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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 number one 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?

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. Here are some tips for understanding why kids misbehave.

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 works 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 disciplined 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.

You can also check out Group’s The Quick Guide to Discipline for Children’s Ministry, which is a great book to look to for effective techniques that eliminate and redirect behavior challenges.

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.

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.

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 non-reward 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.

Group’s online children’s ministry course Classroom Management: From Control to Cooperation is an excellent course to learn how to implement relational-style classroom management skills that dramatically increase learning effectiveness.

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. is a pastor, speaker, and contributing author for Children’s Ministry in the 21st Century (Group).

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.

2 thoughts on “How to Translate the Behavior Signals Kids Are Sending

  1. I love this blog post! It’s so helpful and I can’t wait to try out some of the tips.

    • Sierra Archuleta

      Great to hear! We hope you continue to find amazing resources on our website.

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