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How to Teach When Students Aren't Listening

There’s no worse feeling than speaking to a group of people …

… and slowly beginning to realize that none of them are listening.

Everyone who works with teenagers has had that feeling before.

After all, it comes with the territory.

But today, I’m telling you how make the distraction monster go away …

… so that you can turn your students’ attention back to Jesus.

Even the very best speakers sometimes lose the room. Here’s how they get it back and how you can too.

You already know that it only takes a small distraction to pull a student’s attention away from your message.

You also know that once one student becomes distracted, it’s only a matter of time before he drags others along with him.

So this post isn’t about trying to reign in the one student who’s being a distraction; it’s about what happens when the whole room has joined him.

Last week, I retweeted the following from Youth Group Boy, who is maybe my favorite person on all of Twitter:

“My ymin missed a belt loop yesterday on his church outfit. He might as well have given up trying to teach us anything after that.”

Don’t you hate the fact that you can spend hours or days writing the best message you could possibly give, only to see it go south in a hurry because there are two squirrels mating outside the window or because some seventh grader just looked at a funny picture on his phone …

… or because one of your female volunteers accidentally farted, your students are trying NOT to laugh, and ironically, their silence is creating a funnier and more distracting situation than the original incident did?

And yes, all of those things have happened to me. In my better moments, here’s what I’ve done to regain control of the room and to get the focus pointed back to Jesus again:

Ask a spontaneous discussion question.

Then, let students break into groups to discuss the question. This gives the talkers a chance to get their hyperactivity out of their system and gives you time to take a breath, take stock of your talk and reassess what’s next.

Move to another room.

If you have the luxury of multiple spaces, this is a great way to break the tension of a distracted group and to give yourself a do-over on the message you were hoping to give in the first place.

If you can’t change rooms, then do something different with the room you’re in. Dim the lights, or ask everyone to face the opposite direction for the remainder of the session.

Dramatically alter your speaking style.

If you usually stand, sit; and if you usually sit, stand. Speak louder and be more animated than usual or make yourself much quieter and more reserved. These kinds of techniques are a cue to people that it’s time to get serious. Usually, they work.


It’s OK to interrupt your talk with a spontaneous prayer. After all, if you’ve found yourself in a situation where you’ve lost the attention of the people in the room, you could use some prayer …

… and so could they.

Besides, even the most rambunctious crowds still reserve some reverence for the act of prayer, and getting them to be silent with eyes closed for a few moments isn’t the worst way to get them calmed down again.

Anything else?

Now it’s your turn, and I want to ask you to masochistically imagine yourself in the middle of a talk that’s gone wrong. What would you do to regain the attention of the room? Tell me about it in the comments.  

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Aaron Helman is on a mission to help end the epidemic of youth worker burnout. He writes at Smarter Youth Ministry to help youth workers with their biggest frustrations—things like leading volunteers, managing money, and communicating effectively. He is also the youth minister at Firehouse Youth Ministries in South Bend, Indiana.