I went home after that service feeling worn down and discouraged. This wasn't the first time a service had gone that way. But was it really the kids' fault? Was there something I could improve as a children's ministry leader to get them to listen and behave better, so they could actually get something out of the service, and have fun at the same time?
I learned the answer to that question: YES. There is a lot we can do as children's ministry leaders to stop discipline issues before they ever start.
WHY WE DISCIPLINE
Before talking about discipline, it's important to know the why behind it: we can't teach kids about God if we don't have their attention. We won't have their attention if there are behavior issues with no correction or discipline. God tells us He disciplines us to shape us and make us more like Him. That should be our goal: to model Christlike behavior and help kids become more like Him in everything we do.
Hebrews 12:10-11 says, "God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
Our goal is not to have kids who behave a certain way, but who have a relationship with Christ. Discipline isn't about punishments, rules, and negativity. It's about guidance, correction, diligence, and teaching. It will help kids develop self-control, responsibility, character, and help shape them to become more like Christ. It will enable them to learn about Him and experience Him so they can hav e a relationship with Him. It has to start from love and a desire to disciple kids.
1. WRITE IT DOWN
It's important to have a discipline policy, rather than just winging it. It allows you to have consistency in how you deal with different situations and empowers your teachers and leaders to deal with situations on their own, knowing it will all be consistent. Write a discipline policy, and keep it simple. Put it in your volunteer handbook, post your rules on your walls or on your screens.
If you don't have a discipline policy that is consistent across the board, you also risk having some teachers who can be too strict, and some who can be too lenient. A discipline policy helps get everyone on the same page.
Your discipline policy should be no more than 3-5 points, with clear and concise boundaries and steps to take. In addition to steps for correction, it's helpful to have 3-5 simple rules that kids can remember, and that encompass all the positive behaviors you want to see, but also include the steps for correction in your discipline policy.
An example of rules you could use:
- Respect your leader.
- Respect your friends.
- Respect your church property.
- Have fun!
An example of a Discipline Policy:
- Get on the child’s level and look them in the eye.Give a verbal warning, explaining why the behavior is not acceptable. Give a suggestion for the right way to act or behave and help them do it.
- If the child does not follow directions when you give them a redirection, it may be necessary to remove them from the situation or activity so they can calm down and prepare to rejoin the service. Place them in an area away from the other kids for no more than one minute per year of age.
- If the child is still not obeying, refer the child to your ministry leader for assistance.
Give a copy of your discipline policy to your leaders, and talk with them about different scenarios and how to handle them. This would make a great Pre-Service huddle training session that you could do in ten minutes as you're meeting with your team.
You can provide behavior logs for your volunteers to write down instances of behavior issues. This is helpful if you have multiple services or rotating volunteers, so you can keep a log of specific incidents. If you see a pattern with a specific child, you can make a note to talk with the parents.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Keep your rules simple, and your discipline steps simple. You don't need 20 steps for teachers to remember or 10 rules for kids. Repeat your classroom rules often. Make sure they are simple enough for kids to remember and understand.
3. USE A REWARD SYSTEM
You can utilize a reward system (this works great with elementary aged kids). It's especially effective to split the kids into teams and use something they can see, such as clear containers with plastic balls (or just using laundry baskets with balloons). You could do sticker charts, individual "tokens" or "Bucks" they can use at a prize store. Let kids earn rewards for participation, listening, and following rules. It's only effective if you actually do give the rewards consistently. You can take away an item if one of the teams isn't listening. You could give out prizes at the end of the service for the winning team, or you could just let the winning team win, and let them dance around and cheer.
4. TALK TO PARENTS
Whenever you see a pattern of behavior issues, or a child acts in a violent way, it's important to talk with parents right away. Make sure your conversation is filled with gentleness, grace, kindness, and lots of encouragement. It's important to let the parents know you care about their child and you want to help them get the most out of the service. Ask them for ideas about how to help their child. You may ask them to sit in the service and observe or help if their child needs extra help. Show them your rules and your discipline policy, and give them specifics about how their child behaved.
*A tip: make sure you're not ONLY talking to parents when there are behavior issues: look for any opportunity you can to tell them how amazing their kid is or something great their kid did during a service.
5. BE PROACTIVE
- Be prepared: To cut down on behavior issues, make sure your teachers are prepared for class before the kids ever arrive. They shouldn't be reading the curriculum from a paper or gathering supplies or scrambling at the last minute at any time when kids are there. The more prepared you are for the kids, the better you can captivate them and keep their attention.
- Keep their attention: Also make sure you have plenty of activities to fill the whole time, and constantly read the room. If you're losing them, it's time to switch to the next activity. Keep the activities age appropriate and engaging. If you need a list of 12 awesome and fun, NO PREP extra times activities you can do at any time, with any number of kids - check out my newest resource here.
- Make it fun: The more you expect kids to sit still and quietly and just listen- the more behavior issues you'll have. Make it fun and let them have time to run around as part of the lesson. Let them have time to wiggle and be loud. Have realistic expectations about their attention spans and their abilities.
- Have proper ratios: If you have a classroom with 35 preschoolers and two leaders, it's impossible to keep them all under control,. Make sure your rooms are not overcrowded and you have plenty of adult leaders. Sometimes having an adult just sitting next to a child can help them pay attention better.
- Eliminate distractions: Evaluate your room and seating arrangements and make sure kids aren't too distracted. Make sure it's as easy as possible for them to focus on the teacher and the lesson. For preschoolers, this might mean taking all toys out of the room during the lesson. For elementary kids, taking away devices and tablets.
- Look for kids who need extra attention: For those kids who you know need extra help, look for ways to proactively help them before they become a disruption. Give them special jobs. Encourage and praise good behavior. Sit them next to a teacher. Give them a fidget toy if needed.
Don't give up on the kids who need extra help. I've seen kids go from the worst behaved kid in the entire children's ministry to the best behaved, and most helpful leader, with the right encouragement and an adult who believes in them.
There are no bad kids. Sometimes the kids who are disruptive are going through issues we don't know about, and are acting out and need extra love and grace. Every time you discipline a child, it's an opportunity to point them to God and remind them of His love and forgiveness for us. Let this be your driving force in your children's ministry discipline.