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Discipline Dilemmas: Answers to 7 Questions About Calming the Chaos

Discipline is critical to helping kids stay engaged. The most interactive and Bible-rich lesson on the planet doesn’t stand a chance in a room where kids are out of control. Of course, we’re not envisioning rows of kids sitting silent and still in their seats. (What would be the fun in that?) Children’s ministry leaders traditionally have a high tolerance for noise, disruption, and cases of the wiggles…or giggles! But chaotic kids can pose a safety hazard, as well as become a frustration to kids who are engaged with the lesson.

Of course, we have to do our part by ensuring our lessons are age-appropriate, involve opportunities for talking and moving, and engage kids in multisensory ways. In other words, be sure kids’ minds and bodies are busy. For more details, check out these seven strategies that stop behavior issues before they become problems. Additionally, it’s critical to be aware of kids who may have sensory issues, challenges at home, or learning challenges that require environmental modifications.

But when kids aren’t paying attention or getting along, what do you do? Discipline challenges can impact volunteers. At a time when it seems harder than ever to recruit and retain volunteers, it’s important to equip team members with practical tips for dealing with discipline problems. After all, volunteers who feel like every Sunday is a circus may feel inadequate and frustrated. (This handy pocket-guide comes in a 10-pack and is a great, at-a-glance resource for volunteers!)

So let’s jump into seven typical problems and explore simple solutions for bringing calm into the chaos!

Answers to 7 Discipline Dilemmas

1. There are a couple of kids who consistently want to sit in the back and not participate. I’m tired of nagging and dragging them back in. What can I do?

Try giving children special jobs. For example, let someone help with tech one week, or be your assistant in setting out craft supplies. Choose one of them to help lead a game or act out the role of a Bible character up front. Show them they’re an important part of each class time—you need them!

Be aware that some kids are just shy and may gravitate toward the back of the room. Help these children feel welcomed and engaged by calling them by name. Ask them questions directly and with genuine interest. Respond to their questions with a smile and a statement such as “That’s really interesting!”

If someone really doesn’t want to participate, that’s okay. Give them space for a while. Mornings can be tiring! You never know the home situation a child came from, or if they had a sleepover or late night before. Let children rest until they’re ready to participate.

2. My Sunday school class is totally out of control and unruly. I have no idea how to rein them back in!

You can be direct in calling out behavior, but maintain the fun in your voice and language. It’ll help you avoid setting up a battle of wills between you and the kids. When disciplining, use fun puns or visual language to call attention to behaviors that need to stop:

  • Cheating in games or other activities: “We’re going off the trail; let’s get back to following directions!”
  • Not paying attention to leaders: “Put on your jackrabbit ears so you can listen.”
  • Distracted by side conversations or horse play: “I need everyone to glue their feet to the floor for a while.”
  • Complaining about activities or mocking leaders: “Let’s show our leaders they’re cool by showing respect. If you don’t participate, you might miss out on something you didn’t expect to be amazing.”
  • Wrestling or constant physical touch: “Uh oh! My friend [child’s name] needs a little space. I’ll sit nearby if you need to lean on me instead.”

3. Our church is small, and we combine kids from kindergarten through grade four. Some of the older kids seem unhappy that they have to participate with younger kids. How can I help them get involved?

Highlight their helping role. Encourage them to help younger kids with crafts and other activities. Give them a chance to read short passages of Scripture (if they like to read) or write responses on the board. Acknowledge them by telling younger kids, “[Name of older child] is really good at that. Why don’t you ask him [or her] to help?” Look at mixed-ages as a blessing—giving older kids the opportunity to shine and train as leaders. Point out, “I’m so glad I have helpers like [name] who can share what they know about God’s Word.”

4. There are two kids who really don’t get along. It seems like every week they’re fighting about something. How can I help these kids work out their differences?

First, be sure they understand that physically hurting someone is never okay. Remind kids that your class is a place for only kind words. Quietly take the children aside. Tell them you’ve noticed that they’re not getting along. Let them know that although they don’t have to be best friends, they do have to be together on Sunday mornings, so things will be a lot more fun if they can at least be kind to one another. (If possible, use the Bible point or lesson you’re learning that week for these teachable moments!)

5. I’ve got a kid who simply can’t—or won’t—sit still. She’s constantly on the move, disrupting and distracting other kids. Help!

Check in with the child’s parent to be sure she doesn’t have any sensory issues, or other factors that you should know about. Whether or not the child has special needs, parents may have solutions or routines used at school or day care. (Here’s what parents of kids with special needs wish you knew.) If she’s simply a super-active, energetic kid, pair her with a leader as frequently as possible. Suggest that she sit with you during quiet times. Or give her a focused role of helping you keep others on task and setting an example for everyone else.

Energetic kids can be excellent helpers:

  • “Let’s pick up all the papers and crayons before we move to the next activity.”
  • “Oh, these chairs should all be pushed in for our game.”
  • “This friend needs a tissue. Would you mind bringing the tissue box from over there?”
  • “Can you help me read with our friend, [name]? He could sure use a buddy.”

6. There’s a clique, making it really hard for new kids to join in. How can I make our classroom more welcoming and less intimidating for all kids?

Cliques can make any experience unhappy for the outsiders. Encourage friendships among all kids by pairing kids with partners they don’t know very well during games and other activities. Whenever possible, form smaller groups by counting off (all the ones form a group, all the twos, and so on). This breaks up cliques and gives kids a chance to get to know new friends. Pull a few of the “cliquey” kids aside and remind them what it’s like to be new and not have anyone to talk with. Appoint outgoing kids as greeters, with a special role to make new kids feel included. Offer reminders when needed that everyone is welcomed, valued, and important…and that means caring for each other so that no one is left out.

7. Wow! We have a lot of kids in children’s church, and it frequently turns into mayhem. How can I do ministry and not just crowd control?

If your church is a blast, it’s likely that kids will want to bring friends. (Way to go, you!) However, a mob mentality makes ministry miserable. Rather than have volunteers simply sitting in with the kids during large-group time (or, worse, standing around the edge of the room), form small groups—the smaller the better! Groups of fewer than 10 kids let everyone participate in discussions and spread out discipline issues. When one leader is responsible for a small handful of kids, behavior issues are manageable (or may even disappear).

Separate small groups and let them sit on the floor, ideally in knee-to-knee circles. In a circle, everyone is facing in. That means they’re physically focused on each other and what’s happening in the smaller group.

Effective discipline doesn’t require a list of rules and regulations you repeat every week. Rather, it’s creating an environment of respect, overlaid with joy and acceptance. When behavior issues don’t rule Sunday mornings, class time becomes something everyone looks forward to! Leaders are empowered. Kids feel welcomed and—most importantly—loved! And you can trust that the lessons you’re teaching have a chance to impact kids for the long term.

(Want to take a deeper dive into discipline? Check out this Group U course on classroom management.)

Plus, a Few Tips for Leaders:

  • Turn off your cellphone—you can contact your friends after church!
  • Use kids’ names in kind and loving ways.
  • Use eye-to-eye contact.
  • Be a tuned-in, affirming listener during discussions. Paraphrase kids’ answers in a response back to them to show that you’ve heard and understood what they’ve said.
  • Give hugs or high-fives throughout the day.
  • Be there for the kids as they arrive. Get there early.
  • Model the behavior you want kids to have.
  • Positively acknowledge kids’ answers to questions. Rather than saying “No, that’s the wrong answer,” say “Thanks for sharing. Anyone else have thoughts?”
  • Smile! Have fun!

Use Positive Words Like These:

  • Let’s keep moving so we can do as many fun activities as possible.
  • Listen carefully so you’ll know what to do next.
  • Stay with the class; we need your help in this activity!
  • That’s a unique way of doing things! How did you think of that? Let’s try it this way.
  • It’s important that we all follow the instructions and work together as a team.
  • Please move over here so you can see better.
  • Let’s all sit in a circle so we can see and hear one another better.
  • Those toys sure are cool! Let’s keep them put away so we can hear about this next activity. They’ll be waiting for you at the end of class time.

Looking for more discipline tips? Check out The Quick Guide to Discipline for Children’s Ministry. In this resource, you’ll find effective techniques that eliminate and redirect behavior challenges. For even more tips, check out these ideas

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Discipline Dilemmas: Answers to 7 Que...

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