Disrespect and Discipline in the Church Environment

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Holly Roe

Holly has been in church leadership for over 18 years as a children and family ministry director, speaker, consultant, and coach. She is the Executive Director of JC Evangelistic Ministries and is involved with an equipping ministry called Forge that is changing the lives of young people all over the world. Holly is the wife to a full-time evangelist named Jason and the mother to 3 children.

How do you capture the hearts of children who are hard to deal with? Disrespect and discipline in a church setting can be difficult. If you’re a director or leader in ministry with children or youth, you are no stranger to kids who are difficult to deal with. Many parents are struggling with not only how to be the spiritual leaders for their children, but also how to raise respectful children. As we strive to be influencers of the next generation and help raise up followers of Christ, there’s no doubt that every person in ministry to children or youth will deal with tough kids at some point. Because ministry leaders typically only get these kids for a very short time span each week, we want to pour as much Jesus into their young hearts as possible while we have them. It’s hard to do that if we’re constantly trying to discipline as we teach. If you have children who are constantly controlling the entire learning environment and disrupting, here are a few techniques you can implement right away. You can create a better learning environment and build the right relationships in order to influence the next generation in a profound way for the Kingdom of God.

Every family situation is different and we know that kids behave differently due to many factors. Some kids may have dedicated parents who attend church with them each week but do not have the parenting skills to know how to raise respectful kids. These kids are often allowed to run their household, therefore think they can run the show in any other environment they’re in. They are easily recognizable because they’re typically the ones who come in each week and lack self control. They will sometimes blurt things out at inappropriate times and act up so they can get the whole class going. Sometimes they have what I call “helicopter” parents who hover and rescue anytime they feel their child is not being treated superior to others. These parents sometimes complain about the ministry not meeting the needs of their child or say things like, “My kids just don’t get anything out of it,” or “They’re bored.” Lots of times these kids are not engaging with what’s going on in the classroom and because they aren’t as aware of what is happening, they do have a tendency to be bored, or at least think they are anyway.

You also may have what I call “drop-off kids” who have very little parental involvement and are just seeking attention and hoping someone will notice them. These kids want someone to take the time to make them feel special. Often these are the kids who leaders dread to see coming because they need the most investment.

There are many different family situations and personalities that we are privileged to work with as church leaders. It is often out of the complicated life stories of the most difficult children that we find the greatest potential for powerful testimonies of transformation. Some would say that these transformations usually happen as these children become adults and sometimes this is true, but we don’t have to wait until they become adults for change to take root. As we invest in children and parents at the same time, this transformation can take place now in the lives of the families we minister to!  The key is to partner with parents to make spiritual impacts at home with their children while they are young. They can empower their kids to be little ministers by providing opportunities for them to all serve and learn together. One of my pet peeves as a children’s ministry director is when someone asks a child, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The question we should be asking our children is, “What are you going to do for God right now?” Many tough kids just need to be uplifted, empowered, and made to feel special and loved. When we do that, they will rise to the occasion and begin to see themselves as a positive influencer of others.

When a child’s negative behavior takes over the entire atmosphere of the classroom there are several questions we have to ask. First, are we engaging them in a way that they feel we’re doing more than completing a job when we’re with them? Second, are we keeping our cool during discipline and sharing our control, allowing strong-willed kids opportunities to lead now while they are young? Or are we treating them as if they have nothing to contribute to the Kingdom of God right now? Finally, are we investing time and building a relationship with them so that we can be powerful influencers in their lives?

In order to engage children in a way that lets them know that your time with them means more to you than just checking it off the list and saying that you did it, we must verbally let them know that we are passionate about teaching them biblical truths that will stick with them throughout their entire lives. Engaging children means that you put forth full effort every single time you meet with them and constantly seek out new fresh ideas. If you’re unprepared, immediately they will notice and they are like intuitive sophisticated little radars. They will jump on the opportunity to “take you down.” If you walk into that classroom prepared with a clear plan, engaging activities, and more than enough material to last the class time, you are a lot less likely to experience negative behavior. 

Be prepared to use your radar as well and if an activity is becoming too disruptive, quickly move to the next thing. Good leaders can sense when it’s time to move on.  Using a variety of elements when teaching is key to keeping kids engaged. Science experiments, videos, small group activities, and sometimes pulling out a funny looking puppet or throwing on a crazy hat and lip-syncing a silly camp song will capture them and bring them back to focus. Be ready for anything. The only way that this is possible is to be prepared. Creativity is a huge part of this. If you’re simply talking for 45 minutes to an hour, I’d probably be bored and act out too!

For those times when you do need to set boundaries and discipline in your setting there are a few things not to do. One of them is lose your cool. When you raise your voice and threaten it can actually fuel misbehavior and cause kids to “up their game.” Not displaying anger and frustration at their behavior is going to surprise the kids, because they’re used to getting a negative reaction. Instead of lecturing and showing frustration, we can tell kids what we’re going to do and they can’t argue with that. This is called using enforceable statements. In discipline, we never tell kids what to do. Instead, tell them what you are going to do because they can’t argue with that. For example, if you say to a child, “Pick up these toys,” they can say a million things back to you in response. They could say things like “no”, “I don’t want to”, “Not right now” “I’m too busy”, “I didn’t make that mess.” If you say, “I’m going to clean this room in 15 minutes. I’ll be keeping the toys that I pick up and you can keep the toys you pick up.” They can’t argue with that. In a classroom setting if you say, “I’m going to begin our fun game as soon as all of you are listening” and you follow through, it’s more effective than yelling or telling them to be quiet over and over again. When we make threats like, “I’m going to tell all of your parents how terribly you’ve behaved today” and we don’t follow through, we’re teaching the kids that we don’t mean what we say. If we do follow through and tell their parents, then it gives the kids someone to blame for their bad behavior. They’ll say, “Well the reason is because he’s boring and we don’t have any fun in there.” If this happens, you better watch out for the helicopters, because they’ll be landing in your office to complain soon! When we make enforceable statements that you can follow through with, we teach the kids that we mean what we say.

Sharing our control is another great technique to avoid misbehavior, especially for those really strong-willed kids! They love control and power. Once I had an 8-year-old boy who acted out every week. He was a little aggressive toward the other kids and was always a challenge. I engaged him pretty well using science experiments since we liked to blow things up and set things on fire, but he still had a little trouble. I realized that this kid needed a job. I built up this “job” really big. I told him I needed someone super talented and really dedicated to do this job. I told him that God’s Word was the most important thing we talked about during our kids’ church time and I needed someone really special for this job. It had to be someone who was strong and I told him I thought he was perfect for the job.

The first thing he said was, “Me? You want me?” You see, no one had ever thought he was perfect for anything. The only thing he heard all day long was “Stop,” “No,” “Don’t,” “Leave her alone,” “Your parents are going to be so disappointed in you.” For once, someone thought he was perfect. I told him the job was to hold up the Bible while I taught the lesson and turn to the right place and read when I told him to. He was thrilled. He said, “No one ever picks me to do stuff like that.” He ran to his parents and told them all about his new job and the next Sunday he arrived early and was super excited that he was important. It was the first week we had no interruptions during the lesson. He continued to be our Bible holder that year. Sometimes a kid needs a job!

Another way to share control is to give little choices. Strong-willed kids LOVE choices. For example, “Do you all want to leave the playground now or do you need another 15 minutes?” Even though you were leaving in 15 minutes anyway, they don’t know that, so let them feel like they have a little control over the matter. You might say, “Would you all like to read the Bible story straight out of the Bible today or do you want to act it out as I read it?” If they feel they have a little say-so, they’re more likely to engage and feel that you think they are capable and valued enough to have input. I let them choose which worship song we will do the next week and sometimes I encourage them to come prepared to share what kind thing they did for someone else the week before. Let them know that they can do things now and don’t have to wait until they’re adults to do God’s work.

The last and most important thing we can do to avoid misbehavior is to build relationships. This starts by simply noticing kids and what they’re about. You may start off by saying things like, “I noticed you got new shoes” or “I noticed you like soccer. Tell me about that.” Taking the time to notice things can be the first step in building a relationship. Most of a child’s appropriate behavior is ignored and kids who are seeking attention don’t usually care what kind of attention it is—negative or positive. They just want any kind of attention. These kids will do whatever gets noticed. When we make threats and reprimands, we’re actually rewarding those children and giving them the attention they’re seeking. If you make a point to notice things about them that make them special, you’ll begin to build that relationship.

There’s one thing that all kids, and adults for that matter, want—to be favored. As you teach them that they are highly favored by their heavenly Father, you must first let them know that they are highly favored by you! Every child should feel like they are your favorite. Lots of high-fives, calling them by name, and building them up in front of their parents and others can transform your relationship very quickly. It could sound something like this in front of the child and parents when they come to pick them up. “Andrew was so awesome today during our worship time. I loved seeing him raise his hands and praise God. You do realize that he has really special gifts and that other kids watch him and follow his lead. I’m so excited to have such a strong leader in our ministry. Andrew, God has BIG plans for you buddy.” Then whisper, “You’re one of my favorites!” I did this one time with a tough kid and it was the last time he ever misbehaved in my presence. He began to realize that I loved him. He went from putting stickers on my back when I wasn’t looking to giving me big hugs every time I saw him. The parents also switched from defense mode to partnership mode. When they realize you really love their children, they are more likely to partner with you.

Kids will always live up to your opinion of them. If they know you dread seeing them coming, they’ll live up to that expectation you have of them. If they know you think they’re amazing, they’ll strive to live up to that as well. People who know that others think highly of them don’t want to disappoint those who see them in a favorable way.

In order to influence the next generation we must build relationships and spend time with those we are ministering to. Think of the people in your life who have influenced you the most. It’s the people who have invested time to build relationship and gain your favor and respect that are most likely to have the biggest influence. Capturing the hearts of children begins with engaging them, empowering them, and building our influence through time and relationship. If you can get a child to really love you and be convinced that you really do love them, discipline becomes less of an issue. After these things are in place, it usually just takes a soft whisper and light touch on the shoulder to a kid saying, “Hey, buddy, can you stop that for me, please? Thank you.” to accomplish what yelling, harping, and threatening can’t. To capture the hearts of children who might be hard to minister to at first, use the Jesus model. Stop, notice them, spend time with them, and love them unconditionally.