Essential strategies for positive, proactive classroom discipline.
You love God and children. You feel called to teach and be enthusiastic about the year ahead. But now you find yourself faced with disruptive children. You don’t want to give up; you’re just frustrated beyond belief.
This probably sounds familiar. Most children’s ministry teachers or volunteers have the passion and the right attitude, but relatively few are equipped for when the “little angels” behave less than angelically.
Unfortunately, that leaves many formerly upbeat teachers ready to throw in the towel.
How can you prevent discipline problems from diminishing your effectiveness and joy? Here’s a bounty of practical pointers from my 40 years in children’s ministry.
Rely on God
Ground your discipline strategy in God’s Word. Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening — it’s painful! But afterward, there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.” Children usually don’t view discipline as training in right living, though. They often interpret strictness as meanness. Although the former is okay, the latter is never appropriate.
A discipline policy is really a discipleship process that allows us to demonstrate Jesus’ love. Although we may not like everything children do each moment, we always love them. They need to hear and feel that from us often.
Adults’ character and conduct are very contagious to children, who learn more from how we act than what we say. So it’s important to respond in a Christian manner rather than react in the flesh. When we adults rely on God to model respect, manners, concern for others, and a gentle spirit, we teach volumes.
Discipline is far more effective when you move slowly and quietly, praying for God’s guidance. Prayer is the Christian version of “counting to 10.” It slows down our human reactions, puts things in a proper perspective, and gives the Holy Spirit opportunity to work. In our weakness, God can use us to glorify him.
Define Your System
Don’t wait until problems arise to create a discipline plan. Teacher training needs to include details about how to handle common behavioral problems — and when to seek help for the “bigger” issues as well. Try these steps.
Set ground rules.
I’ve found that three simple rules work well for children of all ages:
- When you want to talk, raise your hand and wait to be called on.
- When someone else is talking, be quiet.
- Keep your hands and feet to yourself unless you have permission.
If you teach young children, you may need to repeat these three guidelines every week.
Establish a clear discipline process.
I recommend this simple three-step approach. The first time children violate a rule, walk to them and quietly tell them the rule. In other words, assume they have rule amnesia, which is prevalent in childhood. State the desired behavior first; for example, “We use our hands to love and help, not hit.” For a second violation, walk to children and ask them what the rule is in your room. For a third violation, have an immediate consequence related to the misbehavior.
Develop logical consequences.
The purpose of a consequence is to retrain the brain and transform the heart. Training through discipline requires that the deed and consequence be logically related and that it occurs right away. The consequence helps children see that their choices determined what happened. This brings accountability into the picture.
Consequences must maintain children’s dignity. Respond only to the current misbehavior and don’t bring up a long list of past offenses. Instead of saying, “You always…” or “You never…,” simply say, “Because you’ve chosen to do this behavior, this is the consequence.”
For example, if children talk rudely and inappropriately, they must find a nice way to say the same thing. If children hurt someone else, they must do something kind for him or her. Connected, immediate consequences can lead to significant changes in children’s behavior.
Tailor Your System
Although rules need to remain consistent, it’s also important to factor personalities into the equation. Children often hear rules through the grid of their God-given personalities.
- For a strong-willed child who may evolve into a discipline problem without guidance, preface a desired behavior in words that empower; for example, “You can be in charge of cleaning up the block center.”
- Fun-loving children may be busy talking with their friends and forget the rules. They usually respond well to warm, loving words about something enjoyable. You might say, “I wonder if we can get our centers all cleaned up by the time I count to 10? Then we’ll have time to play a game.”
- Otherwise calm, peace-loving children may have problems making transitions between experiences. They respond best when you provide warnings and time to respond. For example, “In five minutes, we’ll move on to our centers.”
- Perfectionists may have trouble because they get stuck emotionally or can’t do something just right. They usually respond well to encouragement. You could say, “I know you’re upset that those colors don’t match, but it’s a very detailed drawing. I’m sure your mom will want to hang it up when you get home.”
Refine Your Skills
Sometimes the more we use our voices while trying to discipline, the less effective they become. In other words, when we talk too much, children begin to tune us out. Instead, use these techniques.
Offer focused attention.
Ever noticed that children seem to act up whenever you’re crunched for time, short on help, or expecting a classroom guest? Children are very sensitive to our moods and can tell when we’re under the most pressure. If you ignore or isolate them — or, even worse, yell at them — the problems escalate and no one wins. The best solution is to stop and give children your undivided attention or, if they’re young, simply hold them.
Move slowly and maintain eye contact.
Look into children’s eyes and truly focus on them, just as Jesus did. Avoid turning your back on a child you’ve just disciplined; otherwise, you may inadvertently set yourself up for round two.
Act detached from the deed, not from the children.
Don’t take children’s misbehaviors personally. Pretend you’re trying to win an Academy Award in detachment. As you begin acting that way, you’ll actually start feeling that way.
When you do speak, pray that God will give you the right words and the right tone of voice.
Our voices tend to go up when we’re upset, which makes it harder for children to take us seriously. Instead, stair-step your voice down and use visual clues along with your words. As you state what you want children to do, nod your head and smile. As you state what you don’t want them to do, shake your head “no.”
Close the matter properly.
Verify whether children understand you. Then ask kids to apologize to others involved, realizing that they may not. Don’t force apologies; repentance is a learned skill. Even so, it’s important to set forth the expectation that kids will apologize when they’ve hurt someone. Train children in the habit of apologizing and trust God to change their hearts.
Keep your sense of humor.
Humor is an important principle of discipline because it helps us put things into perspective. Often we have to step back, take a few deep breaths, and pray that God will show us the lighter side of a situation. With little children who are squirmy and inattentive, you could say, “Did you eat wiggle worms for breakfast? I know you must’ve had silly cereal!” With older kids, you could say, “Is this my life, or am I in a TV show because I’m ready for a commercial
break!” Humor isn’t for kids only; it helps us see the funny side, too.
When your ministry has an established, loving discipline strategy, children feel secure and are able to learn more. And teaching becomes a joy, not a chore.
Jody Capehart has more than 40 years’ experience as a children’s minister. She’s the coauthor of The Discipline Guide for Children’s Ministry and the author of numerous other books.
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