Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Dealing with challenging behaviour

I'm often asked how to handle difficult behaviour.
I think everything in the notes below sums it up!

Some causes of challenging behaviour

(for the first part of this posting, I'd like to reference SU's Top Tips series on handling difficult behaviour, although I have added some other factors in due to my own knowledge, practice and experience)

• general learning difficulties

• specific learning difficulties (do you have completed registration and consent forms? Do volunteers know about the relevant information?)

• developmental disorders – ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia

• low self-image (vicious circle)

• fragmented home situations and unsettled relationships with parents

• lack of boundaries in the home

• physical demands – what I call the Saturday night sleepover sydrome...!

• group dynamics - who's the strong leader amongst the children, for example

• the organisation of your session - it might be our fault!

• (teenagers?) alcohol/drug use

Types of behaviour

• childish irresponsibility

• behaviour linked to age and stage of development

• challenge to authority

Hebrews 12:6
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”

Don't be afraid of discipline!!

Some thoughts:
Children and teenagers, like adults, are made in the image of God, imageo dei, so like us they matter to him. Have a God-focused approach towards them.

• Children are so valuable to God that He commands us to protect them (1Sam 20:42, Ezra 8:21)

• God wants to have a genuine relationship with His children – He describes how children may enter His presence and enjoy His company (Ps 8:2, 34:11, 103:13, Mal 2:15, Matt 21:15, Mark 10:13-16)

• God loves young people enough to ensure they receive discipline. It is a reflection of His passion for a child’s well being.

• God enjoys the nature and personality of children – attributes such as sincerity, humility, naïveté, vulnerability and simplicity. He treasures these characteristics.

Towards Change…….

1.Working within the church community and communicate clearly
Be aware of Child Protection policy and any written guidelines your church has and use a large dollop of common sense. I had written a discipline policy that was disseminated once a year to volunteers so that they knew what was minor behavioural issues and what was major (everyone has different standards and expectations therefore a team of volunteers need help to establish the base level - is interrupting a leader who is talking ok? Some leaders say it's fine, others cannot tolerate it. If this example is a major issue for your team, decide what you will accept, and disseminate this information amongst the team, preferably in writing and LET CHILDREN KNOW! Setting boundaries publicly to the children and showing that you work as a team yields such fruit. Appy your decisions simply and consistently and soon it won't be an issue any more. I can testify over and over again how well this works).

2.Working with parents/guardians
Parents/guardians are our first port of call. How can you consult with them? You may need to invest a little time in speaking with them. Always speak with the relevant leader as s/he may have relevant information to give you. Find out about parents’ expectations of their child’s/teenager’s behaviour as you may find the root of the problem right there!

3.Working with other children/youth team members
Everything written so far needs to be applied to a team context – we need to work together. Children and teenagers spot tensions and differences between adults and will play us off one another. This underlines the need for written policies/clear communication. It's the one strong similarity between church and school. I was gathering up to 175 and 160 children together in two churches; the size of a small primary school! If your church has 10-30 children, the scale may be different but the need is still there.

4. Prepare thoroughly and vary the style
I've spent many years working with and watching children, and now I observe a growing tendency in some (many?) leaders to just turn up to help at a kids club or Sunday school, assuming that all the preparation has been done by the main leader of that day. That may be very well if they are pouring juice or doing toilet runs but if they are answering questions about God and teaching something from the Bible it's just not enough. The best way to address this is to raise it as a training issue - and then monitor.

I instigated a "send-out-by-Friday" email and planning grid of who was doing what, with the Bible passage, relevant small group questions and heart prep to be done in advance of the Sunday session in both of the churches I have worked in. A good rule of thumb is that we should personally spend at least twice the amount of time on the passage that the children will spend thinking about and interacting with the Bible. This word is living and active - therefore we who teach it (whether it be to adults OR children) must spend time on and with it. Don't give out stale bread! Tastes awful....

Vary the style - this is worth a whole other posting....

Suffice to say we often teach people in the style that WE prefer, so if we like reading and thinking, we take children into a lot of reading the Bible out loud and group discussion. But leading group discussions with children requires highly skilled individuals, so the best way round this is to watch the time allocation for this part of the programme and make sure there are opportunities for the kinaesthetic (doing) - making something, acting something out, trying out a new skill.

Children engage in low level misbehaviour most often when they are bored and unstimulated. Allow them to EXPERIENCE God's presence, his working and moving amongst the group, the answered prayers, his holiness when a song finishes and you stand in silence, his tender care in moments of quiet soaking in his presence.

Just some thoughts from the past decades!


  1. All good stuff, and good to be reminded of it! I learned over a few years of assisting & leading a large 'n' lively Sunday morning children's group to let some minor problems slide in favour of having 2 or 3 clear rules & consistently applying them. Our strategy for children who really disrupted others was to try & bring the parents into the group to support their child, rather than to remove the child back to the main service (reference your recent post on this!) However, this was rarely required in practice.
    I am also a BIG advocate of your 4th point. Our children deserve the BEST we can give & turning up at the last minute without a clue is not our best!!

  2. lovely to hear from you again GG.

    I miss having you as part of the team so much!


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