When Wild Kids Show Up

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When wild kids show up, you have a great opportunity to avoid a showdown. Follow these tips from seasoned children’s ministers.

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“Wild kids are the ones who show up to your class with their own agenda,” says Eric Wesley, children’s pastor at Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. “They have it set in their minds that they’re going to have things their way regardless of the consequences to them or anyone else around them.”

So how do you avoid a showdown with each wild child?

Wild Kids Defined

There are many adjectives for wild kids: uncooperative, disruptive, loud, defiant, fidgety, inattentive, violent, disrespectful, and unpleasant. But these children are also wildly different.

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There are many degrees of wildness. “Wild kids come in all shapes and sizes,” says Patty Anderson, minister to children and families at Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Some have a loud, boisterous personality yet usually stay on task, she says, while others talk at inappropriate times because they struggle with self-control issues.

Sharyn Spradlin, co-founder of a Seattle consulting and training ministry, differentiates between children with emotional and behavioral disorders, who rarely attend church because most ministries aren’t equipped to care for them, and “mildly wild” kids, who argue about reasonable requests and ignore reasonable rules and boundaries.

Essentially, there’s one main cause. Although abuse and neglect, family stressors, media overloads, and even too much sugar can contribute to problem behaviors, experts agree that the main motivation for wild kids is attention-seeking. Wild kids “want attention and seek it the only way children know how — they act out,” says Steve Harney, children’s pastor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Somerset, Kentucky.

Harney says wild kids desperately want unconditional love but seek it in all the wrong ways. They end up with the attention they crave, but it’s negative attention.

Spradlin calls “misplaced adult attention” the key factor in children’s problem behavior. She cites the research of family and educational consultant Glenn Latham, who found that adults typically ignore 95 percent of children’s appropriate behaviors.

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“It’s no secret that kids will do what gets noticed,” Spradlin says, “and all the rules, reprimands, and threats of timeout are actually rewarding the wild kids.”

To prevent showdowns, don’t view wild kids as your opponents. They’re not “a challenge to be endured” or a problem to be “fixed,” says Spradlin. Remind yourself and your staff that these children are no different from others in their desire for love; they just don’t know the positive ways to get it.

Impact on Your Ministry

Even when you understand the types and causes of wild behavior, experiencing wildness firsthand can still feel like a head-on collision. Wild kids can affect other children, your planned activities, and your attitude.

Behavior spreads like “wild”fire. Out-of-control behaviors and attitudes can be contagious. While some students “help hold the wild kids accountable and are eager to model the expected behavior,” Anderson says, “others jump on the bandwagon and go wild, too.”

“Other children begin to resent the troublemaker who’s collecting all the attention,” says Polly Wegner, child and family ministry director at Peace Lutheran Church in Arvada, Colorado. And such conflict “takes the joy out of teachers’ service and makes them feel inadequate as classroom managers,” she says.

Flexibility helps. It’s frustrating to spend time carefully planning lessons and activities, only to have a wild child check in “and within minutes influence the behavior and attitudes of the whole class,” says Spradlin.

Looking Beyond Typical Responses

Common responses to wild kids include sending them to extended timeouts, taking them to their parents, and even removing them from the program for awhile. While these actions may avoid a classroom showdown, they don’t address the children’s problems, meet their needs, or project Christ’s love and acceptance.

Tactics That Backfire — When teachers lose their cool, raise their voice, and threaten or degrade children, Harney says, wild kids achieve their goal of gaining attention — albeit negative. “They learn that church is no better than home, it has nothing to offer them, and they soon quit coming,” he says.

Tactics That Work — Instead of the usual responses, Spradlin asks, “What would it be like for a wild child to be received by a church staff and volunteers who have been trained to recognize, embrace, and celebrate this child whose behavioral traits aren’t normally accepted in the church culture?”

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Steps to achieve this worthwhile goal:

Set rules and behavioral expectations. Having clear, consistent rules is the experts’ #1 solution to handling wild kids at church. “Explain to everyone the rules that need to be followed for the entire class to have a good time,” says Wesley. “Also, let children know the consequences for breaking rules.”

Notice positive behaviors. Make children aware not only of the bad behavior that won’t be tolerated but also of the positive ways to get attention. “Affirm what children do right,” says Anderson. “If you have to correct, do it gently and then suggest what’s appropriate.”

Spradlin advises teachers to be aware of how children get their attention during class or club time. When you spot positive behavior, she says, “Praise kids specifically and authentically. Encourage them to recognize their own positive behavior.”

Transform children into helpers. Assigning wild kids specific tasks not only provides positive attention but also corrals their energy. “Having these children serve as classroom helpers or leaders gives them a sense of importance and lets them know they’re wanted in the program,” says Wesley.

Enlist extra help. “A lack of workers is a real reason kids act up,” says Jim Wideman, executive director of children’s ministry at Church on the Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Have plenty of help so there are enough folks to handle a situation and let the class go on.”

Harney recruits grandparents or other older adults who don’t want to teach anymore but can sit with a child and help him or her stay focused.

Provide attention outside of class. Sending cards, visiting children’s homes, listening, letting children vent and cry, and praying with them are excellent ways to give wild kids positive attention and express your love for them.

Teachers shouldn’t “assume students will be wild or bad because of talk from previous years,” says Wegner. “Give children the benefit of having matured a little, and begin with a ‘clean slate’ in the new year.”

New teachers’ inexperience “may just be the best thing going for them,” Spradlin says, because “refocusing our attention from the negative behavior to the positive is a difficult transition.”

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Also, make sure teaching styles aren’t contributing to kids’ wildness, Wideman advises. “Videotape your class, then watch how fun and interesting it really is. Be honest and put yourself in the kids’ shoes.”

Demonstrating Christ to Wild Kids

When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” he didn’t mean just the calm or well-behaved ones. Reaching out to wild kids models Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance.

“Look for every opportunity to show God’s love and grace,” says Anderson, who also suggests praying a lot to avoid showdowns.

She remembers a wild boy from her first year of teaching Sunday school. After a great morning, she wanted to tell his father what had happened. But the dad interrupted by saying, “What did he do now?”

“Imagine being that father,” Anderson says. “He must have encountered negative reports about his wildly wonderful child often. I was able to share how God worked in his child’s life that day. I still have that child in ministry, and because of God’s grace and love, he’s come very far.”

Harney remembers spending a day with a wild boy who “never fit in with the other kids.” After riding Harney’s horse, the boy was excited and enthusiastic. “He hasn’t been a discipline problem since,” says Harney. “He is, however, my friend.”

Children’s ministers should focus not on attendance numbers but on making each student’s day, Harney says. This eliminates showdowns as “students will want to be around us because it’s evident we want to be around them.”

Harney continues: “Jesus left the many to go find the one. The 99 were already in the ‘classroom,’ but Jesus took a chance to go after the one who had run away. If the wild kid was worth his time, then surely he or she is worth ours, too.” cm

Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado.

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7 Comments

  1. Hannah Lawrie on

    As a mom of three wild children, I can tell you that “wild” behaviour is not always about attention seeking. With my kids it’s far more about being overly stimulated or off in their own little world and being unable to transition into your schedule easily. If you approach this as strictly attention seeking behaviour, you will approach the child and parents with the wrong attitudes and assumptions, and they will leave feeling defeated. changing the language doesn’t change the message. If you approach the child or parent with assumption that they are behaving this way while having an awareness of your agenda and expectations, everyone looses. You are still labelling the “wild” child as a problem child, someone intentionally disrupting your plans. A child with impose control issues or executive function disorder is rarely intentionally disruptive. They wish with all their hearts they could do exactly what you want from them. But just as you can’t stop your speeding car if the brakes go out, so a child with self control issues can’t stop the “disruptive” behaviour. Also, having recently moved provinces, we had to find a new home church. One of the most frustrating things for both myself and my children is the expectation that everyone who comes to church knows all the unspoken rules and expectations regular attenders take for granted. You wouldn’t expect a stranger to know your personal preferences and nuances when they’ve never been to your home before, nor would you (I hope) get angry with them for sitting in the love seat when you prefer they sit on the couch. So why expect strangers to your church to know how any of your systems or traditions work? Yet I have been scolded for retrieving my child from the “wrong” door (the door I dropped her off at) after church service, and I have showed up for a service that had no toddler care or nursery available even though they had said it was a family service and invited all to come. I hope you can see that a teachers assumptions and attitudes will determine whether you are actually addressing the issue or just demanding everything go the way you believe it should go.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      Hannah, thanks for your insights. We believe that the best ministries have a great partnership between the parents and the teachers. Where would we be without the wisdom of parents like you who know their kids best?

  2. The ‘wild kid’ article touches on some of the reasons kids act out…but, one major problem at our church is the leader who opens childrens church in the chapel with singing — absolutely no boundaries are set for the kids, they wander around, play with games she hangs on the wall, completely disrepectful to leadership — then we get them for class all wound up — so, leadership can cause issues because they lack proper boundary making skills.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      That’s a great point, Ginger! It’s critical to let kids know the rules at the beginning. And then be consistent in follow-through.

  3. I feel like this article indicates ideas for when the “wild child” pops into a class unexpectedly however the ideas presented are longer term solutions for the most part. I get that there are no easy answers in this day and age however.

    • Christine Yount Jones
      Christine Yount Jones on

      Great point, Cheryl! Maybe some of the other articles under Teacher Tips/Discipline would add extra insight.

  4. Many times I’ve noticed there is little, if any dicipline in homes today. Whatever the label or diagnosis, kids still have to be taught authority and boundaries. Thanks to the parents who do this. Many parents feel guilty these days due to busy schedules, single parenting with limited help often causing parent to not want to be the “bad guy” to their child. There must be balance to this.

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