One night at Youth group there was a 6th grade guy that got in trouble during a small group.

The small group leader can take care of most discipline issues themselves, but when they come to the end of their rope with a student, they get sent out of their small group and our security guy keep them company until I’m available.

So on this particular night, toward the end of the evening, Rocke (great name for a security guy, right?) told me I had someone to talk to and I went in and sat with this 6th grade student (I’ll call him, Tim).

I made myself comfortable by clucking a little, whistling a tune, and sat sort of next to him with my feet propped up on another chair (the relaxed adult position… almost like I was settling in for the long haul). After a little bit of himming and hawing with myself (sort of semi-ignoring Tim… to let him know he wasn’t the center of my attention), I started by asking him THE question:

What did you do?

Now the answers I get from this question are almost always semi-close, but almost never right.

He said: “I was wiggling my ears.”

I laughed. “Really? Show me.”

Tim showed me his talent. I told him that was cool and that I could do it, too. We shared a moment together, then I asked him the follow up question to the first one:

What else did you do?

Why did I ask this question? Because there is no way my fully capable small group leaders couldn’t handle ear wiggling from a middle school boy. There had to be more.

Tim said something about looking at a book and someone saying something to him and then the book was in his face… I don’t know… that second answer got really confusing for me, and because I knew it still wasn’t the full reason he got in trouble, I didn’t bother to fully understand the second answer.

I’ve learned that when I know the problem they are sharing, really isn’t the real problem, I will either be super-interested and engaged (i.e. ear wiggling) or feign interest then move on abruptly without acknowledging or chasing down the facts (i.e. the second answer about the book).

I then asked a tough question to ask a middle schooler because they aren’t fully versed in this cognitive ability yet, but I’ve found it helpful for getting to the real problem after a few attempts at it:

If I were to ask your small group leaders what the problem is, what would they say?

I’m asking this young man to step outside of himself, put himself into someone else’ shoes, and think/imagine what they would say. Middle school (even some high school) students aren’t very skilled at this process much, but it is ALWAYS good to allow them space for its practice, especially when they are in trouble and care at the moment.

These times are what is commonly referred to as a teachable moment (or at the very least, the potential for a teachable moment).

And Tim got it. He said: “They probably would say that I was messing around.”

Yes! YES! Finally, we got the real problem! He was messing around and distracting everyone else in the group.

Do you see how I got Tim to verbalize his problem to me instead of me doing it? My whole goal in a hopeful teachable moment is not to lecture a student into good behavior, but to guide them to see that their behavior is a problem. By and large, if a student does something wrong, they know it’s wrong. Lecturing them on why it’s wrong is futile (unless they are a child, you do need to educate on right and wrong, but for the most part, teenagers already know what’s right and wrong… the problem is executing right choices versus wrong choices).

Side note: This isn’t the real issue in Tim’s life. This negative behavior is a symptom, an outworking of a deep issue of wanting to be the center of attention (so perhaps people won’t focus on his insecurities) and wanting to be cool and well like by his peers (because showing you can control adults places you higher on the social credibility list).

But I didn’t have a half-hour to process through everything with Tim (if I did, then I would have gone after the real issues, but sometimes you just have to settle for the immediate), so I focused on the disruptive behavior in the present and made a mental note for when Tim gets in trouble or this issue presents itself in the future.

I congratulated him on getting to the real problem and then launched into a story (stories are always better than a lecture):

“Tim, we are always trying to take you guys somewhere at Youth and during small group. It’s not just biding time until you can play in the gym again. It’s like a football game and the football is on the 20-yard line and the goal is to drive into the end-zone and get a touchdown. We’re trying to take you somewhere. However, you are constantly switching sides, opposing your own team. Your leaders keep trying to prevent you from stopping forward progress but you seem to think it’s cool to switch back and forth from our team to the other team. Do you see what I mean?”

Tim was getting the picture. Tim is pretty tall for a 6th grader and he has a lot of influence. I told him that.

I said: “Tim, I don’t know if it’s because you are tall or because of your personality, but your peers (friends) listen to what you say and follow your lead. You have a lot of influence over them. You can either use that influence for good or for distracting purposes (I didn’t say evil). That’s another reason why YOU are meeting with me (in trouble) instead of someone else. You are what we call: a ring-leader.”

Tim was nodding the whole time. I wasn’t lecturing him. I was telling him the truth and bringing him along by interpreting both what was going on and what was really going on. I  often have kids tell me that I can get inside their head and know what they are thinking. This isn’t some magical skill I possess. I just speak what’s true and use my imagination with what I know to be true of a middle school boy (of which I was one). I know what they are probably thinking at the moment. It’s actually rather simple.

Also, when a kid, who is in trouble, is engaged in the correction process (mentally) then you know you’re getting through. If he/she is kicked back, not talking, not engaged, rolling their eyes, and generally acting either annoyed or confused as to why they are in there with you, then you need to change tactics and throw them a curve ball. Do something… ask something they didn’t expect. Call out the behavior they are doing. Say: “Nice eye roll. Am I boring you? Why?” Then answer your own why question with the eye roll probably means (because they’re not engaged with you): “You don’t want me confronting you on this do you? You want to leave and get out of here don’t you? I would love for nothing more than to grant you what that eye roll means, but I would be not caring about you if I did. Thanks for the eye roll… it tells me where you’re at without you using any words. Can we get to some words now so we can shorten the time you have to be in here with me?” Use shock and awe!

So I concluded with Tim that he needed to make it right with his two small group leaders. I usually make the student come up with their own process, but I was changing it up a little. I told him he could say something like: “Hey, I’m sorry. I know I’ve been messing around too much and distracting others in the group. Thanks for calling me out on it. I’ll work on being on the same team.”

After I got done, Tim looked at me with a sort of glassy-eyed stare and said: “Can I just say, ‘I’m sorry’?”

In my head I’m thinking: “Hell no! You have to man up to what you did.”

What I actually said was: “Sorry’s cheap. Anyone can say ‘I’m sorry’. What really shows that you’re sorry is when you claim responsibility for what you’re actually sorry about. That’s what a mature man does. It’s not easy, I know. But a real man owns up to his problem and doesn’t shy away from it.”

Boom! I just laid a challenge at his feet and basically told him he wasn’t a man if he didn’t do a good apology. Trust me, I know what challenges and motivates a 6th grade guy to do something hard: question his manhood!

Notice, I didn’t tell him he had to, but I challenged him to. Then we shook hands and I sent him on his way.

I followed up with his small group leader and one of them said that Tim had come and apologized to him and told him what he had done and he looked him the eye the whole time! Wow! I hadn’t told him the “looking in the eye” part, but the man-challenge caused him to improvise a little as well!


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