It seems respect for authority has dwindled, attention
spans have decreased significantly, and as a result volunteers are
weary. Is discpline a thing of the past? Here’s help for
understanding why kids misbehave…
The morning is nearly over, and you’re already looking forward
to heading home to your family, relaxing on the couch, and watching
a good game of Sunday afternoon football on television. As you make
your rounds to close doors and clean up the remnants of a busy
morning, you encounter a scene that’s all too familiar. The
football game begins to fade as you realize you have a situation to
As you walk into yet another room, you hear a weary volunteer
telling Amanda’s parents about the outbursts that happened in class
that morning. Amanda stands fidgeting in the doorway. This isn’t
the first week this conversation has taken place, and it isn’t the
first time Amanda’s parents seem to come up with yet another excuse
for her behavior.
Kids LOVE these Sunday School resources!
You intervene and get a familiar explanation — Amanda never
acts this way at home, she must be tired, or maybe she’s hungry…
and the family ends up leaving once again with the issues
unresolved as you console a volunteer on the brink of quitting.
Once upon a time…children could sit still and would only speak
when spoken to. Today as you try to teach, though, Amanda the
Adamant wiggles and whines about how she wants to do crafts and
thinks the stories are boring. Tyler the Tyrant pokes his partner
and incites laughter from the now disrupted Sunday school
The Master Manipulator seems impossible to satisfy and there’s
no limit to his demands. Often he’s loud and wants to always be the
first to answer, read the Bible passage, or write on the board.
Sometimes he quietly refuses to follow instructions because he has
another idea that he thinks is better. He thinks that stubbornness
has worked elsewhere so why not see if it works in Sunday
What has happened to kids today? Somewhere between Leave It to
Beaver and the Pokémon craze, respect for authority has dwindled,
and attention spans have decreased significantly.
Why are some children so difficult today? Do we cater to them
too much? Are children spoiled or are they expressing their unique
God-given personalities? Or do children have special needs that
make it impossible for them to behave?
The uniqueness of children is defined in Psalm 139:13: “For you created my inmost
being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” As a grandmother
lovingly knits individual sweaters for her grandchildren even so
God knits the individual personalities of children. Children are
fearfully and wonderfully made!
As you try to tame classroom tyrants, though, you may at times
wonder if God dropped a stitch in his knitting process — or if
there have been factors that’ve unraveled God’s perfect design:
Most teachers’ #1 frustration in the classroom is not knowing what
to do with difficult children. But before we can figure out what to
do, we first need to understand why children misbehave.
If we ponder Western society’s prevalent materialism, we realize
that most of us are spoiled. Trinkets gather dust in our ample
homes. Children have so many toys that they don’t even know where
to begin. Do all these things spoil children?
Let’s first admit that there’s a difference between being
spoiled and being a spoiled brat. The “spoiled brat” surfaces when
a child doesn’t appreciate what he or she already has and
constantly demands more. Families don’t have to be wealthy to raise
a child such as this. All children can acquire this attitude or
sense of entitlement when adults either overindulge them or simply
fail to set limits.
Overly permissive parents can cause children to sense that
they’re in control. Although it’s often easier to let children such
as these have their own way, it’s detrimental to the children and
their respect for authority. Perpetual indulgence leads to
selfishness, and selfish people and spoiled children are seldom
happy. So these children seek happiness in ways that often result
in inappropriate behavior.
Kids need discipline! Dr. Trudy Veerman, a Canadian Christian
counselor, refers to Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he
should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,” to remind
us that “discipline starts in the cradle.” So what’s a distraught
teacher to do? Is a couple of hours a week enough time to make a
significant impact on a child?
Dedicated Christian teachers who love the Lord obviously think
so and have a burning desire to teach the Word of God to further
his kingdom in the hearts of children. To do so, we have to
understand that each child brings his or her own special brand of
behavior — and we need to respond in equally unique ways.
Julie Hartung, an early childhood educator and mother of five,
asserts that the child who’s constantly misbehaving is actually
crying out for discipline. “The trick,” Julie states, “is molding
the will without breaking the spirit.” She stresses consistency in
dealing with all children.
“Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say,”
Julie says. In other words, have a plan that suits each personality
and don’t be afraid to follow through. Perhaps one child responds
well to verbal reminders, while another child may need a privilege
taken away. Understanding the children in your classroom is your
first line of attack.
Phil Callaway, award-winning author and humorist, jokingly
offers a suggestion for frustrated teachers. “The Sunday school
teacher,” Callaway says, “should lock the spoiled child in a closet
and seal the edges of the door with Silly Putty!”
Callaway goes on to say, “Too much grease is wasted on the
squeaky kid while the others need attention. But do remember that
God seems better able to steer moving children. In other words,
those who are strong personalities, creative, and full of mischief
are often world-changers later on. When meeting children, I try to
experience admiration for who God has made them, a numbness for
their frequent shortcomings, and respect for who they may
Although some children initially present themselves as
rabble-rousers and agitators, often they become the doers and the
go-getters. It’s important, however, that teachers not let little
faults pass unnoticed. Small weeds grow into big weeds and
eventually choke out the good fruit.
If we give children complete freedom, we’ll create little
monsters. Remember Eli and his sons (1 Samuel 2:25)? They all came to ruin. If
we’re stern and reprimand in anger, we’ll chill children’s hearts
and put an end to communication. Remember Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30-34) whose relationship
completely broke down? Love, as witnessed in the example of Jesus
Christ, is the key that opens the heart of a child.
The most effective discipline tips for every issue you’ll
FROM REACTIVE TO PROACTIVE
Dr. James Dobson in his book The Strong Willed Child
reminds us about the importance of discipline. “Disciplinary
action,” says Dobson, “influences behavior; anger does not. As a
matter of fact, I am convinced that adult anger produces a kind of
disrespect in the minds of our children. They perceive that our
frustration is caused by our inability to control the
Cindy Krul, Sunday school superintendent and mother of four,
sees a profound lack of respect happening in our institutions
today. As a result, she has rallied her Sunday school teachers to
become more proactive than reactive. Here are her suggestions to
make your leaders proactive in building respectful classrooms:
• Use proper titles, such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., or Sir,
for teachers and those in positions of authority.
• Offer incentives for developing skills, rather than for changing
behavior. Good behavior must become a duty of the heart, not a ploy
for a piece of candy.
• Set clear limits and act consistently. Ensure that discipline is
timely and reasonable. Discuss a child’s feelings of remorse, and
pray with the child.
• Involve children in establishing clearly defined rules.
• Prepare your lesson ahead of time, and be creative in your
• Stay informed and attend scheduled training meetings.
• Don’t make excuses for disobedience, but keep in mind the age of
• Communicate with parents regularly.
• Catch children being good and offer genuine praise.
• Recruit a prayer partner, and seek God’s guidance constantly.
WHAT IF IT’S MORE?
Children who can’t sit still for one minute. Preschoolers who
scream and kick when they have to color. A child who repeatedly
washes her hands during class. What’s going on here?
The truth is that sometimes children misbehave because they have
a special need. And when the parents are confronted about the
behavior, their first reaction may be to offer an excuse rather
than a solution for the behavior.
These types of scenarios are becoming all too familiar for those
who work with children in the church. According to the recent
article “The Perils of Pills” in U.S. News and World
Report, almost 21 percent of children age 9 and up have some
type of mental disorder, including depression, attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical
Association also expressed concerns about the increase in
preschool children diagnosed and medicated for behavioral and
emotional disorders. With these statistics, children’s ministries
are dealing with a vast array of disorders that are impacting how
we deal with the children and families we minister to.
Frustrations like those experienced in the encounter with
Amanda’s parents mentioned earlier are not uncommon. Parents’
excuses regarding a child’s behavior are not only aggravating,
they’re also subtle voices that whisper to a children’s worker,
“You’re incompetent because you can’t handle this.”
What’s with parents’ excuses, anyway?
Although parents’ excuses may at times be just that — excuses,
more often than not, they’re a mask that hides the feelings,
emotions, and frustrations parents encounter when facing their
child’s condition. For many parents, learning that their child has
a psychiatric or medical condition brings a mixture of feelings:
denial, relief, fear, grief, and guilt. Having a name and
explanation for why their child behaves the way she does initially
brings a sense of relief. To know that the child’s misbehavior is
no longer a reflection of their parenting skills and that there’s
an explanation is almost comforting, initially.
Then reality sets in, and fears for their child’s future as well
as grief over the loss of their “perfect” child set in. Parents
feel guilty for all the times they scolded or punished their child
for a behavior they now understand is part of the child’s
diagnosis. And then, in many cases, the parents become even more
protective of their child. They become more aware of the ridicule
their child experiences because of the symptoms — symptoms that
are often difficult to suppress.
Unfortunately, many parents believe that their child can’t
control much of his or her behavior and so the parents accept too
much misbehavior and withdraw most discipline, in fear that it’ll
make the “symptoms” worse. Thus, we hear the excuses. They become
easier than explanations, which, for these families, have often led
to little in the way of solutions.
MINISTERING TO SPECIAL NEEDS FAMILIES
The key question for children’s ministers is: What’s your goal?
If the goal is a perfectly quiet classroom with no disruptions
whatsoever, perhaps you should ship out any offenders until you’re
left with one or two angelically fearful, quiet wonders. That’s
ludicrous! If, however, your goal is to come alongside families and
partner with them in their child’s Christian education, you may
have to endure the disruptions as you seek to enter into
relationship with the special needs child and the family.
The church has a tremendous opportunity to minister to families
dealing with the special needs of a child. It’s a chance to show
God’s unconditional love to individuals who’ve had a lot of
conditions placed on their families. Even when you’re unaware of
the nature of a child’s problem, there are ways you can help a
family work past the excuses.
- Listen to the parents. All too often children’s ministers end
up reporting a child’s misbehavior without listening to the
parents. Keep in mind that parents of children with psychiatric
disorders may be resistant to what you have to say; they’ve already
heard it all and are tired of explaining the issues. They’ve
witnessed how explaining their child’s condition results in their
child being labeled and stereotyped. So listen well to them. They
may just need someone to listen to them without trying to analyze
their child or the situation.
- Support the family. Find out if there are specific needs in the
family. Parents may need something as simple as prayer, or maybe
they’ve recently gotten the diagnosis for their child and are in
need of resources. Many of these families have to go through months
of paperwork, meetings, and appointments to get their child’s needs
met in the school system. Don’t make it difficult for them to get
the same at church.
- Partner with the family. Work with the family on solutions to
problems that arise in the classroom. The greatest gift you can
give to parents with a special needs child is respect for their
opinion. If the behavior isn’t in the child’s best interest and the
parents agree, put your heads together on what’s the most effective
way to approach the problem. Keep in mind that you see the child
under different conditions than the parents; just because something
works at home doesn’t mean it will work in a classroom environment.
Realizing that parents may not be familiar with some of the
processes that work in education, gather information on the child’s
interests and strengths so you can best teach and support the whole
- Don’t take an excuse personally. Remember that a parent’s
attitude toward you may stem from a previous encounter with another
professional regarding their child. Let parents know the truth
about a situation, but find a gentle way to deliver the news. For
example, kids with attention deficit disorder/attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can be disruptive in class. They
can also be insightful and resourceful. Think about which fact you
want to present first. Parents may not defend quickly if they sense
you truly know their child.
- Keep in mind that all misbehavior is not medically explained.
Six-year-old Brian has suddenly become the terror of your class; he
can’t sit still and he’s constantly seeking attention. You wonder
if he has been tested for ADHD, then you notice that his mom picks
him up pushing a stroller with newborn twins in tow. After talking
with Mom, you realize that Brian has been feeling a bit left out
since the birth of his siblings.
Check with parents about any sudden change in behavior. There’s
usually an obvious explanation, but if there isn’t, a chat with
parents may alert them to a behavior pattern that’s emerging.
Not all families are open to working with children’s ministers
regarding their child’s behavior problems. Excuses will continue
and may be the norm for families who don’t recognize the nature of
their child’s behavior. So how do you deal with the child who,
according to his or her parents, doesn’t have a problem but has had
too much sugar every Sunday morning before coming to class?
MINISTERING TO KIDS
Today’s kids are a unique bunch. Never before have children been
so busy, with schedules that outmatch many adults. Not only do we
see kids who miss any given Sunday because of a soccer tournament
or hockey game, but we also see more and more kids who are overly
tired and exhausted from their tight schedules as they enter into
our care. Then there are children who rarely get breakfast in the
morning before church or who eat so early that by the last service
they’re starving for lunch.
Yes, there are excuses out there, and legitimate ones. Your
challenging child this week may be one with a diagnosed disorder,
while next week the challenges may stem from a growling tummy. How
can you meet the needs of these challenging children without
jeopardizing their classmates’ learning opportunities?
- Be consistent. Set up classroom guidelines for children that
promote respect for the leader and their peers. Follow through with
consequences, don’t make excuses yourself, and contact parents if
the situation warrants. Establish some type of routine, whether
it’s having younger children play at a learning center when they
arrive, or having older kids sign themselves in and put on a name
tag. Be consistent with your own attendance. If special needs kids
know they can depend on you being there, they’ll feel more relaxed
- Keep the learning environment active. Not only is activity more
fun and helps children retain information better, but it’s also a
natural deterrent for misbehavior. Children who feel that they’re
part of thelearning will take more responsibility for their
- Build relationships. Depending on the circumstance, children
with special needs often have difficulties making friends. They’re
also often labeled as the “trouble” child by teachers and school
staff. By building a relationship with special needs kids you not
only set a positive example for others, but you also build
confidence in a child who may not receive a lot of positive
reinforcement elsewhere. Find out what the child’s interests are
and make it a point of contact each week.
MINISTERING TO VOLUNTEERS
If you’re a children’s ministry leader, you’ve had this
conversation: A volunteer comes to you, pleading that he just can’t
handle Amanda any longer. How can you value the person, without
leaving Amanda in the dust? Here’s how.
- Equip your volunteers. The latest statistics say it all: Your
volunteers are going to deal with difficult children, some with
diagnosed disorders, and others who are just stressed and act out
in class. Training volunteers in discipline strategies, as well as
briefing them on the latest trends in special education, is wise.
If you have a specific child and know his or her situation, update
your volunteer. Don’t divulge any confidences you’ve established
with the family. Encourage volunteers to build relationships with
the family and to keep the lines of communication open. The more
prepared volunteers feel for the situation, the more confident
- Encourage your volunteers. Let them know they’re handling the
situation well and that they’re doing a good job. Drop them an
email or give them a call when you know they’ve had a rough
morning. This will give them time to vent any frustrations, and
you’ll let them know that you’re on top of the situation.
- Support your volunteers. Nothing will bring a resignation
letter faster than a volunteer who feels like a lone duck in a sea
of behavior problems. Never let a volunteer teach class solo;
provide assistants who can provide support in the classroom. If
circumstances warrant, add an extra helper for a child who may need
more one-on-one attention. If a situation escalates with a child,
let your volunteer have an “out” by calling you in to deal with the
situation. You can remove the child and deal with the situation
outside the classroom, freeing your volunteer from what might be an
• • •
“For I was hungry and you fed me…naked, and you clothed
We’re very familiar with these verses, and in them we understand
that God is calling us to meet people’s needs. If Jesus were to
update these verses, perhaps they would read something like this
for children’s ministry: “For I was out of control, and you called
me to a standard. I had a disorder, and you sought to understand
me. I was confused by my condition, and you held me and told me I
That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us to do as children’s
ministers in an environment where children have special needs.
Rather than being angered by their condition or irritated by their
parents’ excuses, we have a genuine opportunity to express God’s
unconditional love to children.
No one can make children love the Bible. Nobody can force a
child to have a relationship with God. But because imitation is a
powerful tutor, children’s ministers strive to be living epistles
of Jesus Christ. Children, with all their aptitude for mischief,
are extremely malleable and are being imprinted daily — by others’
example. What sort of mark are you making on a child?
A CHILD’S TEN COMMANDMENTS
Here’s what children would like their Sunday school teacher to
- Thou shalt accept my youthfulness. I need tender direction and
loving leadership. Constant criticism and raised eyebrows make me
feel foolish and inadequate.
- Thou shalt accept my imperfections. Please don’t expect
perfection whenever you assign a task to me. I really do learn by
- Thou shalt accept my limitations. My hands are small and
sometimes I seem awkward and clumsy. Please be patient with
- Thou shalt show me the way to go. When I show off, I’m really
asking for affirmation and reassurance. Could you please give me
gentle guidance so my behavior doesn’t become my attitude?
- Thou shalt welcome me. If I’m new to your class, please take
the time to explain the routine and show the other children that
you’re glad to see me (even if you thought your class was big
- Thou shalt expect the best from me. Please don’t have
preconceived ideas about me. I have the tendency to live up to your
expectations. Expect me to behave appropriately.
- Thou shalt make the Word of God come to life for me. Find
creative ways to teach me about the power of God, the ministry of
Jesus, and all of God’s Word.
- Thou shalt help me know and do what’s right. Nobody needs to
show me how to sin (it comes naturally), but somebody please care
enough to lovingly discipline me when I act inappropriately.
- Honor my father and mother with good communication. Talking to
my parents could help you discover my fears, my joys, my problems,
my talents, my weaknesses, and my strengths.
- Thou shalt pray for me. You know, you may be the only person in
the whole world who talks to God about me. I need you to ask God to
Carmen Kamrath is associate editor for Children’s Ministry
Magazine. Glynis Belec is the drama ministry leader at Drayton
Reformed Church in Drayton, Ontario. Please keep in mind that phone
numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change. Please keep
in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to