10 Ways to Manage Behavior Problems in Sunday School

Boy with finger held up in a gesture that says "Sshh"It’s happened to all of us.  We’re in the middle of an awesome lesson.  Most of the kids are tracking with us, except that one.

That one is not only tuning out every word, but that one is hiding under the pew, flying a church bulletin airplane your way, or attempting to fit his entire foot in the offering envelope.  Ahhh…. That one.

Let’s be honest.  You love that one.  You want to reach that one.  You just don’t always know what to do with that one.

Maybe you’ve tried the best preventative strategies, but you are still frustrated with a child’s behavior in the middle of a lesson. Here are some oft-used teacher tricks of the trade to get a child tracking again.

  1. Whisper:  Make every child lean in to hear what you have to say, with the hope that the distracted/distracting child will follow in suit.
  2. Stop Talking:  Put your train of thought to a halt.  Silence is a good attention grabber.
  3. Stare:  Glance directly at the child and make eye contact.  Hold on until he/she is listening again.
  4. Provide Presence:  While you are speaking, naturally move over to where the child is seated. Continue the lesson from close range.  Or, send another adult to sit next to the child using non-verbal cues.
  5. Name Call:  Work the student’s name nonchalantly into a relevant story, example, or commendation.
  6. Role Play:  Invite the student in question to act out a scenario with you.  Provide the attention the child needs in a positive framework.
  7. Give Responsibility:  Assign the child a task to complete:  Pass out papers or Bibles, hold a picture book, distribute other materials, keep time, hold a prop, etc.
  8. Take Three:  This technique would be discussed with the child prior to the lesson.  If opportunities for discussion are given and the child in question tends to dominate discussion or talk out of turn, allow three times of talking.  Have the child count the times on their fingers.
  9. Special Signals:  This is another technique to discuss ahead of time.  Teach the child two signals that no one else in the room would catch.  One sign would represent encouragement for a job well done; the other would be a warning/challenge issued for just them.  The more quietly outlandish the sign, the better.  (You’ll win a listening ear and a smile at the same time.)
  10. Avoid Public Confrontation:  Steer clear of calling a child’s name out for negative behavior.  It will generally escalate from there.  Instead, speak to the child after the lesson.  Ask them if they can identify how they were a distraction.  Tell them what you expect the next time.  Use this brief chat to encourage them in love.

What tried and true techniques have you used before for that one student?  How have they been helpful to you?  Click here to leave a comment below.


  1. Rosemary says

    I teach my children that good actions have rewards and bad actions have consequences. I reward good behavior (not talking out of turn, class participation, and exhibiting good listening skills) with stickers of all kinds – which I keep in my bag at all times. However, children who display poor judgement (after being reminded of our “house rules” – be respectful to the speaker and class mates, ask permission, etc.) are sent to the “reminder wall.” They stand in a separate area of the room, away from the class and reflect on their actions, while the lesson continues. Once they are ready to rejoin the group, they make an apology to the class for being disruptive and the class receives the student back into the group. This teaches respect and solves most all of my student-discipline problems.

  2. Stephanie says

    Teresa, you nailed it. Happened just last week in my K-1st class. Sorry to hear you’re frustrated and having a bad day, would you like a hug? He did not want a hug and was going to stay with his mom who teaches the 2’s and 3’s. I said, “okay, have fun with Mom and feel better, you’re welcome to come to join us whenever you feel you’re ready, remember I’m thinking of you and praying you’ll have a better day.” We went to large group 5 minutes later, and in he walked. Came over to me and asked for a hug. Awesome!

  3. Clement Matanga says

    Thank you very much but I would want to suggest that at times kids need some form of light punishment.

  4. Christine says

    In kids church we hand out tickets to our store, to kids who follow the rules. If we have a couple of bad weeks with the kids not listening, interrupting, etc. I hand a ticket to each child and change it up…they can keep their ticket if they follow the rules. That way they have it in their hand immediately to remind them it’s their job to keep it. I do not like taking tickets away, but it’s a good reminder that it’s their job to retain it.

  5. Ruby Robinson says

    This is some of the things I use with disrupting students and it work every time. I ask that child to take more responsibility for giving out papers Bibles and collecting them at the end of class.

  6. Teresa says

    The first thing I stress to my teacher volunteers is that you will never have a classroom full of model children. If you do, then check to see if you moved to “Stepford”. One of the things that I do is always have paper and markers or crayons in front of them. From past experience, I have found that some children must occupy themselves with their hands. Although they do not appear to be listening, I have learned that at the end of the lesson they can answer the questions. I often build my own lesson plans from the material provided that has places to write down words or draw pictures or to glue items in order. These types of activities help to keep them focused. Also, I have each child take a turn at reading. This gives them much needed practice and also helps to occupy their minds and bodies. Another approach is to teach the listen through a series of questions where they start to pay attention because they want to answer the questions correctly. Sometimes I have a child that I know by just looking at them its going to be a very long Sunday. So, I start by saying to them that they must being having a bad day and do they need a hug or to pray about something right away. As crazy as this sounds, this often helps with the attention getter. He gets his attention right away and feels better. But you have to mean what you say. I always tell the children that I teach that no matter how bad they get that Jesus and I are still going to love them. I mean this. And they know that I mean this. So this often helps when they are having a bad day. A reminder that I know their behavior is not acceptable but I’m not going to call them names or treat them badly. Instead I’m going to give them the extra hug they need. But this will only work if you really mean it.

  7. says

    Thank you very much for this post, I tried 2,3,an 9 already which worked, hopefully I would try some of the others which I think would be very rewarding.

  8. says

    Great post Kristin! 1 – 3 & 7 are my favorite ways to help kids redirect distracting behavior. I also like the principle you highlighted in #10 about confronting privately. This is huge for both kids and parents. I am planning to pass this post on to the rest of my staff. Thank you for putting these thoughts down so well.

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