A look into the heart of kids’ behavior problems.
David was precocious and intelligent — and he loved to test authority. He could derail even the most collaborative, positive classroom environment when he put his mind to it. It began with silliness to make the other kids laugh — interrupting the teacher to crack jokes or insert a humorous comment. But the banter quickly spiraled out of control and almost always ended in a battle of wills between David and the teacher. For someone so small, he was a remarkably tenacious challenger — and the rest of the kids seemed to be rooting for him.
It’s true: One child’s poor behavior choices can taint your entire class — in atmosphere and attitude — and rarely for the better. A child who chooses to be mouthy, willfully inattentive, or continually disruptive can be a teacher’s nightmare — especially if the child’s a ringleader who manages to sway the rest of the class.
You’re not alone if you have a David in your class; I’ve been there, every Sunday it seems. I’ve worked in a small mission church for years, and our situation can be doubly difficult. We rarely, if ever, have contact with kids’ parents. No one brings the kids to Sunday school; they come on their own.
And they just as quickly leave if they don’t get their way. So we’re caught. Discipline seems nearly impossible because we desperately want these kids to come back. But keeping order is necessary for any of the kids to benefit from our programs. How do we enforce the rules without driving kids away?
Beyond the Symptoms
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that understanding a child’s heart is the key to working with him or her, regardless of the child’s age, development, or behavior problems. This is absolutely essential to reaching a child with behavioral challenges; it means finding out what makes a child “tick.” It’s all too easy for adults to become frustrated with the “symptoms” (poor behavior choices) and miss the “disease” (underlying causes for the behavior choices). Symptoms are obvious: We see disobedience, hear back-talk, and feel the classroom atmosphere escalating out of control. Yet we forget to ask: “Why is this child behaving the way she is?” If you can look beyond the symptoms and see what ails the child’s heart, you can help her.
Understanding a child’s heart doesn’t require a background in psychology or a counseling degree. Truly, all you need is patience, love for the child, and God’s guidance.
Rely on God to give you insight into the root causes of the child’s behavior problems. Pray for God to open your understanding. Pray that he’ll help you see this child through his eyes. And pray for love and compassion.
Sometimes personal frustration is the catalyst causing a situation to spin out of control. If you tend to focus tougher discipline on a challenging child, you may be “poking the bear” so to speak. If you and the child are mutually antagonizing, the classroom situation is destined to be rocky. So if a child’s behavior is bothering only you and not disrupting the class, let it go. Don’t impose harsher consequences on that child when others commit similar offenses. And remind yourself before every class that God created the child and he is therefore very special to God.
Dedicate effort and time.
A little extra love, special care in developing a relationship, and your time — all these are necessary to turn a challenging child into a classroom partner. Rather than always correcting and nagging, find ways to positively reinforce the child’s good behavior, character traits, and gifts. Research shows that angrily correcting a child and attempting to reason with the child are equally ineffective; what works is to reinforce desired behaviors. As you watch, learn, and get to know the child better, you’ll start to understand the reasons behind why he or she acts out. Then you can begin to work together to overcome the problem.
Behavior Problem: Advanced Kids
Any experienced teacher will attest that a child who is smarter, quicker, more advanced, or simply older than the rest of the kids is frequently going to become bored. In a multi-level classroom such as ours, this can be especially difficult because we have children of different ages working together. Some kids handle this well. They don’t mind waiting for others who take longer, and some like to help them finish their work. Others don’t handle their boredom well. They find entertaining things to do, such as distracting their companions or annoying the teacher. Here’s how to cope.
Specialize the child’s role.
The obvious, but not-so-easy, answer for an advanced child is to give her more — more challenging tasks and more of them. Challenge her so she’s not tempted to come up with her own entertainment. But take heed: Printing off an extra worksheet or asking her to draw two pictures rather than one won’t work. Asking her to help another child may not work either, depending on the social skills and friendship level of the kids you’re asking to work together.
You’ll be most successful in this situation if you enlist the advanced child as a junior leader. Sometimes this means being a scorekeeper rather than participating in the game. Sometimes it means helping prepare for the next part of Sunday school while the rest of the class is finishing. I had one child who became our event photographer. He was nearly impossible to control unless he had a camera in hand; then he grew serious about his job and as helpful as could be.
Don’t worry about “playing favorites.”
Tapping a single child as a junior leader is a good move, though it may feel strange to you at first — and you may hear some squawking from other kids who feel that the child gets special privileges. Just keep in mind that ultimately it’s more disruptive for one child to continually impede learning than to redirect that child to facilitate learning. A junior leader role is most likely the best way to help your challenging child feel appreciated, needed, and — most importantly — excited about what’s going on.
Behavior Problem: Overwhelmed Kids
Conversely, sometimes children who act out are younger than or developmentally behind the rest of the class. Lesson materials may be too difficult, so the child gives up in frustration. The child may ignore or disobey instructions that seem pointless or too difficult. Watching others finish more quickly or understand more fully is discouraging and damages a child’s self-esteem when it’s a regular occurrence. And kids who feel inadequate sometimes choose to engage in behavior problems as a way to gain acceptance from the other kids.
In our multi-level classes, it’s easy to slip this child down to the class below without causing any problems. But depending on your ministry’s setup, you may not be able to quietly move a child back a class. You don’t flunk kids in Sunday school — so you’re going to have to help them succeed. Here’s how.
Assign a buddy.
One of the best ways to move a child toward success is to provide individualized attention and help. Ask your classroom assistant or recruit a volunteer to work with the child throughout class. Make sure the struggling child understands what’s going on and gets personal assistance when he needs it. And if you have an advanced child who works well with others, pair these two for projects.
Point out successes.
Often a child who feels inadequate in the classroom will become the class clown or resort to outlandish behavior as a way to feel successful. You can strengthen this child’s confidence by encouraging classroom successes — a project well done, an insightful answer, a great closing prayer. Also, point out the child’s gifts as you notice them.
A great way to help a struggling child is to make your classroom a place of choices. This requires more work upfront on your part, but you’ll immediately see more participation and less disruption from a child who acts out because he’s lagging behind the others. Offer two types of crafts, one easier and one more difficult. Give all kids the same choices so you’re not singling out the child. And if there’s one particular activity or area where you notice the child really struggling, avoid it. For instance, if a child doesn’t cope well with games, find a noncompetitive way to accomplish the same thing. Again, more work — but as you see the child evolving into a happy, succeeding classroom participant, it’ll be worth it.
Behavior Problem: Troubled Children
Children experiencing tough situations at home feel the effects in every area of their lives. Divorce, older siblings making bad choices, a death in the family — any disruption or dysfunction in the family can totally change a child’s ability to deal with life in general and social settings in particular. Children are perfectly capable of feeling anger and bitterness toward their parents at an early age — and they can project those feelings toward other authority figures, especially teachers. Emotional issues and instability at home affect a child’s ability to trust, build relationships, and interact with others. What can you do?
Don’t take it personally, and love unconditionally.
If you have a child is in this situation, there may seem like little you can do for her. But you can offer something that may be lacking elsewhere in her life: constant prayer and unconditional love. When the child acts out, remember where it stems from. Don’t get angry; instead focus on the root of her behavior problems and the hurt she feels. Give the child space when needed, and be there when she needs to talk. Frame your discipline as guidance and as mentoring rather than “bossing” or stern correction. If it’s possible and won’t create problems for the child, gently talk to the parents about what you see happening in the classroom. Don’t be accusatory or judgmental; just ask how you can help.
Don’t give up on the child.
I remember one child who came from a very bad home situation. She lived with her grandma because her mom was in jail. She was very unpredictable; one day she’d be sweet and helpful, two days later she’d have behavior problems, resulting in violence and anger. Often she left in a huff when she didn’t get her way, and we wouldn’t see her for a couple weeks. It took a lot of time and patience, but eventually we won her trust and were able to build a positive relationship with her. She still had bad days when we knew she was hurting, but she was no longer out of control, angry, and violent.
We’d all love to have a perfect class — that’s easy and effective, kids who respond just like the book says they will, harmony and happiness from corner to corner in the classroom — in other words, a system that takes as little time and energy as possible. We all live busy lives; working with children in the church is generally only one of our many responsibilities. Though it may be only one of many, it’s one of the most important. We’re shaping the next generation. We’re impacting eternal souls. And we’re serving Jesus as we minister to “the least of these.” There’s no greater vocation, no higher calling.
Your children need you to take the time to do it right, and your challenging kids may only succeed if you do just that. Talk to them. See if they’ll express why they’re acting out. Try different ways of handling their behavior problems. Encourage and reward them every opportunity you honestly can. Take the time to build personal relationships with them.
Not only will you have the joy and reward of seeing these kids prosper, but your life will be richer for it. As you cry out to God for his wisdom and love in handling a difficult child, it’ll deepen your relationship with him. As you become the child’s friend, your life will be blessed and your world will expand. You’ll discover the incredible joy that comes from speaking into a child’s eternal life.
Melissa Smith is a volunteer children’s minister on an American Indian reservation in Arizona.
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