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Help! How Do I Handle This Kid?

Melissa Smith

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. 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.

• Pray. Rely on God to give you insight into the root causes for the child's behavior. Pray for God to open your understanding. Pray that he'll help you see this child through his eyes. Pray for love and compassion.

• Check yourself. 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. 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 reasons behind why he or she acts out. Then you can begin to work together to overcome the 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.

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