Coping With Problem Children in Sunday School
By Judi Bailey
How to love the kids you wish wouldn’t show up.
Oh, Lord please don’t let Tommy come today; I need a break.
Your prayer ends with heckling guilt. How could you think like that? Yet as you enter your classroom, your mood lifts when you notice no Tommy…relief begins to spill like rain…It’ll be a good day after all…Oh no-it’s Tommy tearing through the doorway screaming an obscenity.
You know you should make yourself think about how Jesus would handle this. Instead you break out in a cold sweat.
We all plan to love unconditionally. Especially in the early hours: in the wee hours during prayer time, prior to the next class or on the way to the program. But once on the front line, our humanness exposes our fears, our egos, our intolerances—especially in response to kids who bully, talk back, scream or whine; those who are lazy, clingy or have horrible hygiene; and children who are boisterous, rejecting…well, you know the ones.
What to do? Add these techniques to your ministry toolbox:
1. Listen to the behavior. Reading an action as a message—rather than reacting emotionally to it—can reduce your anxiety and teach you a whole lot about a child. Discern where children are coming from, not where you want them to be.
Behaviors are information about the quality of kids’ lives, relationships and self-concepts. Think about the kids you know and what their actions say about them. Perhaps a clingy child is telling you she needs love desperately; maybe she lives in an environment of neglect, abuse or some other chaos.
Often snobs have been snubbed, bullies have been brutalized, kids with poor hygiene think they “stink” and the lazy do-nothings feel like they are nothing.
2. Love as Jesus loves. “Children like this receive bad messages over and over again. They keep getting put down,” says Elaine Friedrich from Texas. Elaine suggests learning kids’ names. Calling out “Brian” says something totally different from “hey you” or “the boy in the red sweater.”
Remind yourself over and over that these children—however obnoxious or bullheaded—are children Jesus died for. By loving them as Jesus does, you’ll help them respond to Christ.
3. Transform the negative into positive. Okay, so you see Tommy the Terror through Jesus’ eyes of love. Now what?
Kathy Coffey of North Carolina puts overactive kids to work. “It’s as if they weren’t challenged enough,” she says. When she places rambunctious kids in leadership positions as her helpers, Kathy finds that they create fewer problems in class.
Elaine has discovered similar results. She often invites overzealous or lethargic students to put out materials or to read a Bible verse. Little assignments ease kids into appropriate behaviors.
4. Vary teaching techniques. If “problem” kids disrupt your class, you may not yet be on their “turf.” Their turf can be defined as the way they’re most comfortable learning. Some children’s turf is on a physical plane. Get them running, jumping or touching objects. Another’s may be auditory—being easily stimulated by records or tapes. Yet another child might respond best to visual cues such as reading, watching a video or deciphering a coded message. If you use numerous teaching styles, you’ll better reach children on their natural territories.
5. Look at yourself. Mose Yoder, an articulate Amishman, once said, “Every time you point your finger at someone else, you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” And remember what Jesus said: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:13, NIV).
Do emotionally needy children drive you up a wall? Ask yourself if you, too, are clinging to your relationships. Or, to compensate, are you aloof and cold?
Do the kids who talk back make you want to scream? Perhaps you don’t trust your teaching abilities, decisions or opinions. Do whiny children play on your nerves like an out-of-tune violin? Could it be you don’t feel able to verbalize the difficulties in your life?
If a child’s behavior sets off a highly-charged emotional reaction in you, work on yourself first. Then you may be able to clear the emotional air enough to deal more effectively with that child.
6. Develop compassion. With all of these problems, it’s often not the child’s fault. If 7-year-old Crissy smells badly, she probably doesn’t know any better. If nothing has ever worked to settle down 9-year-old Eugene, perhaps he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. If 4-year-old Ebony never responds—no matter how much encouragement you give her—she might be depressed either clinically or as a result of a prior or present trauma.
Some situations necessitate additional action. A conference with a parent and possibly a referral to a pediatrician or therapist might be the second greatest gift you have to offer a child.
The greatest gift is love. And please remember, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, NAS) even an “unlovable” kid-if there is such a thing.
Judi Bailey is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Ohio.