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How to Translate the Behavior Signals Kids Are Sending

Kids may not have the words to express what they’re feeling, but their behavior can tell you a lot. Here’s how to recognize what kids are telling you and what to do about it.

3 Basic Reasons Why Kids Misbehave

“Antoine, please sit down!” “Tasha, will you stop talking?” “Shhh! Quiet!” “Jeremy! If you hit Zoe 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 Raul punch? Aside from a neurological or biological condition, the truth is that kids do what they do because of three basic reasons.

1. Kids misbehave when they feel they don’t belong.

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 of belonging.

Mistaken Goals of Misbehavior

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, or silly retorts. Unfortunately, this 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 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. 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 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. Kids screaming to belong are disconnected through timeouts, emotional rebukes, and ignoring their presence.

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.

2. Kids misbehave out of boredom.

Predictability is the taxi to boredom, and predictable teachers actually invoke misbehavior. Why? Because humans are naturally wired to predict normalcy and once it’s attained, we disengage.

Let me explain. Which keeps you more involved: a new television show or a rerun? driving in a strange city or on a familiar road? cooking a new recipe or a common dish? I think you see my point. Prediction of normalcy tends to disconnect attention. Been there, done that. And unless the entertainment factor creates interest, we simply shut down as with mindless television, travel, or cooking in autopilot.

And for children especially, boredom invites misbehavior. Someone (usually the class clown) in someway has to make it interesting. If the teacher can’t be creative, the class will.

Coincidentally, the attention span of a child parallels his age. Four years old? Four minutes. Ten years old? Ten minutes tops. That means teachers need to keep a good pace. You’ve got to sing a little, draw a little, walk a little, eat a little. The older the child, the longer the activity.

Preparation is also a key factor.

The less prepared you are, the more problems you’ll have. And that’s a “money-back” guarantee. Have everything ready before class. Every time you remove yourself from teaching to handle something preparation could’ve solved, you invite misbehavior.

Also avoid overusing similar learning activities. If possible, don’t repeat the same activity more than once a month. Which learning methods are most overused? Video, for one (it’s a lousy baby sitter). Drama (used often as a time filler). And lecture (kids hate them!). But don’t children like routine? Absolutely. Feel free to drive the same road each week, just post different billboards along the path.

It’s also time to ban the bribes.

Prizes, candy, and gimmicks to make kids want to do “spiritual” things only ignore their reasons for not doing them. Constant rewards also make teachers incredibly predictable and reveal unbiblical beliefs about children. That’s an even more compelling reason to ban the bribes. Behavioral rewards originated with Skinnerian psychology, which asserts that people are merely highly evolved animals who can be “tricked and trained” to behave properly. That’s not biblical!

Yet trickery is exactly what happens with bribes. Candy is tossed to kids who answer correctly. Pizzas are rewarded for Scripture memorization. Or gifts are distributed for Bibles and invited friends. Many use rewards because they work, and kids like them. But pragmatic pleasures aren’t reasons to behave. Proper Christian behavior — whether bringing Bibles, inviting friends, or memorizing Scripture — should be done because these things are good to do in and of themselves.

Just quit giving rewards and see what happens. If children won’t do it without bribes, you haven’t really created lifelong behavior changes or spiritual growth with the use of rewards anyway. What you use to win them is what you’ll need to keep them. An exception to this nonreward strategy is in dealing with children with neurological disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

People of all ages also strain information through “user” filters.

“Will I need this?” and “How can this work in my life?” are common filter questions. Children don’t need bribes to behave; they need reasons. Bibles are brought to be used in class. Friends are invited because it’s important to share Jesus. Scripture is memorized for times when a Bible isn’t handy. Unnecessary talking keeps others from hearing.

3. Kids misbehave from mistaken beliefs.

The movie Babe tells the story of a pig who believes he is a sheepdog. How did Babe get such a crazy idea? First, he was raised by sheepdogs and watched them work the flocks. Second, his master treated him as a sheepdog, fed him dog food, took him on dog jobs, and gave him dog tasks.

And so a pig believed he was a dog.

Ironically there are a bunch of “Babes” in our classes, and society is packed with people who never discover their potential because they’ve accepted mistaken beliefs about themselves. “You’re a troublemaker and always will be!” one teacher says. “I’ve heard about you,” another one confesses. “You won’t get away with being bad here.” “Would you be quiet?” still another rebukes. “All you do is talk!”

Did you catch the expectations? Do you see what the teachers already believe about the children?

It’s a guaranteed thing. What you believe about children is what you’ll get. If you expect misbehavior from one or all, you’ll receive it. If you tend to say negative things to certain children, you communicate a standard to live down to — and they will, believe me. And if you only address what they can’t do, you’ll never witness what they can do!

So flip those assumptions.

Transform negatives into positives. If you expect children to succeed, they will. If you believe they’ll behave, they will. And if you dare to dream for them, they’ll spread their wings to fly with you. It’s all in your expectations.

Barbara Coloroso in her parenting book Kids Are Worth It! shares six messages every child needs to hear: “I believe in you. I trust you. I know you can handle this. You are listened to. You are cared for, and you are very important to me.”

Did you catch those expectations? Did you notice the beliefs about the child? These inner convictions about a child can, prophetically, create positive behavior. They persuade children to pursue the impossible dream of right behavior.

Most of us are the products of peoples’ perceptions, and children are no different. We believe what we hear about ourselves. “Roger, you’re a good artist!” “Mary, I believe you’ll someday play piano in church.” “Joel, that was an insightful answer. Good thinking!” “Lindsay, your kind words to Lauren reveal your tender heart.”

Children behave according to what they believe others expect of them. Affirmations of praise and encouragement inspire children, while discouraging comments of rebuke and sarcasm compel them to misbehave. Even negative attention is better than no attention.

It’s the difference between proactive and reactive discipline.

Proactive discipline sets the stage for proper behavior. It delivers guidelines of conduct in positive ways, and it believes and trusts children to choose right actions. It creates an affirming environment where kids belong and have power to make choices. Proactive discipline views what children can be and, essentially, frees a child to grow.

Unfortunately some teachers use reactive discipline techniques — embarrassment, isolation, shaming, bribes/ gimmicks, or even physical force — to produce accepted behavior. Such tactics suggest that children are guilty until proven innocent and rarely to be trusted. Ultimately it creates a negative environment in which children misbehave to be noticed physically and emotionally. It isolates children rather than connecting them, and it imprisons a child to expected failure.

Of course both disciplinary styles work, but only one keeps the child’s dignity intact. Only one affirms a child’s personal belief system, and only one resolves every child’s need to belong. Only one rewards right behavior by encouragement, and only one trusts a child.

And only one inspires children to better behavior. Understanding the difference is 90 percent of the cure. The other 10 percent is doing it.

Rick Chromey, D. Min., lives in Boise, Idaho and is a contributing author for Children’s Ministry in the 21st Century (Group).


Beyond the Symptoms of Behavior Issues

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 issues. 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.


Rely on God to give you insight into the root causes of the child’s behavior problems. 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 the reasons behind why he or she acts out. Then you can begin to work together to overcome the problem.

Behavior: Boredom, Disinterest

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 cope.

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.

Behavior Problem: Overwhelmed Kids

Conversely, sometimes children who act out are younger than or developmentally behind the rest of the class. Lesson materials may be too difficult, so the child gives up in frustration. The child may ignore or disobey instructions that seem pointless or too difficult. Watching others finish more quickly or understand more fully is discouraging and damages a child’s self-esteem when it’s a regular occurrence. And kids who feel inadequate sometimes choose to engage in behavior problems as a way to gain acceptance from the other kids.

In our multi-level classes, it’s easy to slip this child down to the class below without causing any problems. But depending on your ministry’s setup, you may not be able to quietly move a child back a class. You don’t flunk kids in Sunday school — so you’re going to have to help them succeed. Here’s how.

Assign a buddy.

One of the best ways to move a child toward success is to provide individualized attention and help. Ask your classroom assistant or recruit a volunteer to work with the child throughout class. Make sure the struggling child understands what’s going on and gets personal assistance when he needs it. And if you have an advanced child who works well with others, pair these two for projects.

 Point out successes.

Often a child who feels inadequate in the classroom will become the class clown or resort to outlandish behavior as a way to feel successful. You can strengthen this child’s confidence by encouraging classroom successes — a project well done, an insightful answer, a great closing prayer. Also, point out the child’s gifts as you notice them.

Offer choices.

A great way to help a struggling child is to make your classroom a place of choices. This requires more work upfront on your part, but you’ll immediately see more participation and less disruption from a child who acts out because he’s lagging behind the others. Offer two types of crafts, one easier and one more difficult. Give all kids the same choices so you’re not singling out the child. And if there’s one particular activity or area where you notice the child really struggling, avoid it. For instance, if a child doesn’t cope well with games, find a noncompetitive way to accomplish the same thing. Again-more work…but as you see the child evolving into a happy, succeeding classroom participant, it’ll be worth it.

Behavior Problem: Troubled Children

Children experiencing tough situations at home feel the effects in every area of their lives. Divorce, older siblings making bad choices, a death in the family — any disruption or dysfunction in the family can totally change a child’s ability to deal with life in general and social settings in particular. Children are perfectly capable of feeling anger and bitterness toward their parents at an early age — and they can project those feelings toward other authority figures, especially teachers. Emotional issues and instability at home affect a child’s ability to trust, build relationships, and interact with others. What can you do?

Don’t take it personally, and love unconditionally.

If your challenging child is in this situation, there may seem like little you can do for her. But you can offer something that may be lacking elsewhere in her life: constant prayer and unconditional love. When the child acts out, remember where it stems from. Don’t get angry; instead focus on the root of her behavior problems and the hurt she feels. Give the child space when needed, and be there when she needs to talk. Frame your discipline as guidance and as mentoring rather than “bossing” or stern correction. If it’s possible and won’t create problems for the child, gently talk to the parents about what you see happening in the classroom. Don’t be accusatory or judgmental; just ask how you can help.

Don’t give up on the child.

I remember one child who came from a very bad home situation. She lived with her grandma because her mom was in jail. She was very unpredictable; one day she’d be sweet and helpful, two days later she’d have behavior problems, resulting in violence and anger. Often she left in a huff when she didn’t get her way, and we wouldn’t see her for a couple weeks. It took a lot of time and patience, but eventually we won her trust and were able to build a positive relationship with her. She still had bad days when we knew she was hurting, but she was no longer out of control, angry, and violent.

Loved Kids

We’d all love to have a perfect class — that’s easy and effective, kids who respond just like the book says they will, harmony and happiness from corner to corner in the classroom…in other words, a system that takes as little time and energy as possible. We all live busy lives; working with children in the church is generally only one of our many responsibilities. Though it may be only one of many, it’s one of the most important. We’re shaping the next generation. We’re impacting eternal souls. We’re serving Jesus as we minister to “the least of these.” There’s no greater vocation, no higher calling.

Your children need you to take the time to do it right, and your challenging kids may only succeed if you do just that. Talk to them. See if they’ll express why they’re acting out. Try different ways of handling their behavior problems. Encourage and reward them every opportunity you honestly can. Take the time to build personal relationships with them.

Not only will you have the joy and reward of seeing these kids prosper, but your life will be richer for it. As you cry out to God for his wisdom and love in handling a difficult child, it’ll deepen your relationship with him. As you become the child’s friend, your life will be blessed and your world will expand. You’ll discover the incredible joy that comes from speaking into a child’s eternal life.

Melissa Smith is a volunteer children’s minister on an American Indian reservation in Arizona.

Looking for more teaching tips? Check out these ideas!

Learn more about what kids’ behavior issues may be telling you here.

Download a healthy conversations talk-starter game for families here.

Find the complete article from Behavior Therapy Associates here.

Find more tips about responding to behavior concerns here.

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