How to Move From Behavior Modification to a Heart-Based Approach in Your Children’s Ministry

by Dr. Scott Turansky

We are Christians. We know that the heart of a person is the most important thing. We know that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their over-emphasis on behavior while neglecting the heart (Matthew 15:8-20). But what does that mean to us in practical terms as we work with children each week? That is an important question for all of us, but especially for those who were trained in, or raised on, behavior modification as the primary tool for classroom management. We need ideas that will help us be more effective in reaching the hearts of our kids, not just getting them to behave well in order to gain a reward.

Behavior modification is simple. Maybe that is why it is so attractive. “If you get your assignment done then you can play.” “If you clean up your table then you can have snack.” This approach basically says, “If you do what I say, I will give you what you want.” Unfortunately, children trained this way often develop a “What is in it for me?” mentality. “If I do not get something out of it, why should I listen to you?”

Behavior modification techniques take advantage of a child’s selfishness and exchange a desired behavior for a little gratification. Children raised on simple behavior modification develop attitudes of entitlement and take longer to become self-motivated.

The heart contains desires (Psalm 37:4), emotions (Nehemiah 2:2) and convictions (Daniel 1:8). It is the place where we wrestle with things (Matthew 9:4), make commitments (Matthew 22:37) and where we feel close to others (Acts 4:32). A heart-based approach to classroom management looks deeper than behavior. When a child’s heart develops he learns to ask different questions, such as, “What’s the right thing to do?”

Behavior modification is not wrong. It is just incomplete. God made people different than animals. He gave them hearts. When teachers use a heart-based approach, then longer lasting change takes place. Teachers still require children to finish their assignments and clean up their activities, but the way they approach the interaction is different. Instead of simply getting things done, teachers have their eyes on other heart-related issues. They are looking long-term and focus on intentions (Hebrews 4:12), what kids say to themselves (Psalm 19:14) and emotions as well as information (Colossians 3:15).  Here are five heart-based suggestions that will help you this week as you work with kids in the classroom.

1) Offer Heart-Directed Praise

Children love attention. In fact, sometimes kids who do not receive enough encouragement act out in order to get negative attention. Your classroom can be an oasis for a child’s heart. When offering words of affirmation to kids, focus on heart qualities rather than simply praising behavior. Instead of saying, “Terrific work,” “Great job,” or “Good answer,” you might say, “That is a thoughtful response,” or “You worked on that project for fifteen minutes. I can tell you are determined.”

Affirm children for who they are, not just for what they accomplish. Classrooms tend to be about performance, so when you say to a child, “I enjoy having you in my class,” or “You are a very caring person,” it makes their hearts smile, not just their faces.

Praise focuses on the good. The question is what good will you affirm. Heart-based praise focuses on inner strength instead of simply acknowledging positive behavior. By drawing attention to the heart and to a child’s growing maturity, kids see that their behavior is not designed simply to please others. It is a statement of who they are.

2) When Offering Rewards, Affirm Internal Motivation

One of the goals of parents and teachers is to develop maturity and responsibility in children. At the core, that means growth in internal motivation instead of waiting for a teacher or parent to prod them along. We use external rewards in children’s ministry. That is not wrong, but if you want to turn it into a heart-based approach, then affirm internal motivation instead of simple behavior change in the process.

For example, you might say, “You earned a star but I can tell that your real reward is as sense of accomplishment.” Or, “Your clean up shows that you were more interested in thoroughness than getting first place in line. That is a sign of maturity.”

Some children require more time to memorize scripture, fill out a chart or finish the craft. When you take time to affirm a child’s effort instead of their speed, you draw attention to heart qualities such as determination, thoughtfulness or thoroughness. Those are far more important than getting a job done quickly in order to go on to the next activity.

Look for ways to affirm progress, not just the final result. “I can tell that you are developing more patience because you are not blurting out an answer but allowing others to share.” Or, “Have you noticed how you are handling your emotions more maturely. You do not seem to be as easily bothered as you were before.”

Many things are going on inside a child’s heart. Your words play an important role in sorting things out and emphasizing those that are most important.

3) Show That the Scriptures are Relevant and Practical

Some children have the idea that the scriptures will someday be relevant and practical for their lives and that Christianity is for grownups. One of our goals in children’s ministry is to help children see that the Bible is relevant and practical for their lives right now.

The development of children’s Bibles goes a long way to help kids recognize that the scriptures are for them. You can further encourage the personal application of scripture by regularly asking the question, “What is the lesson we learn from that story?” Kids learn that reading the Bible is different than reading Homer Price or Amelia Bedelia because the Bible story contains a message from God for our lives.

Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that the scriptures have a supernatural influence on the heart. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword…  it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” We can do a lot of fun things in the classroom with activities, crafts, science experiments, and music. But it is the scriptures that last forever and penetrate the heart in powerful ways.

4) Correct in the Classroom Using a Repentance Model

Repentance involves more than simply stopping a behavior. Repentance has a positive focus, leaving one course of action and turning to something different. Instead of saying “You need to stop… No more of that… Stop being annoying… Do not push,” look for ways to point out what the child should do instead. You might say things like, “Think before you speak… Manage your energy level… Control your hands… Step back for a moment.” With this kind of approach you are coaching kids forward instead of pointing out their faults. Some teachers are more like referees in a hockey game. “Infraction! five minutes in the penalty box!” A coaching attitude with kids directs them to more appropriate action.

Some kids need stronger correction than just words. When that is necessary sending the child to take a break with the assignment to return for a Positive Conclusion is most effective. A Positive Conclusion is a debriefing with the child after he calms down and is ready to reenter the activity. It involves three questions and a statement. “What did you do wrong?” “Why was that wrong?” What are you going to do next time?” and “Ok, go ahead and try again.”

The Positive Conclusion sometimes results in a significant conversation but often simply requires thirty seconds. It is not only the answers that are important, but also the process of handling an offense that helps children understand repentance in practical terms.

5) Develop a Culture of Honor in the ClassroomS

Honor treats others as special, does more than what is expected, and demonstrates a good attitude. At its core, honor deals with how people relate. Obedience gets the job done, but honor addresses the way those things get done. The classroom that emphasizes honor is more pleasant and demonstrates a greater sense of joy and peace.
Honor requires initiative and kids learn to add energy to the environment. Some kids have a way of sucking the energy right out of the classroom. Those kids, in particular, but all kids in general, benefit from practicing honor. When you set it up as an expectation, kids learn to walk through the door of your classroom ready to help, encourage and make your classroom a special place.

A heart-based approach is powerful in a children’s ministry classroom. Kids learn lasting lessons, relationships are strengthened and God is revealed in new and powerful ways. Remember that the heart is also the place where God lives, so, as you are working with your kids using a heart-based approach, you are helping them understand in practical ways what it means to make God the Lord of their lives.

Dr. Scott Turansky is a co-founder of the National Center for Biblical Parenting and Biblical Parenting University, the online heart-based training program for parents and teachers. He has also co-authored ten books on parenting including Parenting is Heart Work and Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids. The National Center for Biblical Parenting has three divisions. One provides parenting resources for families. The second helps churches develop parenting ministries, and the third is Biblical Parenting University. You can learn more about all of these or at You can reach Scott Turansky at [email protected]

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