We spend tons of time and energy trying to get kids to behave.
Check the shelves in any Christian bookstore and you'll find
numerous books on controlling kids, for example Making Children
Mind Without Losing Yours or Dare to Discipline.
Although it may not seem like you're "doing your job" if you
dare to let a few things go unchallenged, sometimes overlooking a
few things will make your classroom better for everyone -- you and
your students! But how do you know what can be safely ignored
without losing complete control of your classroom?
Lighten up and let the following things go.
When It'll Hurt More Than Help
A common mistake among inexperienced teachers is interrupting
their lesson to correct something that really doesn't matter…or no
longer matters. Kids who are paying attention to a story or who are
actively engaged in meaningful activities should not be interrupted
for correction about trivial matters such as these:
Anything You Can Ignore -- Overlook the small
disturbances to keep your class rolling along on a positive note.
Not saying anything at all isn't the same as endorsing a behavior.
By not stopping to focus on minor infractions, you're able to focus
more attention on positive behaviors, showing students that to get
attention they should do the "right" things that seem to catch your
Cleaning House -- In the middle of your lesson,
you discover that Johnny has, once again, forgotten to hang up his
coat and has instead thrown it on the floor. You have the choice to
ignore the misplaced coat for the moment or to call the child's
attention to the matter, interrupting your lesson and distracting
your entire class.
The best way to deal with these nonessential issues is to catch
them as they happen. If you miss that moment, though, wait until
later when you can deal personally with the offending student
without disrupting productive classroom activities.
When No One Is Hurt -- Some children will do
anything to get the yours -- and the class's -- attention,
including picking on another student so you intercede. Normally,
subtle picking doesn't become very serious; it's just annoyingly
similar to a dripping faucet that won't quit!
If two children have an issue in your classroom, don't
automatically get involved. It's important for children to learn to
handle their problems, and sometimes intervention launches a small
skirmish into a major issue. Focusing attention on every
interaction robs other students of your attention and keeps the
involved parties from learning to work things out on their own.
Revisiting History -- Sometimes a child will
get "stuck" on something that happened earlier. She wants you to
act on this memory to right her heightened sense of injustice. At
other times, children are guilty of not forgiving what's happened
previously, adding the old offense to a new one and compounding the
seriousness in their minds.
In either case, live in the present. Help the child let go of
what's over and done with. Encourage the child stuck in the past to
move on by empathizing with her hurt feelings. Then redirect the
child back to your lesson. Forgive students who have been
challenges in the past yourself, so you can deal with new offenses
calmly and rationally.
What "Bugs" You Tapping, wiggling, and gum-smacking. Wrong or
Some teachers spend a lot of time correcting children for things
that aren't truly wrong; they're just annoying…and maybe only
annoying to the teacher. Team teachers can help one another by
conducting regular, open, and honest evaluations of each other to
point out these personal issues. Parents often have to do the same
for their spouses.
A written discipline plan helps avoid this problem, since you
can take time in private to think through rules and the reasons for
having them. A rule designed only to avoid what "bugs" you is not a
worthwhile rule. Avoid jumping on these issues:
Personal Preferences -- Each of us has things
that grate on our nerves that another teacher might not care about.
We may bristle at the use of the word "dude," kids asking when
class will be over, questions asked with a "sassy" undertone, and
rude noises during class.
Use your sense of humor to deflect these disruptions. When you
get called dude by a student, reply: "That's Mr. Dude to you!" When
a child asks when class will be over, say: "Never! I may never stop
talking!" And a simple disarming smile will override almost any
sassy tone or rude noise.
Personal Differences -- One teacher told us she
can't stand the way her preteen girls behave in class, since she
was never one of those "silly" girls herself. Being silly is part
of the package for many preteen girls, just as being gross seems to
be in the job description for preteen boys.
Some teachers would do better working with a different age level
instead of trying to change the way their class behaves. Others may
need to realize that they have to work a little harder with certain
personalities, recognizing that personal differences don't require
When Kids Are Kids
Remember, you teach kids, not lessons. We recognize certain
characteristics about adult learners and honor them. For example,
everyone knows an adult Sunday school class can't possibly function
without a coffeepot! But when it comes to teaching kids, we forget
they'll have times they behave just like…kids! And that can be
frustrating to us if we don't make allowances for their
Study the age-level characteristics of your students by
observing a same-age class or reading about child development in
previous "Age-Level Insights" columns at www.cmmag.com.
The more you understand how your students are "wired," the less
their normal characteristics will seem worthy of discipline
measures. Then try these things to help your students learn.
Exult with kids at times of celebration. Anyone
who has been around kids for a while knows that every holiday
involving candy and presents and any sleepover party will result in
a class full of "antsy" kids.
It's natural for kids to be wound up when they've been
celebrating, having guests in their home, and staying up late.
Instead of disciplining these excited kids, celebrate with them!
Party on those special days, or plan learning activities that allow
for kids to move around and talk more than usual. Since partying is
on their minds, allow your class members to talk about what's
Enjoy God-given curiosity. Your key job is to
get kids to think, but good thinking doesn't always follow a
well-planned lesson outline. Thinking students will eventually lead
you down a few rabbit trails!
Instead of getting upset about distractions, tell your students
you're proud of them for using their brains. If you have the time,
answer the question on the spot. If not, enthusiastically say,
"Hold that great question and I'll get back to it." Then do so,
even if it's after class.
Encourage kids to experience the lesson. Don't
get concerned that others will think you're doing a bad job if your
class is too loud or seems chaotic. Truly effective classrooms
should be a bit busy, since children must actively experience the
lesson and then talk about the experience to learn at full
capacity. An experiential classroom will bring times of quiet
reflection and loud enjoyment, so don't worry if your classroom
seems "out of control" to those who don't understand -- as long as
you know it's all according to your plan.
When It's Relational
Good education should always build relationships, but
relationships don't mix well with a too-structured class. When kids
are doing things that build friendships, don't get in their way.
And never let your discipline efforts harm your relationship with a
student or relationships between kids. Try these ideas:
Make friends, not discipline battles. It can be
very annoying to some teachers when kids talk with each other
during class, but talking is essential for building friendships.
Overlooking as much "fellowship" as possible will help your
students strengthen relationships and keep you from sounding like a
Even more productive is the teacher who plans times for kids to
talk. Frequently ask thought-provoking questions and instruct your
students to turn to a partner to discuss their answers. This
interactive education promotes relationships and allows your
students to practice application of biblical principles with a safe
Empathize with kids on hard days. Occasionally
you're challenged by a child with a rotten attitude, who may have
awakened in a bad mood or may have a personal problem or family
issue you don't know about.
Confronting these attitudes head-on often makes the child feel
worse, and therefore the child acts worse. Instead, ignore the
negative comments and rolling eyes. Treat the child with the
kindness (and maybe a hug) that, at the moment, she needs more than
Let friends be friends. We often see "best
buddies" as potential disruptions and automatically separate them
into different classrooms or opposite corners of the room --
especially if the two students enjoy talking and laughing during
class. Buddies can take the form of good friends, twins, or even
The problem is that kids need to have friends in their classes.
Most adults wouldn't attend a church where they didn't have a
friend. Kids feel the same way, but they don't always have the
ability to choose.
Keep friends or relatives together when possible. If two
visiting siblings want to attend the same class, ask the older one
to attend the younger one's class as a helper. The older child will
be less of a problem in a younger classroom than vice versa. Tell
two friends that sitting together is a privilege and that, as long
as they don't disrupt the class, you're happy they can be
For us to accomplish our goal of reaching and teaching children
for Jesus, we must recognize that some children are very different
from us and will always be so. We must set aside our personal
prejudices and pet peeves, all in favor of the outcome we're
seeking: a child who knows, loves and follows Jesus…even if the
child does so in ways we should never try to control.
Gordon and Becki West are Children's Ministry Magazine's
"Discipline Q&A" columnists.