Discipline is an ever-present need in children’s ministry settings. Get smart with these discipline tips.
Inevitably it happens. If you’ve volunteered in children’s ministry, you’ll never forget the day you left class feeling as if you had lost control of the situation and failed to connect with the kids — at all. Filled with doubt, you contemplated whether you have what it takes to serve in children’s ministry. In one short hour your confidence level went from “soaring” to “self-doubt”.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. A recent poll conducted by AP-AOL Learning Services found that two out of three public school teachers named children’s misbehavior as a major problem in schools. And when children’s ministry leaders are asked if they agree with this finding, the overwhelming answer is “yes.”
Discipline is a hot button for people who work with kids. While public and private school systems have five days a week to instill a discipline plan with students, the church typically has about one hour per week to do the same. Public school systems have certified instructors trained to deal with classroom management, but the church often expects volunteers to come up with their own discipline plan without guidance or expectations. Sometimes disciplining kids at church is even discouraged and ignored.
So how can children’s ministry volunteers do what they’re called to do — without being trampled on by misbehaving kids? Understanding why kids misbehave is the first step to eliminating discipline problems.
Get Smart with These Discipline Tips for Children’s Ministers
Discipline Tips: What Sets Off Kids
A Desire to Belong
One of kids’ greatest desires is to connect with their peers. Sometimes a child’s misbehavior results from a mistaken assumption that an inappropriate action will help gain peer recognition. When kids feel disconnected from a group, misbehavior is often actually a misguided tactic to belong: “If I refuse to participate, others will think I’m cool, and I’ll fit in with the group.”
Lack of Direction
Unclear rules, inconsistent enforcement, and lack of consequences can ignite misbehavior. If kids believe they’ll get away with inappropriate behavior, and there’s a history of tolerance without repercussions, the spark of misbehavior can spread like a wildfire.
Sometimes the room arrangement encourages kids to act out. Seating arrangements, physical distractions, and space issues can lead to a child’s poor behavior choice. One church had kids who constantly goofed off in chairs during large group time. Their leader removed the chairs and had kids sit on the floor. This simple change eliminated the distraction and kids were instantly more engaged in the teaching. Group chemistry and personal circumstances may also create a hostile environment.
If kids aren’t engaged in learning, they’ll engage in something else. And an unprepared leader is a doormat just waiting to be stepped on.
Tips on Discipline Style
Evaluate your discipline style when responding to misbehavior. How you respond to a situation may determine whether you’re able to regain control of your classroom. What’s your style?
Do you avoid misbehaving kids and hope situations will resolve themselves? Or do you cower when handling situations? Quietly asking kids to stop hitting each other without further discussion or follow-through invites kids to goof off because they’re confident there’ll be no repercussion for their behavior.
Do you blow steam the minute a situation gets slightly out of control? Do you spew words out of anger or make threats? Calling kids names such as “brats” or “pigs” doesn’t model respect or a plan of action. Defiant kids now know exactly how to push your buttons, while children who behave fear you.
Do you stay calm when communicating to a misbehaving child? Do you make eye contact, verbally repeat the offense for clarity, and use the child’s name? Assertive leaders calmly insist that children comply with expectations, and they follow through with consequences rather than threats. Firmly stating disapproval for inappropriate behavior, what the appropriate behavior is, and the potential consequence if misbehavior continues will win every time when it comes to discipline issues.
Discipline Tip: Set Clear Expectations
Creating a discipline policy is a vital step toward managing discipline problems. Your discipline policy should complement the goals and purpose of your ministry. Two basic goals for discipline are to ensure kids’ and leaders’ safety, and to provide an environment conducive to learning. Use these tips to create a discipline policy for your ministry.
Keep It Simple
Don’t develop so many rules that kids can’t remember them from week to week. Set two or three simply stated rules for kids. To help kids understand, ask them what it looks like to follow the stated rules. For example, one rule may be, “Treat others like you would want to be treated.” Ask kids, “What behaviors describe this rule?” One teacher used this approach and the kids in her class were delighted that they were asked to be part of the process. Kids that were once behavioral problems became models for the positive behaviors they helped develop for their classroom. Write their descriptions and keep them visible in your classroom. Kids will have ownership in the discipline policy if they help shape what it looks like.
Keep It Consistent
Your discipline policy should have basic principles that span all age groups. It may have a different look for pre-schoolers and preteen but the concepts and goals should remain constant. If one rule is to respect others, that may mean sharing the crayons for a preschooler, or it may mean no put-downs for a 10-year-old. Consistency makes it easier for kids to remember expectations for the long haul, and it helps volunteers stay on the same page.
Keep It Fresh
Take the time to review your policy with kids. Post expectations in your room and in public gathering areas. One church saw discipline issues decline when they posted expectations outside classroom doors for kids and parents to read as they entered the room. Send periodic reminders of expectations home to parents. Review rules on a weekly basis so everyone’s clear about what’s expected.
Keep It Label-Free
Each week we face a swarm of personalities, disorders, and issues attached to the kids who walk through our doors. Each week may have a different set of behavioral problems and challenges in your class. In the heat of the moment it can be easy to label the child instead of the inappropriate behavior. Take care when confronting a child about his or her misbehavior. Announcing to the class that Sally’s a chatterbox when she constantly talks out of turn doesn’t model respect and may inflict damage to her developing sense of self. Instead, remind Sally that one of the class rules is to be respectful and when she talks out of turn, her behavior is disrespectful.
Discipline Tip: Have Consequences
If you want kids to follow your policy, follow through with established consequences. Consequences help kids own their behavior and teach them to make better choices. Use these tips when establishing consequences for misbehavior.
It’s important to give kids the opportunity to correct misbehavior on their own. Giving kids a warning that clearly describes their offense and the potential consequence allows children to self-correct. You may need to distinguish behaviors that bypass a warning and directly result in a consequence, such as putting another child in danger.
Establish consequences that teach kids responsible behavior. Don’t force a child to say, “I’m sorry” when he or she isn’t remorseful. Instead, tell a child that his or her behavior has resulted in a consequence. Ask the child to tell you why he or she will receive a consequence. Have the child take responsibility for his or her actions by confessing them to Mom or Dad.
As a children’s ministry director, I’ve used this approach with kids of all ages. I believe it teaches parents and kids to communicate and work on problems together. I’ve seen kids take greater responsibility for their actions when they’re faced with explaining their behavior to a parent or guardian. Give the child the opportunity to tell you what an appropriate behavior would’ve looked like. If appropriate, ask the child what a logical consequence should be for the misbehavior. Remember to tell children that they aren’t bad, but they made a poor behavior choice.
Don’t let some kids get away with breaking rules and then come down hard on others. One family left a church because their daughter told her teacher that the pastor’s grandson hit her every week. When the problem became a weekly occurrence, her parents talked to the teacher. The teacher never disciplined the boy or told his parents about his misbehavior. When the girl’s parents discovered that another child had been kicked out of class for the same misbehavior, they made a decision to find a new church. Kids need to know the steps that’ll transpire before a consequence is handed down, and they need to see that leaders are fair. Kids will have a difficult time trusting and respecting leaders if they show favoritism or leniency to some kids and not others.
Taking the Lead
“Attitude reflects leadership, captain.” This memorable quote from the movie Remember the Titans holds true for ministry leaders. If your position is to oversee children’s ministry at your church, then be a model for volunteers, kids, and parents. Develop your discipline policy and support your volunteers in their efforts to uphold it. When a difficult discipline situation arises, take the load from volunteers and handle it yourself. Informally check in on areas where persistent problems exist.
If you’re a volunteer, stay positive. Greet children and parents often and communicate a partnership with families regarding discipline. Public school research shows that children respond positively to social rewards such as smiling, praising, and complimenting. Misbehavior often wins center stage, but giving attention and praise when things go right in class can have a lasting effect in determining your classroom climate. cm
Carmen Kamrath is the former associate editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.