Taming Classroom Tyrants


Julie Hartung, an early childhood educator and mother of five, asserts that the child who’s constantly misbehaving is actually crying out for discipline. “The trick,” Julie states, “is molding the will without breaking the spirit.” She stresses consistency in dealing with all children.

“Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you say,” Julie says. In other words, have a plan that suits each personality and don’t be afraid to follow through. Perhaps one child responds well to verbal reminders, while another child may need a privilege taken away. Understanding the children in your classroom is your first line of attack.

Phil Callaway, award-winning author and humorist, jokingly offers a suggestion for frustrated teachers. “The Sunday school teacher,” Callaway says, “should lock the spoiled child in a closet and seal the edges of the door with Silly Putty!”

Callaway goes on to say, “Too much grease is wasted on the squeaky kid while the others need attention. But do remember that God seems better able to steer moving children. In other words, those who are strong personalities, creative, and full of mischief are often world-changers later on. When meeting children, I try to experience admiration for who God has made them, a numbness for their frequent shortcomings, and respect for who they may become.”

Although some children initially present themselves as rabble-rousers and agitators, often they become the doers and the go-getters. It’s important, however, that teachers not let little faults pass unnoticed. Small weeds grow into big weeds and eventually choke out the good fruit.

If we give children complete freedom, we’ll create little monsters. Remember Eli and his sons (1 Samuel 2:25)? They all came to ruin. If we’re stern and reprimand in anger, we’ll chill children’s hearts and put an end to communication. Remember Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30-34) whose relationship completely broke down? Love, as witnessed in the example of Jesus Christ, is the key that opens the heart of a child.


Dr. James Dobson in his book The Strong Willed Child reminds us about the importance of discipline. “Disciplinary action,” says Dobson, “influences behavior; anger does not. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that adult anger produces a kind of disrespect in the minds of our children. They perceive that our frustration is caused by our inability to control the situation.”

Cindy Krul, Sunday school superintendent and mother of four, sees a profound lack of respect happening in our institutions today. As a result, she has rallied her Sunday school teachers to become more proactive than reactive. Here are her suggestions to make your leaders proactive in building respectful classrooms:

• Use proper titles, such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., or Sir, for teachers and those in positions of authority.
• Offer incentives for developing skills, rather than for changing behavior. Good behavior must become a duty of the heart, not a ploy for a piece of candy.
• Set clear limits and act consistently. Ensure that discipline is timely and reasonable. Discuss a child’s feelings of remorse, and pray with the child.
• Involve children in establishing clearly defined rules.
• Prepare your lesson ahead of time, and be creative in your classroom.
• Stay informed and attend scheduled training meetings.
• Don’t make excuses for disobedience, but keep in mind the age of the child.
• Communicate with parents regularly.
• Catch children being good and offer genuine praise.
• Recruit a prayer partner, and seek God’s guidance constantly.


Children who can’t sit still for one minute. Preschoolers who scream and kick when they have to color. A child who repeatedly washes her hands during class. What’s going on here?

The truth is that sometimes children misbehave because they have a special need. And when the parents are confronted about the behavior, their first reaction may be to offer an excuse rather than a solution for the behavior.

These types of scenarios are becoming all too familiar for those who work with children in the church. According to the recent article “The Perils of Pills” in U.S. News and World Report, almost 21 percent of children age 9 and up have some type of mental disorder, including depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association also expressed concerns about the increase in preschool children diagnosed and medicated for behavioral and emotional disorders. With these statistics, children’s ministries are dealing with a vast array of disorders that are impacting how we deal with the children and families we minister to.


Frustrations like those experienced in the encounter with Amanda’s parents mentioned earlier are not uncommon. Parents’ excuses regarding a child’s behavior are not only aggravating, they’re also subtle voices that whisper to a children’s worker, “You’re incompetent because you can’t handle this.”

What’s with parents’ excuses, anyway?

Although parents’ excuses may at times be just that — excuses, more often than not, they’re a mask that hides the feelings, emotions, and frustrations parents encounter when facing their child’s condition. For many parents, learning that their child has a psychiatric or medical condition brings a mixture of feelings:  denial, relief, fear, grief, and guilt. Having a name and explanation for why their child behaves the way she does initially brings a sense of relief. To know that the child’s misbehavior is no longer a reflection of their parenting skills and that there’s an explanation is almost comforting, initially.

Then reality sets in, and fears for their child’s future as well as grief over the loss of their “perfect” child set in. Parents feel guilty for all the times they scolded or punished their child for a behavior they now understand is part of the child’s diagnosis. And then, in many cases, the parents become even more protective of their child. They become more aware of the ridicule their child experiences because of the symptoms — symptoms that are often difficult to suppress.

Unfortunately, many parents believe that their child can’t control much of his or her behavior and so the parents accept too much misbehavior and withdraw most discipline, in fear that it’ll make the “symptoms” worse. Thus, we hear the excuses. They become easier than explanations, which, for these families, have often led to little in the way of solutions.

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