Four Principles for Engaging Difficult Kids in Ministry

Four Principles for Engaging Difficult Kids in Ministry

How do we teach difficult students in children’s ministry about God without losing our cool? In the frenzy of life in the classroom it can be easy to lose sight of our most important priority—to teach children about God’s grace and truth in both our words and our actions—especially if there is a hint of trouble. If His love is to make sense to all kids on Sunday mornings, it’s not enough for them to hear the Gospel, they must experience it. When leaders keep this primary goal in the front of their minds, they can reach even the toughest of students with God’s grace and truth.

The Same Old Response to the Difficult Student

We all have kids in our class that are rude and constantly interrupt, won’t sit still, create mischief of all kinds or speak unkindly about others. These students need to understand God’s grace the most, but tend to get it the least due to their behavior. When they are publicly disciplined, two things happen: 1. The rest of the class sees and learns from the discipline, too, and 2. a clear message is often sent to the misbehaving child about how they are perceived.

The normal way workers address misbehavior is just to make it stop—to get kids to behave. It is easy to believe that if the method used gets the child to behave then it “worked.” If not, the method becomes firmer or we try something else. But rarely do we consider what the misbehaving kids are believing about themselves, and what our treatment of them is communicating to them—not so much about their behavior, but about their identity. This is important to consider because youngsters look to the important adults in their lives not just to help them learn to behave, but to help them learn who they are.

A Different Way of Thinking about Difficult Students

A different way of thinking has helped many classroom staff and volunteers learn to impact behavior by focusing more on belief. This profound way of thinking asks: What are children being led to believe about themselves and even about God by the way they are treated by their caregivers?

To explore how this works, let’s first look at what happens when caregivers focus primarily on behavior. Let’s say Tyler is in the back of the room paying no attention and pestering another child. The typical teacher response is to say something like, “Tyler, leave him alone. That’s not OK. Now settle down so others can learn.” He may settle down for a bit but he’ll likely get antsy soon and act out a different way before class is over—and the scene will continue.

We often role-play this sort of scenario in workshops for church workers. We draw the role-play out long enough to represent the typical back and forth power struggle and heightened emotions students and teachers often engage in. We work to make it familiar. For example, “Tyler, how many times do I have to remind you!…” and Tyler’s face shows anger as he quietly disengages.

When we ask what messages Tyler is receiving about himself, the workers fill in the blank. “Tyler, you are ____________!” Their answers: “a problem, annoying, in trouble, incapable, irresponsible, not worth my time, not worth listening to,” and so on. These are not only the messages workers do not want to communicate, but they are shaming identity messages being communicated to Tyler while the rest of the class observes. Classmates are learning what it means to be a person in trouble. These messages of shame are counter to the gospel of grace.  At the same time, the class is learning that grace is earned. Pure, bad theology.

Four Powerful Messages for All Students

Our ministry, Connected Families, equips workers to do more “gracing” and less shaming in order to open kids’ hearts to “God’s kindness that leads to repentance.” We invite teachers to focus primarily on the communication of four powerful messages as part of the effort to address misbehavior. These goals have transformed ministry cultures—particularly those with high-risk populations.

Interactions with all students should communicate these principles:

1. “You are safe with me.” (Proverbs 18:10) When teachers are thoughtful about their own hearts and pause to calm down before responding, kids feel emotionally and physically safe. This keeps your students’ brains in learning mode rather than in fight or flight mode. They remain open to their teachers.

2. “You are loved no matter what!” (Rom 5:8) When children feel loved through a smile, kind word or empathetic statement, they tend to want to behave in ways that please the one loving them.

3. “You are God’s workmanship, called and capable.” (Eph 2:10) This message is true of even the most misbehaving child. An outspoken or intense child may have great leadership potential, for example. Keeping this truth in mind helps workers respond with grace as they seek to guide that child toward better behavior.

4. “You are responsible.” (Gal 6:7) Caregivers tend to think that kids learn to be responsible by experiencing some sort of chastising consequence for misbehavior. But the best teacher of responsibility is to understand and experience the true cause-effect results of misbehavior—reaping what was sown. We call this natural impact of behavior. Often, when kids discover these impacts in a gracious way, they are motivated to “make right” what their behavior made wrong. For instance, a quiet and loving conversation with a child to help her understand how many kids weren’t able to learn the lesson because she was distracting may help her make a different choice. Maybe even a choice to “make it right” by helping teach another time.

Making these messages primary when dealing with misbehaving kids is a model of God’s grace and truth. Of course, there are many complicating factors, but we find when church staff and volunteers make these principles their primary goal, the kids in their care become much more responsive to guidance. Why? Because the messages that kids will receive are consistent with the messages God would have those children believe.

So give it a whirl. Focus primarily on the messages you desire your students believe about themselves and their relationship with a loving God. With these in mind, you can address the behavior, too. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

To learn more about practically communicating these messages to kids in your care (your own children too!), find helpful resources at connectedfamilies.org.  

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Jim Jackson
Jim and Lynne Jackson have over fifty years of combined professional experience working with children, teens, and families. They have co-authored several books, including Discipline that Connects with Your Child’s Heart. Jim and Lynne's years of ministry work and their own three children provided the motivation to found Connected Families, which seeks to decrease controlling behavior and increase quality of relationships.