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Why Kids Misbehave

If you don’t understand the three key reasons why kids misbehave, you’ll never create an orderly Sunday school classroom.

“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? or Bao bounce? 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.

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, a slough of silly retorts, or a bevy of belches. Power plays are a child’s scheme to draw purposeful attention (“It’s me and you, Teacher. What are you going to do?”). Unfortunately such terrorist tactics 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 tardies, 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 (silence can be deafening). 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 make excuses. 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 and children’s church. 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.

One thought on “Why Kids Misbehave

  1. Mark Damberger

    I teach kindergarten and the biggest problem is the parents use Sundays as the day off their ADD/ADHD medications. Additionally, the feed them donuts and other sugars before they send them to me.

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