Use these discipline strategies to stop behavior problems before they start.
Let’s be real: Ministry to kids isn’t all high-fives and butterflies and faith commitments, is it? Sometimes it’s dealing with some very frustrating behavior issues that threaten to derail your short time with kids.
One of the biggest challenges of nurturing a positive and productive learning environment often revolves around problematic behaviors in kids—and how we manage those behaviors. As ministers to children, we all strive to promote positive behaviors such as sharing, cooperation, communication, motivation, and attention among kids in a constructive manner. When we’re effective at that, kids respond and we see more and more of those positive behaviors we seek. We also see discipline problems become less prevalent. And while reinforcing positive behaviors can take planning, the process and outcomes are well worth our effort.
The bottom line is that discipline is the act of teaching children to act with self-control and responsibility. Discipline philosophies are as varied as kids themselves, making it difficult to determine which strategies might be the most effective and appropriate for each situation. Further complicating the matter are the endless books, blogs, and articles claiming to have the “guaranteed solution” to all discipline problems. Unfortunately, there’s no all-encompassing approach. Different considerations apply to each unique situation. When Andre pushes Sarah because he’s tired and she’s goofing off and in his way, we handle it differently than when he pushes her because he’s angry and looking for a new target to bully.
The good news is, despite a ton of approaches we can choose to use when discipline problems happen, there’s a more effective way. That is, working to prevent problem behaviors before they begin. Here’s a simple guide to follow that will help you inoculate your classroom from problem behaviors.
7 Disciple Strategies to Stop Behavior Problems Before They Start
1. Build a strong adult-child bond.
Children thrive in an environment where the relationship between the adults and kids is strong. A child is far less likely to engage in undesired behavior if he or she experiences care and attention from a nurturing teacher. If you look closely, you’ll find very often the root of many behavior problems is simply the need for attention. Interestingly, children don’t just crave positive attention; in a bustling room full of kids, any attention is acceptable—even the negative. That need for attention often manifests into negative behaviors, like speaking out or defiance.
Take time each day to build a relationship with your kids. Greet them personally each morning. Inquire about their interests and activities outside your time together. Tell kids about your life as well. Show genuine concern if you can see they’re upset. Rejoice in their successes. These small efforts will help build the foundation for strong bonding between you and the kids you minister to.
2. Establish a consistent routine.
A consistent routine provides kids with a sense of security. When they know what to expect and how things work, they don’t worry about what the day will bring. When this security is firmly in place, kids are more functional in all areas, including their behavior. If your time together is unstructured and erratic, you’ll quickly see it reflected in their behavior. Jumping from one activity to another with little organization creates a sense of chaos. Kids are comforted by a sense of control and feel insecure when things feel out of control. Behavior can snowball either way.
Structure each class time very similarly. While the actual activities will change each time, keep your overall timeline unvarying. For instance, start with opening activities, then move to Bible lesson time, then games and snacks— each week. However you structure your time, keep it routine. Even though you’re doing different specific activities, kids will still have a sense of what to expect next. This removes feelings of insecurity.
Additionally, allow time for transitions between activities. This helps eliminate behaviors and frustrations that can result when kids feel rushed or unprepared to move on to the next activity. Give a few verbal reminders when a transition is about to occur. These verbal cues prepare kids for the coming change, resulting in less resistance when it’s time to wrap up what they’re doing.
3. Set reasonable expectations.
It’s important to consider a child’s developmental level when you set expectations. For instance, it isn’t reasonable to expect a young child to sit at a table or desk working on a project for an extended period of time. The child gains very little from the experience, and it also sets up a situation for the child to act out in frustration. If children are bored or feel a task is impossible to accomplish, they’ll likely tune out and engage in unproductive behaviors.
Know the developmental and ability level of your kids, and set your expectations around these levels. A 5-year-old can’t pay attention to Bible passages for the same amount of time a 12-year-old can. And likewise, a mature 10-year- old won’t get much out of a game that’s suited to younger kids. Adjust expectations and activities to meet your kids’ needs. When in doubt, aim slightly above kids’ level rather than below it. Kids are more likely to step up and respond to a challenge (unless it’s frustratingly out of reach). But they’ll quickly become bored by an activity that’s too easy or babyish.
Also, make a point to discuss the reasoning behind your expectations with kids. Your routines and regulations make more sense to kids if they understand the “why” behind them, such as safety. Take the opportunity to discuss consequences. You inform and empower kids when you provide as much information and discussion around expectations as possible.
4. Provide kids with choices.
Disruptive behaviors often arise from a child’s desire to be in control. Unproductive power struggles can result from a child attempting to take too much initiative while the adult still assumes all control. While you remain the guiding force with kids, it’s beneficial when they feel they have some ownership in the environment, too.
Allow kids to make choices. Big factors, such as activities and routines, are best left to you. But there are still many areas where kids can make decisions.
On the most fundamental level, let kids make decisions regarding their own bodies. Allow them to go to the bathroom or get a drink when the need arises. Encourage kids to get up and move their bodies or spend time just talking when they need to. Provide choices around small things, like how your room is arranged, where they post artwork, whether they eat a snack inside or outside. You can even offer a choice between two different acceptable activities.
When kids feel like some decisions are in their control, they’ll be more likely to respect the decisions that are not.
5. Encourage positive behaviors.
Pay extra attention to positive behaviors. Remember: Children thrive on attention. If you give attention for desired behaviors and ignore undesired behaviors, you reinforce the positive behavior. The only reason a child persists in a negative behavior is because doing so is meeting some need. The child is gaining something from the negative behavior—usually attention or the ability to control the situation. If you ignore negative behavior and recognize positive behavior, kids will come to realize that the negative behavior isn’t serving them in any capacity.
Praise is an important part of encouraging behavior. Like all humans, kids are motivated by supportive and nurturing words and actions.
6. Plan ahead to prevent behaviors.
Look at your typical class time and consider situations that might encourage negative behavior. Periods where kids seem bored, inattentive, or tired present opportunities for negative behaviors to take root. What can you change within the routine or structure to change this dynamic?
Think about other times negative behaviors typically arise, perhaps during bathroom breaks or transitions. Is it reasonable to ask everyone to wait silently in the hallway for 15 minutes while each child individually washes hands? If not, alter your expectation and routine.
It’s also worthwhile to anticipate not only how kids will respond to a situation but also how you might respond. Kids sometimes exhibit negative behaviors just to elicit a reaction from you. Kids get reinforcement if they feel they have some control over your behavior. Eliminate the chance for an escalated response by preparing yourself beforehand for how you’ll respond in this type of situation.
7. Review, revisit, and revise.
As with all aspects of working with kids, one of the most important elements to effective (and preventative) discipline is self-reflection. Take time on a consistent basis to examine your goals and practices with kids. How do your current discipline strategies complement these goals and practices? How are you working to prevent discipline issues before they begin?
Take a close look at what works with your kids. Take an even closer look at what isn’t working. Keep what works, and rethink what doesn’t. Think ahead, be smart, and use these preventative strategies to create a constructive, happy, and healthy learning environment.
Jackie Hostetler, MA, has been an early childhood educator for 17 years. She’s worked as a classroom teacher, an early childhood administrator, and a coach for teachers and families with young children. Jackie is a regular contributor to a number of early childhood and education blogs, as well as a consultant for a successful early education YouTube channel.
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