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Is the Key to Discipline Actually Lightening Up?

Feeling frustrated by discipline issues? Wonder if you’ll ever get control of your class? Maybe perfect behavior isn’t the aim. Read on to discover why we all need to lighten up every now and then.


We spend tons of time and energy trying to get kids to behave. Check the shelves in any Christian bookstore and you’ll find numerous books on controlling kids, for example Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours or Dare to Discipline.

Although it may not seem like you’re “doing your job” if you dare to let a few things go unchallenged, sometimes overlooking a few things will make your classroom better for everyone—you and your students! But how do you know what can be safely ignored without losing complete control of your classroom?

Lighten up and let the following things go.

When Discipline Will Hurt More Than Help

A common mistake among inexperienced teachers is interrupting their lesson to correct something that really doesn’t matter…or no longer matters. Kids who are paying attention to a story or who are actively engaged in meaningful activities should not be interrupted for a correction about trivial matters such as these:

Anything You Can Ignore

Overlook the small disturbances to keep your class rolling along on a positive note. Not saying anything at all isn’t the same as endorsing a behavior. By not stopping to focus on minor infractions, you’re able to focus more attention on positive behaviors, showing students that to get your attention they should do the “right” things that seem to catch your attention.

Cleaning House

In the middle of your lesson, you discover that Johnny has, once again, forgotten to hang up his coat and has instead thrown it on the floor. You have the choice to ignore the misplaced coat for the moment or to call the child’s attention to the matter, interrupting your lesson and distracting your entire class.

The best way to deal with these nonessential issues is to catch them as they happen. If you miss that moment, though, wait until later when you can deal personally with the offending student without disrupting productive classroom activities.

When No One Is Hurt

Some children will do anything to get yours—and the class’s—attention, including picking on another student so you intercede. Normally, subtle picking doesn’t become very serious; it’s just annoyingly similar to a dripping faucet that won’t quit!

If two children have an issue in your classroom, don’t automatically get involved. It’s important for children to learn to handle their problems, and sometimes intervention launches a small skirmish into a major issue. Focusing attention on every interaction robs other students of your attention and keeps the involved parties from learning to work things out on their own.

Revisiting History

Sometimes a child will get “stuck” on something that happened earlier. She wants you to act on this memory to right her heightened sense of injustice. At other times, children are guilty of not forgiving what’s happened previously, adding the old offense to a new one and compounding the seriousness in their minds.

In either case, live in the present. Help the child let go of what’s over and done with. Encourage the child stuck in the past to move on by empathizing with her hurt feelings. Then redirect the child back to your lesson. Forgive students who have been challenges in the past yourself, so you can deal with new offenses calmly and rationally.

What “Bugs” You

Tapping, wiggling, and gum-smacking. Wrong or just irritating?

Some teachers spend a lot of time correcting children for things that aren’t truly wrong; they’re just annoying…and maybe only annoying to the teacher. Team teachers can help one another by conducting regular, open, and honest evaluations of each other to point out these personal issues. Parents often have to do the same for their spouses.

A written discipline plan helps avoid this problem since you can take time in private to think through rules and the reasons for having them. A rule designed only to avoid what “bugs” you is not a worthwhile rule. Avoid jumping on these issues:

Personal Preferences

Each of us has things that grate on our nerves that another teacher might not care about. We may bristle at the use of the word “dude,” kids asking when a class will be over, questions asked with a “sassy” undertone and rude noises during class.

Use your sense of humor to deflect these disruptions. When you get called dude by a student, reply: “That’s Mr. Dude to you!” When a child asks when the class will be over, say: “Never! I may never stop talking!” And a simple disarming smile will override almost any sassy tone or rude noise.

Personal Differences

One teacher told us she can’t stand the way her preteen girls behave in class since she was never one of those “silly” girls herself. Being silly is part of the package for many preteen girls, just as being gross seems to be in the job description for preteen boys.

Some teachers would do better working with a different age level instead of trying to change the way their class behaves. Others may need to realize that they have to work a little harder with certain personalities, recognizing that personal differences don’t require discipline measures.

When Kids Are Kids

Remember, you teach kids, not lessons. We recognize certain characteristics about adult learners and honor them. For example, everyone knows an adult Sunday school class can’t possibly function without a coffeepot! But when it comes to teaching kids, we forget they’ll have times they behave just like…kids! And that can be frustrating to us if we don’t make allowances for their childishness.

The more you understand how your students are “wired,” the less their normal characteristics will seem worthy of discipline measures. Then try these things to help your students learn.

Exult with kids at times of celebration.

Anyone who has been around kids for a while knows that every holiday involving candy and presents and any sleepover party will result in a class full of “antsy” kids.

It’s natural for kids to be wound up when they’ve been celebrating, having guests in their home, and staying up late. Instead of disciplining these excited kids, celebrate with them! Party on those special days, or plan learning activities that allow for kids to move around and talk more than usual. Since partying is on their minds, allow your class members to talk about what’s exciting them.

Enjoy God-given curiosity.

Your key job is to get kids to think, but good thinking doesn’t always follow a well-planned lesson outline. Thinking students will eventually lead you down a few rabbit trails!

Instead of getting upset about distractions, tell your students you’re proud of them for using their brains. If you have the time, answer the question on the spot. If not, enthusiastically say, “Hold that great question and I’ll get back to it.” Then do so, even if it’s after class.

Encourage kids to experience the lesson.

Don’t get concerned that others will think you’re doing a bad job if your class is too loud or seems chaotic. Truly effective classrooms should be a bit busy since children must actively experience the lesson and then talk about the experience to learn at full capacity. An experiential classroom will bring times of quiet reflection and loud enjoyment, so don’t worry if your classroom seems “out of control” to those who don’t understand—as long as you know it’s all according to your plan.

When It’s Relational

Good education should always build relationships, but relationships don’t mix well with a too-structured class. When kids are doing things that build friendships, don’t get in their way. And never let your discipline efforts harm your relationship with a student or relationships between kids. Try these ideas:

Make friends, not discipline battles.

It can be very annoying to some teachers when kids talk with each other during class, but talking is essential for building friendships. Overlooking as much “fellowship” as possible will help your students strengthen relationships and keep you from sounding like a nag.

Even more productive is the teacher who plans times for kids to talk. Frequently ask thought-provoking questions and instruct your students to turn to a partner to discuss their answers. This interactive education promotes relationships and allows your students to practice application of biblical principles with a safe audience.

Empathize with kids on hard days.

Occasionally you’re challenged by a child with a rotten attitude, who may have awakened in a bad mood or may have a personal problem or family issue you don’t know about.

Confronting these attitudes head-on often makes the child feel worse, and therefore the child acts worse. Instead, ignore the negative comments and rolling eyes. Treat the child with the kindness (and maybe a hug) that, at the moment, she needs more than discipline.

Let friends be friends.

We often see “best buddies” as potential disruptions and automatically separate them into different classrooms or opposite corners of the room—especially if the two students enjoy talking and laughing during class. Buddies can take the form of good friends, twins, or even different-age siblings.

The problem is that kids need to have friends in their classes. Most adults wouldn’t attend a church where they didn’t have a friend. Kids feel the same way, but they don’t always have the ability to choose.

Keep friends or relatives together when possible.

If two visiting siblings want to attend the same class, ask the older one to attend the younger one’s class as a helper. The older child will be less of a problem in a younger classroom than vice versa. Tell two friends that sitting together is a privilege and that, as long as they don’t disrupt the class, you’re happy they can be together.

For us to accomplish our goal of reaching and teaching children for Jesus, we must recognize that some children are very different from us and will always be so. We must set aside our personal prejudices and pet peeves, all in favor of the outcome we’re seeking: a child who knows, loves and follows Jesus…even if the child does so in ways we should never try to control.

Gordon and Becki West are regular Children’s Ministry Magazine’s contributors.

For more great ideas like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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Is the Key to Discipline Actually Lig...

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