Taming Classroom Tyrants
It seems respect for authority has dwindled, attention spans have decreased significantly, and as a result, volunteers are weary.
The morning is nearly over, and you’re already looking forward to heading home to your family, relaxing on the couch, and watching a good game of Sunday afternoon football on television. As you make your rounds to close doors and clean up the remnants of a busy morning, you encounter a scene that’s all too familiar. The football game begins to fade as you realize you have a situation to deal with.
As you walk into yet another room, you hear a weary volunteer telling Amanda’s parents about the outbursts that happened in class that morning. Amanda stands fidgeting in the doorway. This isn’t the first week this conversation has taken place, and it isn’t the first time Amanda’s parents seem to come up with yet another excuse for her behavior.
You intervene and get a familiar explanation — Amanda never acts this way at home, she must be tired, or maybe she’s hungry… and the family ends up leaving once again with the issues unresolved as you console a volunteer on the brink of quitting.
Once upon a time…children could sit still and would only speak when spoken to. Today as you try to teach, though, Amanda the Adamant wiggles and whines about how she wants to do crafts and thinks the stories are boring. Tyler the Tyrant pokes his partner and incites laughter from the now disrupted Sunday school class.
The Master Manipulator seems impossible to satisfy, and there’s no limit to his demands. Often he’s loud and always wants to be the first to answer, read the Bible passage, or write on the board. Sometimes he quietly refuses to follow instructions because he has another idea that he thinks is better. He thinks that stubbornness has worked elsewhere, so why not see if it works in Sunday school?
What has happened to kids today? Somewhere between Leave It to Beaver and the Pokémon craze, respect for authority has dwindled, and attention spans have decreased significantly.
Why are some children so difficult today? Do we cater to them too much? Are children spoiled, or are they expressing their unique God-given personalities? Or do children have special needs that make it impossible for them to behave?
The uniqueness of children is defined in Psalm 139:13: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” As a grandmother lovingly knits individual sweaters for her grandchildren, even so God knits the individual personalities of children. Children are fearfully and wonderfully made!
As you try to tame classroom tyrants, though, you may at times wonder if God dropped a stitch in his knitting process — or if there have been factors that’ve unraveled God’s perfect design. Most teachers’ #1 frustration in the classroom is not knowing what to do with difficult children. But before we can figure out what to do, we first need to understand why children misbehave.
If we ponder Western society’s prevalent materialism, we realize that most of us are spoiled. Trinkets gather dust in our ample homes. Children have so many toys that they don’t even know where to begin. Do all these things spoil children?
Let’s first admit that there’s a difference between being spoiled and being a spoiled brat. The “spoiled brat” surfaces when a child doesn’t appreciate what he or she already has and constantly demands more. Families don’t have to be wealthy to raise a child such as this. All children can acquire this attitude or sense of entitlement when adults either overindulge them or simply fail to set limits.
Overly permissive parents can cause children to sense that they’re in control. Although it’s often easier to let children such as these have their own way, it’s detrimental to the children and their respect for authority. Perpetual indulgence leads to selfishness, and selfish people and spoiled children are seldom happy. So these children seek happiness in ways that often result in inappropriate behavior.
Kids need discipline! Dr. Trudy Veerman, a Canadian Christian counselor, refers to Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it,” to remind us that “discipline starts in the cradle.” So what’s a distraught teacher to do? Is a couple of hours a week enough time to make a significant impact on a child?
Dedicated Christian teachers who love the Lord obviously think so and have a burning desire to teach the Word of God to further his kingdom in the hearts of children. To do so, we have to understand that each child brings his or her own special brand of behavior — and we need to respond in equally unique ways.
Julie Hartung, an early childhood educator and mother of five, asserts that the child who’s constantly misbehaving is actually crying out for discipline. “The trick,” Julie states, “is molding the will without breaking the spirit.” She stresses consistency in dealing with all children.
“Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say,” Julie says. In other words, have a plan that suits each personality and don’t be afraid to follow through. Perhaps one child responds well to verbal reminders, while another child may need a privilege taken away. Understanding the children in your classroom is your first line of attack.
Phil Callaway, award-winning author and humorist, jokingly offers a suggestion for frustrated teachers. “The Sunday school teacher,” Callaway says, “should lock the spoiled child in a closet and seal the edges of the door with Silly Putty!”
Callaway goes on to say, “Too much grease is wasted on the squeaky kid while the others need attention. But do remember that God seems better able to steer moving children. In other words, those who are strong personalities, creative, and full of mischief are often world-changers later on. When meeting children, I try to experience admiration for who God has made them, a numbness for their frequent shortcomings, and respect for who they may become.”
Although some children initially present themselves as rabble-rousers and agitators, often they become the doers and the go-getters. It’s important, however, that teachers not let little faults pass unnoticed. Small weeds grow into big weeds and eventually choke out the good fruit.
If we give children complete freedom, we’ll create little monsters. Remember Eli and his sons (1 Samuel 2:25)? They all came to ruin. If we’re stern and reprimand in anger, we’ll chill children’s hearts and put an end to communication. Remember Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30-34) whose relationship completely broke down? Love, as witnessed in the example of Jesus Christ, is the key that opens the heart of a child.
FROM REACTIVE TO PROACTIVE
Dr. James Dobson in his book The Strong Willed Child reminds us about the importance of discipline. “Disciplinary action,” says Dobson, “influences behavior; anger does not. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that adult anger produces a kind of disrespect in the minds of our children. They perceive that our frustration is caused by our inability to control the situation.”
Cindy Krul, Sunday school superintendent and mother of four, sees a profound lack of respect happening in our institutions today. As a result, she has rallied her Sunday school teachers to become more proactive than reactive. Here are her suggestions to make your leaders proactive in building respectful classrooms:
• Use proper titles, such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., or Sir, for teachers and those in positions of authority.
• Offer incentives for developing skills, rather than for changing behavior. Good behavior must become a duty of the heart, not a ploy for a piece of candy.
• Set clear limits and act consistently. Ensure that discipline is timely and reasonable. Discuss a child’s feelings of remorse, and pray with the child.
• Involve children in establishing clearly defined rules.
• Prepare your lesson ahead of time, and be creative in your classroom.
• Stay informed and attend scheduled training meetings.
• Don’t make excuses for disobedience, but keep in mind the age of the child.
• Communicate with parents regularly.
• Catch children being good and offer genuine praise.
• Recruit a prayer partner, and seek God’s guidance constantly.
WHAT IF IT’S MORE?
Children who can’t sit still for one minute. Preschoolers who scream and kick when they have to color. A child who repeatedly washes her hands during class. What’s going on here?
The truth is that sometimes children misbehave because they have a special need. And when the parents are confronted about the behavior, their first reaction may be to offer an excuse rather than a solution for the behavior.
These types of scenarios are becoming all too familiar for those who work with children in the church. According to the recent article “The Perils of Pills” in U.S. News and World Report, almost 21 percent of children age 9 and up have some type of mental disorder, including depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical Associationalso expressed concerns about the increase in preschool children diagnosed and medicated for behavioral and emotional disorders. With these statistics, children’s ministries are dealing with a vast array of disorders that are impacting how we deal with the children and families we minister to.
Frustrations like those experienced in the encounter with Amanda’s parents mentioned earlier are not uncommon. Parents’ excuses regarding a child’s behavior are not only aggravating, they’re also subtle voices that whisper to a children’s worker, “You’re incompetent because you can’t handle this.”
What’s with parents’ excuses, anyway?
Although parents’ excuses may at times be just that — excuses, more often than not, they’re a mask that hides the feelings, emotions, and frustrations parents encounter when facing their child’s condition. For many parents, learning that their child has a psychiatric or medical condition brings a mixture of feelings: denial, relief, fear, grief, and guilt. Having a name and explanation for why their child behaves the way she does initially brings a sense of relief. To know that the child’s misbehavior is no longer a reflection of their parenting skills and that there’s an explanation is almost comforting, initially.
Then reality sets in, and fears for their child’s future as well as grief over the loss of their “perfect” child set in. Parents feel guilty for all the times they scolded or punished their child for a behavior they now understand is part of the child’s diagnosis. And then, in many cases, the parents become even more protective of their child. They become more aware of the ridicule their child experiences because of the symptoms — symptoms that are often difficult to suppress.
Unfortunately, many parents believe that their child can’t control much of his or her behavior and so the parents accept too much misbehavior and withdraw most discipline, in fear that it’ll make the “symptoms” worse. Thus, we hear the excuses. They become easier than explanations, which, for these families, have often led to little in the way of solutions.
MINISTERING TO SPECIAL NEEDS FAMILIES
The key question for children’s ministers is: What’s your goal? If the goal is a perfectly quiet classroom with no disruptions whatsoever, perhaps you should ship out any offenders until you’re left with one or two angelically fearful, quiet wonders. That’s ludicrous! If, however, your goal is to come alongside families and partner with them in their child’s Christian education, you may have to endure the disruptions as you seek to enter into relationship with the special needs child and the family.
The church has a tremendous opportunity to minister to families dealing with the special needs of a child. It’s a chance to show God’s unconditional love to individuals who’ve had a lot of conditions placed on their families. Even when you’re unaware of the nature of a child’s problem, there are ways you can help a family work past the excuses.
- Listen to the parents. All too often children’s ministers end up reporting a child’s misbehavior without listening to the parents. Keep in mind that parents of children with psychiatric disorders may be resistant to what you have to say; they’ve already heard it all and are tired of explaining the issues. They’ve witnessed how explaining their child’s condition results in their child being labeled and stereotyped. So listen well to them. They may just need someone to listen to them without trying to analyze their child or the situation.
- Support the family. Find out if there are specific needs in the family. Parents may need something as simple as prayer, or maybe they’ve recently gotten the diagnosis for their child and are in need of resources. Many of these families have to go through months of paperwork, meetings, and appointments to get their child’s needs met in the school system. Don’t make it difficult for them to get the same at church.
- Partner with the family. Work with the family on solutions to problems that arise in the classroom. The greatest gift you can give to parents with a special needs child is respect for their opinion. If the behavior isn’t in the child’s best interest and the parents agree, put your heads together on what’s the most effective way to approach the problem. Keep in mind that you see the child under different conditions than the parents; just because something works at home doesn’t mean it will work in a classroom environment. Realizing that parents may not be familiar with some of the processes that work in education, gather information on the child’s interests and strengths so you can best teach and support the whole child.
- Don’t take an excuse personally. Remember that a parent’s attitude toward you may stem from a previous encounter with another professional regarding their child. Let parents know the truth about a situation, but find a gentle way to deliver the news. For example, kids with attention deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can be disruptive in class. They can also be insightful and resourceful. Think about which fact you want to present first. Parents may not defend quickly if they sense you truly know their child.
- Keep in mind that all misbehavior is not medically explained. Six-year-old Brian has suddenly become the terror of your class; he can’t sit still, and he’s constantly seeking attention. You wonder if he has been tested for ADHD, then you notice that his mom picks him up pushing a stroller with newborn twins in tow. After talking with Mom, you realize that Brian has been feeling a bit left out since the birth of his siblings.
Check with parents about any sudden change in behavior. There’s usually an obvious explanation, but if there isn’t, a chat with parents may alert them to a behavior pattern that’s emerging.
Not all families are open to working with children’s ministers regarding their child’s behavior problems. Excuses will continue and may be the norm for families who don’t recognize the nature of their child’s behavior. So how do you deal with the child who, according to his or her parents, doesn’t have a problem but has had too much sugar every Sunday morning before coming to class?
MINISTERING TO KIDS
Today’s kids are a unique bunch. Never before have children been so busy, with schedules that outmatch many adults. Not only do we see kids who miss any given Sunday because of a soccer tournament or hockey game, but we also see more and more kids who are overly tired and exhausted from their tight schedules as they enter into our care. Then there are children who rarely get breakfast in the morning before church or who eat so early that by the last service they’re starving for lunch.
Yes, there are excuses out there, and legitimate ones. Your challenging child this week may be one with a diagnosed disorder, while next week the challenges may stem from a growling tummy. How can you meet the needs of these challenging children without jeopardizing their classmates’ learning opportunities?
- Be consistent. Set up classroom guidelines for children that promote respect for the leader and their peers. Follow through with consequences, don’t make excuses yourself, and contact parents if the situation warrants. Establish some type of routine, whether it’s having younger children play at a learning center when they arrive, or having older kids sign themselves in and put on a nametag. Be consistent with your own attendance. If special needs kids know they can depend on you being there, they’ll feel more relaxed each week.
- Keep the learning environment active. Not only is activity more fun and helps children retain information better, but it’s also a natural deterrent for misbehavior. Children who feel that they’re part of the learning will take more responsibility for their behavior.
- Build relationships. Depending on the circumstance, children with special needs often have difficulties making friends. They’re also often labeled as the “trouble” child by teachers and school staff. By building a relationship with special needs kids, you not only set a positive example for others, but you also build confidence in a child who may not receive a lot of positive reinforcement elsewhere. Find out what the child’s interests are and make it a point of contact each week.
MINISTERING TO VOLUNTEERS
If you’re a children’s ministry leader, you’ve had this conversation: A volunteer comes to you, pleading that he just can’t handle Amanda any longer. How can you value the person, without leaving Amanda in the dust? Here’s how.
- Equip your volunteers. The latest statistics say it all: your volunteers are going to deal with difficult children, some with diagnosed disorders, and others who are just stressed and act out in class. Training volunteers in discipline strategies as well as briefing them on the latest trends in special education is wise. If you have a specific child and know his or her situation, update your volunteer. Don’t divulge any confidences you’ve established with the family. Encourage volunteers to build relationships with the family and to keep the lines of communication open. The more prepared volunteers feel for the situation, the more confident they’ll be.
- Encourage your volunteers. Let them know they’re handling the situation well and that they’re doing a good job. Drop them an e-mail or give them a call when you know they’ve had a rough morning. This will give them time to vent any frustrations, and you’ll let them know that you’re on top of the situation.
- Support your volunteers. Nothing will bring a resignation letter faster than a volunteer who feels like a lone duck in a sea of behavior problems. Never let a volunteer teach class solo; provide assistants who can provide support in the classroom. If circumstances warrant, add an extra helper for a child who may need more one-on-one attention. If a situation escalates with a child, let your volunteer have an “out” by calling you in to deal with the situation. You can remove the child and deal with the situation outside the classroom, freeing your volunteer from what might be an uncomfortable predicament.
• • •
“For I was hungry and you fed me…naked, and you clothed me…”
We’re very familiar with these verses, and in them, we understand that God is calling us to meet people’s needs. If Jesus were to update these verses, perhaps they would read something like this for children’s ministry: “For I was out of control, and you called me to a standard. I had a disorder, and you sought to understand me. I was confused by my condition, and you held me and told me I was okay.”
That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us to do as children’s ministers in an environment where children have special needs. Rather than being angered by their condition or irritated by their parents’ excuses, we have a genuine opportunity to express God’s unconditional love to children.
No one can make children love the Bible. Nobody can force a child to have a relationship with God. But because imitation is a powerful tutor, children’s ministers strive to be living epistles of Jesus Christ. Children, with all their aptitude for mischief, are extremely malleable and are being imprinted daily — by others’ example. What sort of mark are you making on a child?
A CHILD’S TEN COMMANDMENTS
Here’s what children would like their Sunday school teacher to follow.
- Thou shalt accept my youthfulness. I need tender direction and loving leadership. Constant criticism and raised eyebrows make me feel foolish and inadequate.
- Thou shalt accept my imperfections. Please don’t expect perfection whenever you assign a task to me. I really do learn by my mistakes.
- Thou shalt accept my limitations. My hands are small and sometimes I seem awkward and clumsy. Please be patient with me.
- Thou shalt show me the way to go. When I show off, I’m really asking for affirmation and reassurance. Could you please give me gentle guidance so my behavior doesn’t become my attitude?
- Thou shalt welcome me. If I’m new to your class, please take the time to explain the routine and show the other children that you’re glad to see me (even if you thought your class was big enough already).
- Thou shalt expect the best from me. Please don’t have preconceived ideas about me. I have the tendency to live up to your expectations. Expect me to behave appropriately.
- Thou shalt make the Word of God come to life for me. Find creative ways to teach me about the power of God, the ministry of Jesus, and all of God’s Word.
- Thou shalt help me know and do what’s right. Nobody needs to show me how to sin (it comes naturally), but somebody please care enough to lovingly discipline me when I act inappropriately.
- Honor my father and mother with good communication. Talking to my parents could help you discover my fears, my joys, my problems, my talents, my weaknesses, and my strengths.
- Thou shalt pray for me. You know, you may be the only person in the whole world who talks to God about me. I need you to ask God to help me.