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A Troubleshooting Guide for Challenging Students

We’ve all had those oppositional students from time to time. Maybe they suffered from R.A.D. (reactive attachment disorder) or some extreme form of A.D.H. D. or just simply suffered from a serious conduct disorder.  Regardless, we can find ourselves in a “battle of the wills” with these students and often in the middle of small group.  The following is not an exhaustive list but serves as a troubleshooting guide for handling some of the more common problems with difficult students.

Won’t Speak To You…

  • Try to help the adolescent realize that you have no interest in making them talk.  It’s always going to be more important that the student wants to speak than that the adult is spoken to.
  • In the spirit of collaboration, invite the student to help troubleshoot the silence with you.
  • Give them permission not to speak.  This way the pressure to speak is relaxed.

Is Disrespectful During Youth Group Meetings…

  • Deflect or ignore the comment so it can’t be taken personally.
  • Without challenging him/her, point out their role in the deterioration of the conversation/meeting.
  • Do not use your position as leverage.  This is usually about exerting autonomy and control.  Don’t fight fire with fire.
  • Use empathy to diminish defensiveness on the student’s part.

Tries To Pick A Fight…

  • Try forecasting the inevitable, and troubleshooting for it together in advance, is a handy was of defusing anticipated friction between adults and students.
  • Don’t assume you know what’s driving the behavior but asking what purpose this behavior serves can generate a good discussion.


Talks About Everyone Else But Himself/Herself…

  • Discussing one’s friends is often a testing ground to see how the adult will react when they share something personal.  Be careful regarding what you say because you will expose your judgments and values and send a message to the student that you are either safe to share with or someone to be avoided.

Tells War Stories…

  • Comment on the effect that the student’s actions are having on your time together, or on you, not their purpose.
  • Point out the dilemma this kind of storytelling puts you in, if you point out the negative in this story it will likely impact your relationship with the student.  If you don’t, you may be enabling the student’s sin.  Ask the student how they would expect you to respond to these stories.
  • Be patient and don’t reinforce.

These are just some of the unique challenges we come across throughout the course of our ministry tenure.  How have you handled these kinds of challenges in the past?

– Chris

by Chris Schaffner

Chris is a CADC certified counselor working with chemically dependent persons and those with co-occurring disorders. Chris has worked in the field for 7 years and has worked with children and teens for over 15 years. Chris is also the coordinator for The Shelter, a ministry of Group Publishing that provides support to children’s and youth workers from around the world. He has worked with individuals of all ages who struggle with addiction, abuse histories, self injury, depression and suicide. Chris has provided training locally on suicide assessment and on working with the LGBTQ population. Chris provides training at SYMC, KidMin, UYWI, Operation Snowball events, Chicago HOPES and Access Living, CCDA Annual Conference, OtraOnda Dimension Juvenil Conference, has taught parenting and Anger Management classes, and teaches a community-based series called ‘Coping With…” that equips adolescent with life management skills. Chris lives in Central Illinois and is married to Trudy. They have 4 kids; Blake, Charley Grace, and the twins Claire and Chloe.

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A Troubleshooting Guide for Challengi...

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