“Hey! Stop That!”

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Discipline techniques that work

First day of VBS, a couple minutes into the session and the score is Josh 1: Teacher 0.


“Okay, class everyone sit over here against this wall. Josh, come over here with the rest of the group. Josh, sit down. Josh, leave the paper on the wall alone. Josh! Stop that.” There is a heavy sigh after the teacher utters the last command.

It’s my first day of VBS at my new church. I don’t know the kids, the families and I’m not real sure about the discipline policies. I’m careful to observe other leaders’ interactions. What I have learned so far is that some kids have been labeled as “challenging.” To me challenging is good. Challenging causes me to get creative. Challenging kids stretch me. Challenging forces me to rely on God’s guidance. Challenging means praying without ceasing.


We’ve only been in VBS for a few minutes and so far Josh has gotten all of the attention—albeit negative attention—still it is attention. Not once has eye contact been made with Josh. He has succeeded in frustrating the teacher, alienating himself with the other kids and has giggled throughout the entire process. Any part of this story sound familiar?


Score at 10 minutes into the session: Josh 10: Teacher zip!


I get it, that there are some children many of us don’t want to deal with in our groups. Some of us might think if we didn’t have Josh or Tia or Gavin or Lexi or whoever in our group everything would be fine. Things would run smoothly and we could accomplish all of our goals. However, God created these children to be who they are and it is our job to figure out how we can minister to each child God sends our way.


Sometimes we forget to discipline, so we punish instead. Discipline means to teach—to teach children how to act and letting them know what we expect. Punishment means to enact a penalty or consequence for a wrong. Sometimes, when adults experience a “Josh”, punishment can mean to exact revenge. Maybe not consciously, but still we are all human and sometimes there are those kids who push our buttons.


If you ask questions about a particular child you might hear:

  • I had him last year and you have to let him know right away who is boss.
  • He has a diagnosed behavior disorder.
  • He’s on medication.
  • His parents let him get by with things.
  • You have to treat him with kid gloves or he throws a big fit and disrupts the entire group.
  • I had to call his mom one time. Big mistake!


The list goes on and on. While it is important to understand specifics, what we don’t need is adult judgments about something that has happened before. And I mean even the day before, let alone the year before. Each child deserves a fresh start every day.


When preparing for a new program, curriculum or even a short-term project, it is important to think through the process of what happens beforehand. What happens when a child arrives for a short-term class such as Vacation Bible School? Is pre-registration possible or does the child have to stand in a long line? Can a child go straight into a designated area or a room? Or will they need to mill around waiting for the adults to figure things out or fill out lengthy paperwork?


Discipline is relationship specific. If you don’t have a relationship with a child and that includes knowing a child’s last name, you can’t expect to discipline them effectively. You can give directions or instructions but it gets a little iffy when it comes to disciplining them.


Many children who misbehave are actually seeking external regulation or management. In other words they don’t know how to internally regulate themselves so they seek outside regulation. Children’s behavior becomes their voice when they don’t feel safe, don’t feel loved, are confused and when they don’t know what is happening next. For many children when they act out or misbehave they are simply doing the best they can do to survive in that moment.


Whirlwind behavior might be a cover-up for the intense pain the child feels. “If I keep busy, my heart won’t hurt so much and I might forget my mom moved out.”


Disruptive actions might mean the child is operating from the lower levels of the brain—the fight, flight or freeze part of the brain. When a child is in crisis, his brain can’t think. This is the child who slides under the pew in the sanctuary or sits in the corner with his hoodie over his face.


Aggressive children might be children who have lower levels of serotonin being produced in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects our emotional state. You might say it is the feel-good chemical. A crisis or trauma can impact the levels of serotonin being produced.


For other children acting out has become a habit. Or, it has succeeded in getting them a lot of attention. In other words, it’s been working for them. These are your class clowns. With these kids, go with the flow and use them to make your class enjoyable. Tuck them under your wing so to speak and let them burst forth when needed.


Simple tips that work for most children.

  • Preventative measures work best. Know in advance what you want the kids to do. Tell the children in as few words as possible. “We are going to play this next game outside. Then we will come back to our room for snack.”


  • Tell a child what you want them to do. Refrain from telling them what you don’t want them to do. Instead of, “No running in the hall.” Say, “Walk down the hall.”


  • Give children choices. Choices empower children who feel like they have no control over their lives. (Empowering Children Through Choices, hlp4.com/node/79)


  • Use the child’s name as much as possible. Research tells us that hearing one’s own name in everyday situations is an attention grabber. It causes a sudden rise in our own self-awareness. Using PET scans, researchers were able to see what happens in the brain when people hear their first name. There was an increase in blood flow to the part of the brain that plays a role in our processing of “self” (Perrin, F. et al. [2005] Neuropsychologia, Vol 43[1], 12-19).


  • When requesting a child to do something, reframe how you make the request. Keep things simple by saying the child’s name and the verb. “Ashley, sit down.” “Alex, move over.” “Cierra, quiet.” “Roman, wait your turn.”

(For more on reframing what we say to children see the article, “Oh Those Challenging Kids – What to Say, Not to Say and How to Say It”



  • Set boundaries. No matter what kids tell you, they like boundaries, structure and predictability. Schedules are important and they lend to the feeling of safety, because schedules let a child know what is going to happen next. Post schedules.



  • Use mirror neurons in the brain to change a child’s mood. Mirror neurons allow what is happening in your brain to be projected onto other people. When you smile, it can activate the mirror neurons in another person’s brain and they will mirror your expression. Just like a child catches a cold, kids can catch your mood. (The Incredible Amazing Brain in Children of Divorce, http://divorceministry4kids.com/2012/the-incredible-amazing-brain-in-children-of-divorce/)
  • Listen with your eyes. In other words keep a watchful eye and notice what is going on at all times.


  • Describe a child’s action instead of praising a child. “Would you look at that! Samantha, you put the lids back on the markers.” If a child has challenging behaviors many times they can’t handle praise. When praised they may set out to prove you wrong so it is best to merely describe what the child did. If you feel you need to tag the action, say, “That was helpful.” Please don’t say, “Good job” or “Good boy.” That is your judgment coming through.


  • Children who have experienced a crisis or family trauma such as a divorce, are intuitive. They are people watchers. They have to be in order to survive in two separate households with different rules and expectations. These children will notice when you are judging them and they will shy away from any interactions with you.


  • Does every infraction need to be addressed? Sometimes a look, nod of the head or a hand signal will work effectively.


By the end of my first day of VBS, I had formed a relationship with Josh. I started by giving him choice after choice. “Josh, do you want to sit against that wall or over here with the group?” It really didn’t make any difference to me if he sat alone.


I touched his shoulder gently when talking to him. I made eye contact. I smiled a lot. I prayed for him at every turn. I described his actions many times the first day. “Whoa, would you look at that. Josh was the first one to finish his project.”


When we divided into small groups I made sure Josh was in my group. Then, I worked at building up his assets to the rest of the group. He really was a smart little kid, but because of his obnoxious behavior, the other kids shied away from him. By midweek the other boys were cheering him on during one of the races. Day by day you could see his self-worth escalating.


On Wednesday during music, he was tired and you could tell he was on the verge of an explosion. He didn’t want to participate and refused to go on stage with the other kids. He was in the “challenge” mode. Not a problem for me because I love challenges.


I took a deep calming breath, put on my calmest stance, slowly walked toward him with a smile on my face and said, “Josh you don’t have to go on the stage. However, I can’t allow you to be a distraction to the other kids. You can stand by the piano or you can sit on one of these pews. What’s your choice?” He said, “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.” To which I replied in a soft, firm but nurturing voice, “Bummer! Going home is not a choice. Now, do you want to stand by the piano or choose a pew to sit in?” Josh, “Oh okay. I’ll stand by the piano.”


Score: Josh wins. Miss Linda wins! Other kids win! Mom wins (because she is not called). Most of all VBS wins!


Ministers, the part of the title that says, “Hey! Stop That!” means you, not the children!















About the Author

Linda has been a children’s ministry director, developed DC4K (DivorceCare for Kids, dc4k.org), operated a therapeutic child care, and has extensive experience at successfully accommodating challenging behaviors. She currently serves as the DC4K Ambassador and Professional blogger at http://blog.dc4k.org.