Chances are that if you’ve volunteered for any length of time in one of our classroom, you’ve encountered some less than desirable behavior. Our immediate response can sometimes be shock. We’re at church after all. Why are all these sinful children here? Where are the perfect ones? This response is often followed with panic. What do I do? Even seasoned parents and veteran teachers often find themselves unsure of how to handle situations with someone else’s child. When should I ignore? When should I intervene? How do I have a conversations with a child that targets the heart rather than the behavior when there are 29 other kids here as well? Trust me, I’ve been there too.
While there is no list I can give you that will magically prepare you for each situation with each child, there are a list of guiding principles we’d like to remind you of when faced with some of these challenging situations. Let’s take a closer look not just at the “what” and the “how,” but also the “why.”
What Our Goal is Not
In his book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton writes,
“What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city? Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastured), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ was not preached.”
Our goal on Sunday morning is not a group of perfectly behaved children. Our goal on Sunday morning is for children to hear, believe, and understand the Gospel. Part of this is seeing our sin, recognizing our need for a Savior, and realizing that no amount of righteousness on the outside can make us right before a holy God. We intentionally try to make our lessons Christ-centered rather than man or behavior centered on purpose each week. As Donald Grey Barnhouse shared so many years ago, there is a real danger to making our end goal behavior in and of itself.
Tedd Trip reminds us of this as well in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart:
“God is concerned about the heart—the well-spring of life (Proverbs 4:23). Parents (*teachers) tend to focus on the externals of behavior rather than the internal overflow of the heart. We tend to worry more about the “what” of behavior than the “why”. Accordingly, most of us spend an enormous amount of energy in controlling and constraining behavior. To the degree and extent to which our focus is on behavior, we miss the heart.”
“The church borrowed the old “you listen to me, kid, or I’ll cuff you” method of raising children. It seemed to work. children seemed to obey. They were externally submissive. This method fails us now because our culture no longer responds to authority as it did a generation ago. We lament the passing of this way of rearing children because we miss its simplicity. I fear, however, we have overlooked its unbiblical methods and goals…Let me overview a biblical vision…it involves being a kind of authority, shepherding your children to understand themselves in God’s world, and keeping the Gospel in clear view so children can internalize the good news and someday live in mutuality with you as people under God.”
When we miss the heart, we miss subtle idols, the Gospel, and the Glory of God. Yet, we also know that a completely chaotic and unsafe environment will often cause us to miss these things as well. How do we address the heart and do our part to create classrooms where children feel safe and are able to hear, participate, and engage with the lesson?
Again, Tedd Tripp reminds us that we have the ultimate example of what our roles should be as someone in authority:
“Jesus is an example of this. The One who commands you, the One who possesses all authority, came as a servant. He is a ruler who serves; he is also a servant who rules…You must exercise authority, not as a cruel taskmaster, but as one who truly loves.”
One of the best things we can do is to exercise our authority as a ruler who serves and a servant who rules. That means not making a child’s behavior about us (something I struggle with consistently.) That means that we don’t handle it through manipulation or other practices that seem easier or as a “quick fix” on the surface. That means we don’t handle things cruelly, but we also don’t roll over either. We set healthy boundaries. We say no. We pull kids aside to have conversations when necessary. We communicate with parents and get their input (partnering with parents is one of our core values, after all.) We target the heart rather than the external behavior as much as possible. Here are just a few practical tips that may help you in the trenches on Sunday mornings.
The “What” and “How”
- One way to “love” and to “serve” the children we shepherd is to be proactive, thoughtful, and intentional about the environment we create.
- Sometimes we can anticipate hindrances for them, but also hindrances for us.
- We are all sinners serving sinners and out of an overflow of our hearts, our mouths speak. Take time to prepare yourself to serve on Sunday morning. Pray for individual children who may have trouble on Sundays. Ask God to soften your heart toward them and give you wisdom as you interact with them.
Practical Proactive Tips
Getting their Attention
- Turning off Lights
- Show me your listening eyes, ears etc…
- “If you can hear my voice say ________,” etc…
- Not Everybody All At Once—“If your birthday is in ___________,” “If you’re wearing _________________,” etc…
- Agenda/ Sequence of Events—Let children know what you’re planning to do, if/when you’re having snack, order of events, etc… This is especially helpful for students with Autism or other special needs.
- Time Frame—“In a minute, but not yet.,” Counting Backward, Song, Giving a Time Constraint with Reminders (In 3 minutes, in 1 minute, etc…)
- Kindergartners and 5th Graders are both alike and different. Consider adapting your strategy based on your audience.
- Sit near child, move closer, etc…
- Recognize and honor need for movement
- Change things up
- Limit Pocket Time
- Centralized Location?
- Pass Out Ahead of Time?
- “Leading into temptation…” (If I sit this in front of them, are they going to play with it instead of listening to directions, and will that drive me nuts?)
- Break into smaller chunks
- Have children repeat
- Model/Show Example
Take the Time to Listen, Laugh, and Have Fun
- Individual conversations/relationships
- Morning Meeting
What happens when “proactive” doesn’t work?
- Check our hearts first.
- Go back to the why: Go back to the heart.
- Remember that when we miss the heart, we miss subtle idols, the Gospel, and God’s glory.
- Have an individual conversation.
- Ask Questions (See Wise Words chart in the Elementary Cabinets.)
- Pray for/with child.
- Communicate with families.
And sometimes we’ll then need to recognize that even after doing all those things, we still won’t have perfectly behaved children or classrooms and that as we talked about earlier, that’s o.k. because that’s not the end goal. Moments like this are opportunities for us to remember our limitations. Moments like this are opportunities for us to remember who is really in charge, who really changes hearts. They’re moments for us to pray and preach the Gospel to ourselves. They’re moments to remind us of what Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson say in their book, Give them Grace:
“We are always to do our best, striving to be obedient and to love, nurture, and discipline them. But we are to do it with faith in the Lord’s ability to transform hearts, not in our ability to be consistent or faithful. Seeking to be faithfully obedient parents (*teachers) is our responsibility; granting faith to our children is his. Freedom to love and enjoy our children flows out of the knowledge that God saves them in spite of our best efforts, not because of them. Salvation is of the Lord.”
Know that we pray for you and your time with children each week. Also know that we’re here to support you when these situations arise, and pray for us as well. We are all still in process with all of these things. More than anyone else I know, I need God’s grace and wisdom in this arena of life on Sunday mornings.