Inevitably it happens. If you’ve volunteered in children’s
ministry, you’ll never forget the day you left class feeling as if
you had lost control of the situation and failed to connect with
the kids–at all. Filled with doubt, you contemplated whether you
have what it takes to serve in children’s ministry. In one short
hour your confidence level went from “soaring” to “self-doubt”.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. A recent poll conducted by
AP-AOL Learning Services found that two out of three public school
teachers named children’s misbehavior as a major problem in
schools. And when children’s ministry leaders are asked if they
agree with this finding, the overwhelming answer is “yes.”
Discipline is a hot button for people who work with kids. While
public and private school systems have five days a week to instill
a discipline plan with students, the church typically has about one
hour per week to do the same. Public school systems have certified
instructors trained to deal with classroom management, but the
church often expects volunteers to come up with their own
discipline plan without guidance or expectations. Sometimes
disciplining kids at church is even discouraged and ignored.
So how can children’s ministry volunteers do what they’re called
to do — without being trampled on by misbehaving kids?
Understanding why kids misbehave is the first step to eliminating
What Sets Off Kids
• A Desire to Belong – One of kids’ greatest
desires is to connect with their peers. Sometimes a child’s
misbehavior results from a mistaken assumption that an
inappropriate action will help gain peer recognition. When kids
feel disconnected from a group, misbehavior is often actually a
misguided tactic to belong: “If I refuse to participate, others
will think I’m cool, and I’ll fit in with the group.”
• Lack of Direction – Unclear rules,
inconsistent enforcement, and lack of consequences can ignite
misbehavior. If kids believe they’ll get away with inappropriate
behavior, and there’s a history of tolerance without repercussions,
the spark of misbehavior can spread like a wildfire.
• Environmental Hazards – Sometimes the room
arrangement encourages kids to act out. Seating arrangements,
physical distractions, and space issues can lead to a child’s poor
behavior choice. One church had kids who constantly goofed off in
chairs during large group time. Their leader removed the chairs and
had kids sit on the floor. This simple change eliminated the
distraction and kids were instantly more engaged in the teaching.
Group chemistry and personal circumstances may also create a
• Boredom – If kids aren’t engaged in
learning, they’ll engage in something else. And an unprepared
leader is a doormat just waiting to be stepped on.
Evaluate your discipline style when responding to misbehavior.
How you respond to a situation may determine whether you’re able to
regain control of your classroom. What’s your style?
• Passive – Do you avoid misbehaving kids and
hope situations will resolve themselves? Or do you cower when
handling situations? Quietly asking kids to stop hitting each other
without further discussion or follow-through invites kids to goof
off because they’re confident there’ll be no repercussion for their
• Aggressive – Do you blow steam the minute a
situation gets slightly out of control? Do you spew words out of
anger or make threats? Calling kids names such as “brats” or “pigs”
doesn’t model respect or a plan of action. Defiant kids now know
exactly how to push your buttons, while children who behave fear
• Assertive – Do you stay calm when
communicating to a misbehaving child? Do you make eye contact,
verbally repeat the offense for clarity, and use the child’s name?
Assertive leaders calmly insist that children comply with
expectations, and they follow through with consequences rather than
threats. Firmly stating disapproval for inappropriate behavior,
what the appropriate behavior is, and the potential consequence if
misbehavior continues will win every time when it comes to
Creating a discipline policy is a vital step toward managing
discipline problems. Your discipline policy should complement the
goals and purpose of your ministry. Two basic goals for discipline
are to ensure kids’ and leaders’ safety, and to provide an
environment conducive to learning. Use these tips to create a
discipline policy for your ministry.
• Keep It Simple – Don’t develop so many rules
that kids can’t remember them from week to week. Set two or three
simply stated rules for kids. To help kids understand, ask them
what it looks like to follow the stated rules. For example, one
rule may be, “Treat others like you would want to be treated.” Ask
kids, “What behaviors describe this rule?” One teacher used this
approach and the kids in her class were delighted that they were
asked to be part of the process. Kids that were once behavioral
problems became models for the positive behaviors they helped
develop for their classroom. Write their descriptions and keep them
visible in your classroom. Kids will have ownership in the
discipline policy if they help shape what it looks like.
• Keep It Consistent – Your discipline policy
should have basic principles that span all age groups. It may have
a different look for pre-schoolers and preteen but the concepts and
goals should remain constant. If one rule is to respect others,
that may mean sharing the crayons for a preschooler, or it may mean
no put-downs for a 10-year-old. Consistency makes it easier for
kids to remember expectations for the long haul, and it helps
volunteers stay on the same page.
• Keep It Fresh – Take the time to review your
policy with kids. Post expectations in your room and in public
gathering areas. One church saw discipline issues decline when they
posted expectations outside classroom doors for kids and parents to
read as they entered the room. Send periodic reminders of
expectations home to parents. Review rules on a weekly basis so
everyone’s clear about what’s expected.
• Keep It Label-Free – Each week we face a
swarm of personalities, disorders, and issues attached to the kids
who walk through our doors. Each week may have a different set of
behavioral problems and challenges in your class. In the heat of
the moment it can be easy to label the child instead of the
inappropriate behavior. Take care when confronting a child about
his or her misbehavior. Announcing to the class that Sally’s a
chatterbox when she constantly talks out of turn doesn’t model
respect and may inflict damage to her developing sense of self.
Instead, remind Sally that one of the class rules is to be
respectful and when she talks out of turn, her behavior is
If you want kids to follow your policy, follow through with
established consequences. Consequences help kids own their behavior
and teach them to make better choices. Use these tips when
establishing consequences for misbehavior.
• Three Strikes – It’s important to give kids
the opportunity to correct misbehavior on their own. Giving kids a
warning that clearly describes their offense and the potential
consequence allows children to self-correct. You may need to
distinguish behaviors that bypass a warning and directly result in
a consequence, such as putting another child in danger.
• Teachable Moments – Establish consequences
that teach kids responsible behavior. Don’t force a child to say,
“I’m sorry” when he or she isn’t remorseful. Instead, tell a child
that his or her behavior has resulted in a consequence. Ask the
child to tell you why he or she will receive a consequence. Have
the child take responsibility for his or her actions by confessing
them to Mom or Dad.
As a children’s ministry director, I’ve used this approach with
kids of all ages. I believe it teaches parents and kids to
communicate and work on problems together. I’ve seen kids take
greater responsibility for their actions when they’re faced with
explaining their behavior to a parent or guardian. Give the child
the opportunity to tell you what an appropriate behavior would’ve
looked like. If appropriate, ask the child what a logical
consequence should be for the misbehavior. Remember to tell
children that they aren’t bad, but they made a poor behavior
• Fairness – Don’t let some kids get away with
breaking rules and then come down hard on others. One family left a
church because their daughter told her teacher that the pastor’s
grandson hit her every week. When the problem became a weekly
occurrence, her parents talked to the teacher. The teacher never
disciplined the boy or told his parents about his misbehavior. When
the girl’s parents discovered that another child had been kicked
out of class for the same misbehavior, they made a decision to find
a new church. Kids need to know the steps that’ll transpire before
a consequence is handed down, and they need to see that leaders are
fair. Kids will have a difficult time trusting and respecting
leaders if they show favoritism or leniency to some kids and not
• Taking the Lead – “Attitude reflects
leadership, captain.” This memorable quote from the movie Remember
the Titans holds true for ministry leaders. If your position is to
oversee children’s ministry at your church, then be a model for
volunteers, kids, and parents. Develop your discipline policy and
support your volunteers in their efforts to uphold it. When a
difficult discipline situation arises, take the load from
volunteers and handle it yourself. Informally check in on areas
where persistent problems exist.
If you’re a volunteer, stay positive. Greet children and parents
often and communicate a partnership with families regarding
discipline. Public school research shows that children respond
positively to social rewards such as smiling, praising, and
complimenting. Misbehavior often wins center stage, but giving
attention and praise when things go right in class can have a
lasting effect in determining your classroom climate. cm
Carmen Kamrath is the associate editor of Children’s
by Sophia Winter
It’s easy to lose confidence — or cave completely — when
you’re faced with disciplining a child. One reason we lose
confidence in these stressful situations is internal — the “little
voice in our heads” telling us we’re fighting a losing battle.
Let’s listen in.
I can’t do it. I’m uncomfortable disciplining
“I can’t do it” statements are self-defeating and start the vicious
cycle of the self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to discipline.
If your tendency is to fall into this thinking, memorize
Philippians 4:13: “For I can do everything with the help of Christ
who gives me the strength I need.” Arm yourself with this
Scripture. With each situation, your attitude will be positively
influenced, and you’ll experience a greater sense of control.
I’m just a volunteer Sunday school
“Just” statements are detrimental, so eliminate them from your
thinking. As you reflect on your role in a child’s life, remember
that you may be the only person willing to confront the child’s
misbehavior and help instill positive change. God has given you a
responsibility in each situation for reasons that may not be
obvious to you. Remember, it’s not about you; trust God’s guidance
as you address the behaviors in question.
I feel like giving up.
Even on the worst discipline day, deep down we know that it would
feel a lot worse to give up than to take a stand for kids’ sake.
Life’s toughest challenges often bring the greatest rewards. To
lift your spirits, visualize a misbehaving child taking positive
steps forward. Anticipate the satisfaction and joy you’ll have in
knowing that you played an important role. Reflect on the impact
your involvement will make on the child, his or her self-esteem,
and everyone’s ability to enjoy Sunday school again. Allow yourself
to savor your hopes and dreams for the child — rely on them to
provide encouragement as you work through the tough spots. “This
too shall pass” can be your private — and true — mantra as you
make the effort on behalf of this valuable child and his or her
Can I really make a difference?
William James, noted psychologist and philosopher, said, “The
deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be
appreciated.” This innate need is often unfulfilled for many. For
this reason, let the child know you care for him or her in spite of
any negative situation. When you extend genuine care and concern to
children, your actions reveal their preciousness. Your efforts will
have an impact. You can have confidence that your care has made a
Remember that the greatest eternal benefit of your efforts will
become clear as this child moves into a closer, intimate
relationship with Jesus. Girded with this knowledge, you can
Sophia Winter is the advertising director for Group