When Wild Kids Show Up

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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.”

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So how do you avoid a showdown with each wild child? Follow
these tips from seasoned children’s ministers.

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.

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.

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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.

“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?”

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.”

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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