“John, please sit down!” “Tasha, will you stop talking?” “Shhh!
Quiet!” “Jeremy! If you hit Pete again, you’re out of here.”
“Becca, come sit down by me.” “Okay, who threw that?” “Oh, when
will this class end?!”
Ever said these things? If not, have you ever thought them?
Chances are that if you’ve taught a class of children, you’ve
been there and done that. In fact, the #1 issue confounding most
Sunday school teachers is discipline. Teachers want to know: How do
I keep children engaged in learning? How do I get them quiet? How
much freedom is too much? Can I be a friend and authority figure
too? What creative strategies can save my sanity? How do I spare
the “rod” from Rodney?
Everybody wants answers. The problem is that few analyze why a
child misbehaves in the first place. Yet understanding the
“disease” is 90 percent of the cure.
So why does Tara talk? or Suzie squirm? or Paul punch? or Bobby
bounce? Aside from a neurological or biological condition, the
truth is that kids do what they do because of three basic
1. Kids misbehave when they feel they don’t
Every person — whether a child or an adult — wants to belong.
Everyone desires the feeling of connection. Children yearn for peer
acceptance, and girls and boys act quite differently to get it.
Girls tend to cooperate in groups. They play together, develop
social ties, and trot to restrooms together. Girls who can’t
penetrate the pack may act out. Boys, in contrast, are competitive.
They create conflict and attempt to claim superiority. Boys who
can’t compete will misbehave to gain attention. Older children also
rebel to capture the attention of the opposite sex. It’s a matter
Child psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs suggested that when children
can’t resolve this need to belong, they pursue “mistaken goals” of
misbehavior — each one becoming more intense. Initially it’s
simple attention-getting: polite whispering, kicking a table,
giving goofy answers, or accidental burping. Each action draws
attention toward the misbehaving child as he asserts, “Look at me!
I belong here!”
Many teachers choose to ignore this behavior, but that’s a poor
decision because it fails to address why the action initially
happened. A better choice is to create a connection. Walk toward
the whispering pair. Touch the kicking child’s shoulder. Laugh at
the silly answer (Why not? Everyone else is!).
Why bring attention to misbehavior? Because it communicates to
the child that you noticed. And — just as important — if you
don’t notice, the child graduates to power plays: talking aloud,
kicking another child, a slough of silly retorts, or a bevy of
belches. Power plays are a child’s scheme to draw purposeful
attention (“It’s me and you, Teacher. What are you going to do?”).
Unfortunately such terrorist tactics rarely work because teachers
with more power simply squash them. You know the routine: timeouts,
rebukes, isolations, and removal of privileges and prizes.
Instead of resolution, though, wielding power only forces
children to the next level: revenge. And children’s revenge looks
like this: hurtful comments, aggressive behavior toward the
teacher, absences and tardies, and sleeping during class. The child
now demands, “If you won’t recognize me for me, I will hurt you for
you.” Of course some teachers only respond to such insubordination
with more power, cycling into dismissal from class, degrading and
sarcastic comments directed at the child, and expulsion.
Of course as Dreikurs suggested and is often confirmed, children
who are “beaten” into submission eventually shut down. They shut up
(silence can be deafening). They sit slumped. In silence, they wait
to flee. “Someday I won’t have to be here!” they scream in silence.
And most won’t be there when that day comes. When their parents no
longer force church attendance, they’ll stay home. Or make excuses.
Or leave the faith.
This final stage didn’t evolve overnight. It’s a slow process
that involves continually degrading the child. It happens daily in
public schools, and I’ve watched it occur often in Sunday school
and children’s church. Kids screaming to belong are disconnected
through timeouts, emotional rebukes, and ignoring their
Think about the kid who gives you the most trouble. When was the
last time you phoned him? wrote her an encouraging note? remembered
his birthday? stopped by her home? If children don’t sense your
connection to their lives, they’ll make many attempts to gain your
attention. The answer isn’t discipline, it’s discipleship!
Here are a few more tips. First, reduce the rows. The more rows,
the more problems. The further back a child sits, the more he needs
to announce his presence. If you can, keep to a three-row maximum.
If you must have more than three rows, scatter plenty of adult help
among the back rows. Also keep classes small; eight to 12 children
is best. The larger the group, the more potential for problems.
Splitting older children into same-sex classes can also help.
Second, make your class a safe place — a sanctuary free of
insult and emotional stress. Address children by their names.
Affirm their positive actions and kind words. Incorporate “share
and care” times into class where kids tell stories about themselves
and say affirming things to each other.