More Than Managing Behavior: Best Education Practices to Use in Children’s Ministry

This post was written by guest writer Victoria White.

How does the idea of “behavior management” make you feel?

Perhaps you enjoy setting rules and being the disciplinarian, or perhaps you are like me and you want to model the behaviors you desire, relate with the kids, and would rather not raise your voice or have to be “the tough one” on kids.

Whatever your wish list is when it comes to handling challenging behavior in your ministry, here is some great news: God provides, and there is a whole field in Education dedicated to addressing behaviors in children. 

This article will outline some of the best practices in behavior management from the Education world that you can apply in your children’s ministry.

Begin with Perspective: Puzzle Pieces

1 Corinthians 12:18 tells us that “God has placed the parts in the body, each one of them just as he wanted them to be.”

That means each child in your ministry – and each volunteer, staff member, and you! – are there because God has placed each one in your church body.

Each one has gifts, talents, abilities, and interests that build up the body.

Each one also has struggles, challenges, and areas that need support.

Envision the whole puzzle, with each piece contributing strengths (let’s call those the “green side” of each puzzle piece), and each piece needing support (the “pink side” of each puzzle piece).

Each one is handmade by God. 

See this video for a quick explanation of the Puzzle Piece Perspective. 

Some kids need behavior support.

They have diagnoses, and labels, or perhaps their “pinks” just show a lot more than their greens in some settings.

But here is the truth: there are no “all-pink” people.

God did not create any person without gifts, talents, abilities, and interests.

No child is wholly made-up of limitations, struggles, or challenges.

You have the delightful opportunity to investigate the “greens” of each child.

What does this child enjoy doing?

What strengths do you see?

Start with those questions on your registration forms, your conversations with parents, and your initial interactions with a child.

Then ask, “What is a struggle for this child?” and, “What are possible supports?”

After that, you can begin putting into place the support that this child needs. 

Your Role: Behavior Detective

Always keep in mind that all behavior is communication.

Our bodies don’t need words in order to let someone know we are upset, bored, excited, or enamored.

When it comes to behavioral expectations, Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child: A New Approach to Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children and Lost At School: Why our Kids with Behavior Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help, says “kids do well if they can.”

So, what they are telling you when they misbehave is, “I can’t meet your expectations for behavior right now.”

That means you now have the job of being a behavior detective to find out why they are struggling to meet that expectation.

Get to know that child’s puzzle piece well.

Notice and articulate positive actions you see them do by saying, “You are so kind to carry things for others!” Or, “You are so great at greeting friends with that smile!”

Develop a relationship with the child.

Rev. William Gaventa, author of Disability and Spirituality: Recovering Wholeness, shares in his chapter on challenging behaviors that what is often needed between a person in a community and a person considered “other” (which children exhibiting challenging behaviors are, even if only at that moment) is a “Who, What, Where, When, How and Why” – something that the two have in common and upon which they can connect and begin forming a relationship.

Pictures of puppies, sports teams, an event both attended or a person they both know. Find something that draws attention to a commonality. 

Learn what calms the child.

This might be one of their “greens” or it might be an activity you discover provides a release through artistic expression (painting, drawing, etc.), physical pressure (some kids love crashing into a bean bag, with another bean bag pressing down on top of them), or headphones with their favorite music. 

Strategies: How You Can Set Up for Success

1. Examine your own principles.

Your actions and behaviors come from somewhere, just like the behaviors of a child communicate something and come from somewhere.

Choose your starting point by asking yourself what principles you want to drive your interactions with kids.

Here are some examples rooted in Love and Logic

  • Belief in the infinite value of people
  • Self-care is not selfish
  • Communicate respect to children
  • Choices lead to responsibilities
  • Share power/control with children
  • Consequences do the teaching
  • Responsibility to children, not responsibility for children
  • Children do as much thinking as leaders

Another way of thinking about your principles comes from Restorative Practices, which studies relationships, and identifies four ways of relating, especially as a leader: not, to, for, and with.

NOT: If you are ignoring, or just surviving the relationship or interaction, you’re in the “not” category.

TO: When you place demands on the child, you might be blaming or stigmatizing them, and drift into the “to” category.

FOR: When you provide support without any demand, you rescue, excuse, or reason away the child’s behavior. That’s the “for” category.

WITH: When you act cooperatively, collaborating with the child, and both of you are taking responsibility and being accountable, you are in the “with” category.

As Christians, we are the body of Christ, Emmanuel, God-WITH-us. 

A question to think about: How can you be Christ-like in your interactions with kids, including kids with challenging behaviors? 

A tool to try: Restorative Questions, for use when a behavior causes harm. 

2. Be informed. 

Ask yourself what information you still need in order to solve this behavior mystery.

You might need to learn about what else is going on in the child’s life, such as: 

  • Challenging behaviors often lead to teachers and parents forming a plan. Find out if this child has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or something similar in place at school or a behavior plan at home, which you can extend to the church environment. 
  • The child may have sensory differences. All seven sensory systems can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive, and the child’s behavior may be telling you they have a sensory need that isn’t being met in your setting. 
  • Trauma in the child’s life may be affecting development, processing, and reactions. 
3. Be Prepared

The question is, who and what do you need to prepare in your setting? Being prepared can prevent challenging behaviors. 

  • Prepare yourself for your time with kids. Know your lesson plan if you are leading the lesson. Have resources at your disposal on including kids with varied abilities, such as Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship and Autism and Your Church by Barbara Newman; Does My Child Have PTSD? By Jolene Philo; Every Child Welcome by Katie Weatherbee and Jolene Philo; even inclusive education books such as Becoming a Great Inclusive Educator by Scott Danforth. 
  • Prepare environments for kids that are suited to the activities happening in those spaces.
    • Do you offer the kids options for group and one-on-one interaction?
    • Do you have options for seating on floor, bean bags, chairs, or exercise balls?
    • Do any of the seating options provide structure (like a back, arms, a table in front), or motion (like a rocker, wiggle stool, or wiggle cushion)? 
  • Prepare individuals for participating in this setting by:
    • Allowing them to come preview the space when it is empty, or by providing a “welcome story” showing them what to expect. 
    • Provide structure for their participation with things like an order of worship or visual schedule, a visual timer, outlining what you want them to color, or highlighting what you want them to read or focus on. 
    • With a purpose for their time, or a job to do while there. 
    • With enforceable statements that make it clear what you want them to do, and what you will do. 
    • With ways to think alongside the child about their behavior, such as using the visual tool “Mind the Gap” or a simple pair of boxes that show positive/desired behavior > positive/desired consequence and negative/undesired behavior > negative/undesired consequence, which you fill in with the child. 
    • With teaching instead of reacting -that is, address behaviors with ways of teaching kids, such as “in here, we keep our voices at a level 5 volume, like my voice is now. Turn down your volume until it matches mine.” (You might have a volume remote to show while you do this.) When you say “clean up” have a picture of what “clean” looks like or pictures on the shelves where each thing belongs. Point out or demonstrate how kids should sit or raise their hands to talk. 
    • Use visual cues like a volume remote, a visual timer, and pictures! 
    • Have a quick guide for yourself and your team for when behavior catches you by surprise. Include ideas like these:
      • Try ignoring, interrupting, redirecting, taking/offering a break, or noticing natural consequences. 
      • Neutralize arguing by repeating a standard such as “I respect you too much to argue,” and asking questions like, “What do you think?”, “How do you want to handle this?” or “What are you going to do?”
      • Move to a different location. 
      • When a behavior is violent, move calmly and slowly, do not get close, clear the room of others, protect yourself till help arrives, and try connecting over a common interest. 
4. Make time for “greens.”

Laugh together!

Not only is it good for relationships, but it’s also good for the brain!

Get back into discovering the “greens” this child has and think about how you can make time in your setting for them to engage in activities they enjoy. 

5. Pray.

Use the model of Jesus to ask for God’s intervention, and to bless the child.

Asking God for help is one of the habits of Christian worship. So is a blessing.

This child needs help and blessing, and by demonstrating asking for God’s help, and speaking blessing over the child, you are powerfully showing them the reality of the Holy Spirit at work. 

About Victoria

Victoria White learns from best practices in inclusive education to support congregations building belonging with people of all abilities. Combining the resources of Friendship Ministries and All Belong Center for Inclusive Education, she speaks, writes, consults, and promotes inclusive worship across the country.

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