving and understanding manner.