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Help! How Do I Handle This Kid?

A look into the heart of kids’
behavior problems.

David was precocious and intelligent — and he loved to test
authority. He could derail even the most collaborative, positive
classroom environment when he put his mind to it. It began with
silliness to make the other kids laugh — interrupting the teacher
to crack jokes or insert a humorous comment. But the banter quickly
spiraled out of control and almost always ended in a battle of
wills between David and the teacher. For someone so small, he was a
remarkably tenacious challenger — and the rest of the kids seemed
to be rooting for him.

It’s true: One child’s poor behavior choices can
taint your entire class — in atmosphere and attitude — and rarely
for the better. A child who chooses to be mouthy, willfully
inattentive, or continually disruptive can be a teacher’s nightmare
— especially if the child’s a ringleader who manages to sway the
rest of the class.

You’re not alone if you have a David in your class; I’ve been
there, every Sunday it seems. I’ve worked in a small mission church
for years, and our situation can be doubly difficult. We rarely, if
ever, have contact with kids’ parents. No one brings the kids to
Sunday school; they come on their own.

And they just as quickly leave if they don’t get their way. So
we’re caught. Discipline seems nearly impossible because we
desperately want these kids to come back. But keeping order is
necessary for any of the kids to benefit from our programs. How do
we enforce the rules without driving kids away?

Beyond the Symptoms

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that understanding a child’s
heart is the key to working with him or her, regardless of the
child’s age, development, or behavior. This is absolutely essential
to reaching a child with behavioral challenges; it means finding
out what makes a child “tick.” It’s all too easy for adults to
become frustrated with the “symptoms” (poor behavior choices) and
miss the “disease” (underlying causes for the behavior choices).
Symptoms are obvious: We see disobedience, hear
back-talk, and feel the classroom atmosphere escalating
out of control. Yet we forget to ask: “Why is this child
behaving the way she is?” If you can look beyond the symptoms and
see what ails the child’s heart, you can help her.

Understanding a child’s heart doesn’t require a background in
psychology or a counseling degree. Truly, all you need is patience,
love for the child, and God’s guidance.

• Pray. Rely on God to give you insight into the
root causes for the child’s behavior. Pray for God to open your
understanding. Pray that he’ll help you see this child through his
eyes. Pray for love and compassion.

• Check yourself. Sometimes personal frustration
is the catalyst causing a situation to spin out of control. If you
tend to focus tougher discipline on a challenging child, you may be
“poking the bear” so to speak. If you and the child are mutually
antagonizing, the classroom situation is destined to be rocky. If a
child’s behavior is bothering only you and not disrupting the
class, let it go. Don’t impose harsher consequences on that child
when others commit similar offenses. And remind yourself before
every class that God created the child and he is therefore very
special to God.

• Dedicate effort and time. A little extra love,
special care in developing a relationship, and your time — all
these are necessary to turn a challenging child into a classroom
partner. Rather than always correcting and nagging, find ways to
positively reinforce the child’s good behavior, character traits,
and gifts. Research shows that angrily correcting a child and
attempting to reason with the child are equally ineffective; what
works is to reinforce desired behaviors. As you watch, learn, and
get to know the child better, you’ll start to understand reasons
behind why he or she acts out. Then you can begin to work together
to overcome the problem.

Advanced Kids

Any experienced teacher will attest that a child who is smarter,
quicker, more advanced, or simply older than the rest of the kids
is frequently going to become bored. In a multi-level classroom
such as ours, this can be especially difficult because we have
children of different ages working together. Some kids handle this
well. They don’t mind waiting for others who take longer, and some
like to help them finish their work. Others don’t handle their
boredom well. They find entertaining things to do, such as
distracting their companions or annoying the teacher. Here’s how to

• Specialize the child’s role. The obvious, but
not-so-easy, answer for an advanced child is to give her more —
more challenging tasks and more of them. Challenge her so she’s not
tempted to come up with her own entertainment. But take heed:
Printing off an extra worksheet or asking her to draw two pictures
rather than one won’t work. Asking her to help another child may
not work either, depending on the social skills and friendship
level of the kids you’re asking to work together.

You’ll be most successful in this situation if you enlist the
advanced child as a junior leader. Sometimes this means being a
scorekeeper rather than participating in the game. Sometimes it
means helping prepare for the next part of Sunday school while the
rest of the class is finishing. I had one child who became our
event photographer. He was nearly impossible to control unless he
had a camera in hand; then he grew serious about his job and as
helpful as could be.

• Don’t worry about “playing favorites.” Tapping
a single child as a junior leader is a good move, though it may
feel strange to you at first — and you may hear some squawking
from other kids who feel that the child gets special privileges.
Just keep in mind that ultimately it’s more disruptive for one
child to continually impede learning than to redirect that child to
facilitate learning. A junior leader role is most likely the best
way to help your challenging child feel appreciated, needed, and —
most importantly — excited about what’s going on.

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