This is a guest post by By Kathy Leonard from www.DC4K.org
“Don’t you love it when a difficult, disruptive child finally has a breakthrough?” a fellow teacher asked me. “It makes everything we do worthwhile.”
Hmm, I thought, after a particularly frustrating day. I kind of like it when all the kids quietly obey from the start.
Reality check. Kids come in all shapes, sizes, temperaments, backgrounds, and home situations. Some sit still and listen. Some do not. God has placed us in the position we’re at to love and reach out to each child in our program—the one sitting attentively in his chair and the one flicking miniature paper balls while bemoaning loudly, “This is soooo boring!”
An occasional disturbance is one thing, but some kids’ behaviors are disrupting the entire group and placing a great amount of stress on the teachers. What do we do with the disruptive kids?
The following ideas will help equip you to guide the child who continues to create a disturbance in your classroom or church ministry program:
1. Remember there’s likely something going on behind the behavior
When we better understand why a child is being disruptive, it can help us approach the child with a peaceful heart and genuine care. A prime example is a child whose parents are going through separation or divorce. This child suddenly has a parent who’s no longer at home, a ruptured daily routine, household belongings disappearing, and unanswered questions. The things that once gave the child a sense of safety have shifted or fallen apart. This child can feel helpless and unsafe, and he may act out as a result of not knowing what else to do with what’s building up inside.
If not divorce, the child may be facing another stressful situation, such as a death in the family, neglect, substance abuse, parent’s job loss, verbal or other abuse at different degrees, or severe financial struggles. These children typically do not know how to communicate what they’re feeling and may express their feelings through disruptive behaviors.
2. Clearly communicate that day’s routine
Routines help children feel safe. The child who is worried and confused about what’s going on at home may act out in your class. You can help this child by making sure he knows what’s going to happen. Post a simple schedule on the wall, or inform the children of the day’s agenda at the beginning of your time. As much as possible, follow the same basic routine each time you meet.
3. Remind the child of his choices
A problem at home can affect the child so much that he feels he has no say in what’s going on. He can’t control the changes and will grasp at whatever sense of control he can find. This may come out in your program. He may try to make other kids laugh with inappropriate remarks, or he may try to figure out how to manipulate you into getting frustrated or upset (and who’s in control then?). Before it gets that far, make it a practice to empower the child by giving him choices—pointing out the healthy choices that can be made in a given moment.
Take, for instance, a child who is talking and moving around while you’re telling a story to the group. Address the child by name, and then say, “Right now I am telling a story, you have a choice whether to sit in your spot to listen quietly, or you may choose to sit at the table next to Miss Susan for the story. Which will you choose?”
What about the child who is out of control during game time and hitting other children with the balls? Have a short one-on-one talk with this child to let him know that he has a choice of how he acts toward others during the game. Instead of repeating what he did wrong, ask, “What could you do that would be helpful to the other players?” The child then may choose to rejoin the game or he may feel safer sitting this one out. Be sure to ask, “What will you choose?” If the child is removed from the activity, it is by his choice in this instance. You can’t force a child to behave; but you can empower a child with the tools to help him feel less helpless in the face of inner confusion and distress.
4. Instead of praising a child, notice and describe the good behavior
Don’t thank or praise a child for doing what he was supposed to be doing from the start. Instead, notice and describe the helpful behavior with a smile: “You are sitting quietly with Miss Susan.” “I saw you pass the ball to Steven, letting him have a turn.”
5. Address the situation the following week in a loving, positive way
If the child was disruptive this week, for instance putting glue on other kids’ chairs during craft time, spend the ensuing days praying about the situation and for the child. When you meet again, you may comment that last week things got out of hand during craft time, but you have thought about it and prayed about it this past week. Let the child know you are going to help him so that it doesn’t happen again. This tells the child three things: (1) he is important to you, (2) he has a choice of how he wants to act, and (3) he’s not alone in this struggle.
6. Remember these are likely hurting children
Don’t forget that disruptive children are likely hurting children. They want help; they want attention; they want to get things right; they want to feel safe; they want some kind of firm footing when things feel so out of control; they want to test you to make sure you can be trusted and that you truly care.
Linda Ranson Jacobs, the creator of the DivorceCare for Kids program, once said to an out-of-control child who wondered if he’d be kicked out of her class too, “You can be assured that I care so much for you that you are here to stay. The more out of control you are, the more your body is telling me that you want my help. And since I respect you, I will oblige!”
Years from now, the adult-child may look back at this time and remember the people who stuck by him, no matter how much he pushed the boundaries and how much he lashed out with unkind remarks. When we’re aggravated and annoyed and wish the disruptive child would just stop, that’s when we remember how gracious and patient God is with us and our attitudes, and we remember how much He loves both us and that precious, hurting child.
The information presented in this article is based on teachings found in the DivorceCare for Kids (DC4K) ministry program. DC4K is a weekly program for children whose parents are separated or divorced. This fun-filled environment equips children with Christ-centered teaching and biblical tools for coping with the emotions and confusion of the situation. For more information about DC4K, visit www.DC4K.org or call 800-489-7778.