Working with Challenging Kids: A Change of Heart

This article is by Kim Botto, a member of the INCM Board.

We walked away defeated.

Another week where our plans were ruined, or so we thought, by five unruly 4th-grade boys. 

Later that week as I met with our Children’s Ministry Leadership team, we talked about possible next steps. 

We’d been praying that these boys would cooperate for months.

We prayed that their hearts would change and their behavior would improve. 

After all, it was hard working with challenging kids.

But week after week they came and wreaked havoc on the plans of the leaders.  

As the team considered options, Linda spoke up, “We’ve been praying for the hearts and behavior of these boys to change, but maybe we should be praying that our hearts change.”

Hmmm, embarrassingly, we had not even considered changes WE could make. 

As we spoke, we realized we weren’t a reflection of Jesus to these boys. 

Our interactions typically revolved around discipline with not much grace.

Jesus is truth AND grace.

While we were doing a great job on the truth part, we lacked equal measures of grace. 

We were trying to change them, but maybe God had some work to do in us.

The Plan

So we came up with a plan. 

First, we committed to praying regularly for this energetic little crew. 

Then we agreed that when they showed up at church, we would do three things:

  • Greet them warmly by name. We smiled and said hello, even if we might not feel too excited when they arrived. 
  • Look them in the eye and say something positive. We said something like “I’m glad you’re here” or “How was your day at school?” 
  • Physically touch them. A pat on the shoulder, a high fist bump or any type of positive physical interaction set a positive tone for our future interactions.

I must admit, those first few weeks were tough.

But we continued to pray for these boys and welcome them. 

And then a miracle began to happen.

Our hearts softened towards those boys. 

As we talked to them, they began to share their story with us. 

We found that what happened at church was similar to what happened everywhere else in their lives. 

They spent a lot of time being corrected or disciplined. 

Our hearts started to break for them as we heard their stories of loss and heartache and broken families. 

We actually began to look forward to their arrival.

You may be wondering – did their behavior change?

Yep, we saw glimpses of some amazing changes in them along with their sometimes challenging behavior. 

We started speaking to their potential rather than constantly reminding them of their infractions. 

God creates good things, and these five rambunctious boys were masterpieces of our creator. 

Amazing potential was there, they just needed a little help bringing it out and refining it. 

Changing our Mindset

We began to change our mindset about this little group. 

Rather than looking at them as being willfully defiant and as “challenging kids,” we understood that they needed some extra coaching and training. 

It wasn’t that they were CHOOSING not to comply, they simply didn’t have all the needed skills and practice, and coping skills, needed. 

Over the years, those of us who prayed in that circle for those boys and committed to greeting them warmly every time they came into our church got a better picture of how God welcomes and cares for us. 

God isn’t always looking for ways to discipline us. Instead, he looks for opportunities to connect. 

While God does discipline, and in children’s ministry we need to do that too, he also dishes out mountains of grace and loves us deeply despite our disobedience. 

And the boys – a couple of them moved away and we lost track of them.

I had the privilege of baptizing a couple of them. 

Our Softened Hearts

I hope that our acceptance of them made a difference in their lives, but I do know with certainty that God used them to refine us and make us more like Him. 

There’s still more work to do on our hearts, but those five boys changed us in ways we never imagined. 

And even today, when I come across a kid who is particularly challenging, I go back to the three basics: Greet them by name, look them in the eye while saying something positive, and touch their hand or shoulder. 

And every time I do that, their behavior doesn’t always change, but my heart begins to soften.

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