When a kid “acts up” in Kid’s Church, you have to make a split second decision to ignore it or deal with it.
Often, that’s a hard call to make as a teacher. You don’t want to be too strict and come across as harsh or unloving. But you also don’t want to be too loose and let bad behavior escalate.
So where should you draw the line for good classroom management in children’s church – should you lean more toward strict discipline, or should you favor a more laid-back approach?
One way to approach the question is to ask – what do I think the parents would want for their kids? Would they want a teacher who is more strict, or more laid-back?
Personally, I usually assume that parents would choose a more laid-back approach. I worry that if I discipline a kid in children’s church, the parents will not be happy.
What My Magic Show Taught Me About Parent Expectations for Classroom Management
And I had an experience earlier today that shed some light on this question. I was presenting a magic show at a public library in Eugene, OR. Here’s the view of the audience at the show – a great group of mostly elementary-school-aged kids and their parents.
At one point in the show, I called a couple volunteers up on stage. I asked each of them to hold a prop that we were going to be using soon. I stood in the middle of my two volunteers, and turned to the one on my left. Let’s call her Hannah. I asked her name and what grade she was in. As I was talking to her, the audience started laughing.
I turned to my other side to see what was going on. My other volunteer – let’s call her Katie – had put her prop (a cooking pot) on top of her head and was making funny faces.
I quickly said, “Oh, Katie, please don’t do that. This is Hannah’s turn to be a ‘star,’ and you’ll get your turn in just a second.”
I turned back to Hannah and had barely started talking to her, when the audience laughed and shifted their attention back to Katie.
I turned to Katie and saw she had already put the cooking pot back on her head and was clowning around again. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Katie, it’s Hannah’s turn to be the star. That’s too distracting, so you need to sit down.”
Katie said, “No! I’ll stop.”
I reached down to my belt-pack and turned my microphone off so I could talk to Katie privately. I said, “Katie, I already asked you to stop once, and you didn’t. Now I need you to go back to your seat.”
She stared at me and said, “No!”
I said, “Katie, I’m not asking. You need to sit down now.”
She stood there, not moving.
I stared at her. You could have heard a pin drop in that room. I continued to give her the look that teachers give – the one that says, “I mean business.”
Katie backed down and headed to her seat.
I turned my attention back to Hannah, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Katie go past her seat, run to her mom in the back, and the two of them walk out of the room. My librarian host got up and quickly followed them out.
And that’s when I started to worry – had I been too harsh? Did I look like a jerk up on stage? Was her mom mad? Was the librarian who was paying me upset at how I handled the situation?
And I’ll admit – I usually give a difficult volunteer at least two warnings before asking them to sit down. In this case, I had sent Katie back to her seat after just one warning because I was concerned that she was stealing the attention away from Hannah. But I wondered if that was obvious to the rest of the audience.
These thoughts ran through my head during the rest of the presentation. Near the end, about the time my live bunny appears, I saw Katie and her mom come back into the classroom and stand in the back. I assumed Katie’s mom wanted to give me a piece of her mind after the show.
I finished the program and took my bunny rabbit to the exit door so that the kids could pet her on their way out of the show. I love that time when I get to interact with all the kids and parents individually, but I was dreading talking to Katie’s mom.
Katie’s Mom’s Response – Surprised Me!
When it was their turn, Katie’s mom said, “Thanks for handling that the way you did. Katie’s been having some issues at school lately, and we’ve been working on her behavior. You handled it perfectly – kind but firm.”
Whew! What a relief. Katie petted the bunny and we parted as friends.
But what really shocked me was this: Katie’s mom wasn’t the only one that expressed her gratitude. On their way out, other parents told me, “Thanks for the way you handled that girl on stage – we really appreciated that you dealt with the issue before it escalated.”
Or, “We’ve been to a lot of summer reading shows where the performer didn’t seem to have any control over the group. It’s so frustrating to see kids running wild and the leader just ignoring the problem.”
Alright, that’s a long story to bring up a simple point: Parents want their kids in a safe classroom, where the teacher is in charge, not the students. Parents want issues to be dealt with kindly, but firmly.
In other words, parents want to see good, balanced classroom management in children’s church.
Now there are times for kids to be loud and be the center of attention, but that time is not when other student are sharing or when you’re teaching God’s Word.
And parents do want their kids taught God’s Word – that’s why they bring them Sunday after Sunday. And parents understand that can’t happen when one or two kids are allowed to misbehave and disrupt the whole class.
And that includes the parents of the children who are being disruptive. I’ve found that the parents I’ve talked to about discipline issues (almost) always appreciate it. These parents want their children to learn to behave, and discipline issues provide a great opportunity for discipleship training.
So don’t ignore discipline issues. If a kid is being disruptive enough to bother you as the teacher, then they are probably distracting the other kids in the class, too. And the sooner you address the problem, the sooner you can get back to focusing on God’s Word. Just remember to follow good children’s church classroom management practices:
Preventative Measures (if you do these well, you’ll eliminate 90% of classroom discipline issues):
- Get to know the kids and their parents by name and develop a good relationship with them. If kids feel like you really know them, they’ll be on their best behavior around you. And if they do start getting off-track, usually just calling them by name will be enough to head off any discipline problems.
- Practice teaching your lesson thoroughly before children’s church starts. If you’re reading your lesson from a paper (instead of teaching it from memory based on an outline), kids will get bored and restless. And bored and restless kids get in trouble. The same applies for transitions between lesson segments. While you’re rummaging around trying to find the materials for the next activity, your kids will be finding something to do, and usually, it won’t be a great activity. (See this handy preparation checklist from Lindsey at Growing Kids Ministry.)
- Make your lessons interactive and fun. Bring up volunteers to help act out the Bible story. Use object lessons that hold the kids’ attention. Show a short, funny video that illustrates the Bible lesson. Get the whole class moving to get the wiggles out. Have kids share examples from their own lives. Best of all – use a combination of these activities to keep the lesson varied and interesting. (Sheik Mozart gives many more examples in this great article at I Love Kids Church.)
- Also, remember to use the adult helpers in your classroom to prevent problems. You probably know which kids could use an adult nearby. Don’t be afraid to let your adult helpers know where you want them and what you want them to look out for. Let them head off problems before they turn into major distractions.
Reactive Measures (despite your best efforts, you will occasionally have kids disrupt your kid’s church lessons and you’ll have to deal with it):
- First, don’t get angry. This is a great opportunity to lovingly disciple this child – and isn’t that what being a children’s church leader is all about? Keep showing love to the child, even while explaining why their behavior is not acceptable. In that way, you can model God’s love for them – He loves the sinner, yet takes the sin seriously.
- Be firm but fair. Have an “escalation” plan that you follow consistently. For example, if a student starts to talk and distract others during your lesson…
- Pause your teaching, look at them, and wait for them to quiet down.
- If it happens again, you can call their name out. You can casually slip it into your lesson (“Jesus forgave the man, and the Pharisees were freaking out -Michael, do you know why?”) Or you can do it more overtly (“Michael, this is a really important point, I want everyone to hear this, so I need you focused right now.”)
- If they continue to disrupt, you can ask them to move and sit by an adult or a high school helper.
- If even that doesn’t solve the problem, you can ask them to go to the back of the room and talk to an adult helper about the issue.
- Finally, if they continue to misbehave even after this personal attention, they need to take a break for the day. Don’t be afraid to ask an adult helper to page their parents, or take them into “big church” to sit with their parents, or however you handle that at your church. Then after the service, contact the parents to let them know what was going on.
- Remember that it’s usually better to have another adult, not yourself, take the child aside and talk to them. That way you don’t have to take time away from teaching the class. As tempting as it may be to handle everything yourself, trust your helpers, and keep on teaching God’s Word to the majority of the students in the class. (This article by Lisa at Building Faith may be helpful to prepare your adult leaders for this task. It has a good section about how to talk to kids one-on-one about behavior issues.)
- And of course, be wise about which behaviors you choose to ignore. If it’s not distracting the class and taking the focus off of God’s Word, just ignore it. This takes wisdom and time in front of a class to develop. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you’re just starting out as a teacher. Just know that you’ll get better and better at this as time goes on. (In fact, you and your students can improve together using the Good Learners/Good Teacher Poster at Disciple Blog.)
- Finally, choosing a curriculum is an important part of classroom management. If kids love the material they’re learning, it makes your job as a teacher that much easier. So… shameless plug… Click on the robot to check out our spyence curriculum!
So what do parents truly want from classroom management in children’s church?
Here’s my take in four words – be kind, but firm.