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Addressing “Bad” Behavior

February 9, 2011

While at our core indeed we are all sinners, a child’s “bad” behavior does not always reflect the state of  his heart.  In my interviews with education professionals and intervention specialists, the idea that negative behavior is a means for communication rather than character deficiency has resurfaced continuously.  At first I found myself questioning the repeated assertion.  My natural inclination as a preacher’s kid, young parent, and children’s ministry volunteer  has been to recognize and address man’s inclination for sin, even at an early age.  Before learning more about special needs, my innate response to a disruptive or misbehaving child was to quickly establish authority and allow the child to experience consequences for his poor choices.  But as I have learned more through my research, I have broadened my view and approach to “bad behavior”.  I have found that I am a more effective parent and children’s ministry worker when I ask the question “what is this child trying to tell me?”  as I craft the appropriate response and work to reshape the child’s behavior.

Behavior is Communication

Dr. Alyssa Barnes, a faculty member in the education department of North Georgia College & State University shares that ‘misbehaving’ children are nearly always trying to communicate a need for one of the following:

1) a tangible object

2) a sensory sensation

3) to escape an activity

4) your attention

While I do believe there non negotiables related to behavior and safety, I think there is a greater need across church settings to look at the baseline message a child may be trying to communicate through his conduct.  Oftentimes children with social skills deficits or communication challenges may be expressing understandable and legitimate frustrations….just through less desirable means.  (The same is true for the child who may not know how to process the divorce, death, bankruptcy, or abuse going on his life).  While a children’s ministry worker cannot condone certain behaviors, success is more likely when the child’s needs are considered and addressed.  Recognizing the fact a child may have a legitimate need or frustration will at a minimum enable the children’s ministry worker to handle the child with compassion and love.

For more on this topic see my article, Fostering Spiritual Growth in ALL Children, which is running today on

What follows are a list of general behavior management guidelines that kidmin volunteers may benefit from across every children’s ministry setting:


Use redirection as primary means of behavior management.  Carefully avoid addressing conduct or actions negatively or with frustration in voice tone.  Negative recognition often feeds negative behavior.

Offer a manipulative toy to an agitated or disruptive child.

Present first time correction and warnings in a silly manner and so that children won’t feel embarrassingly “called out” or receive negative reinforcement.

Do not remove a child from the group as a form of punishment. Separate a child in order to cease the disruption and/or allow the child to recollect for his own benefit.

Only use physical touch for positive communication. Avoid grabbing a child by the arm to remove him from a situation.  Physical force can be humiliating to a child and is rarely interpreted positively by on-looking parents.

Recognize that physical play, especially with boys, is normal and healthy. For children with sensory issues, rough-housing may indicate the presence of an immediate sensory need.  Take control by creating constructive ways for the children to employee gross-motor skills.

Consistently and constantly praise individuals by name when they are attentive, disposing of their own trash, playing well with friends, and staying focused on the activity, etc.  The desire for praise is contagious even among children who appear less social.

Consider instilling a reward system for a child who needs reinforcement for utilizing acceptable means for communication.  (See my earlier post Implementing a Reward System for Children with Special Needs).

Allow a child to feel in control by creating opportunities for choices, “you may select either the red chair or the blue chair to sit in.”

Recognize that the goal of advancing the child spiritually may at times shift to a secondary objective. Strive to keep the child in church programming so that the parent can remain in Bible study.

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  1. Wonderful article! I can totally understand how you were initially reluctant to accept this explanation for “bad behavior” and appreciate your willingness to keep investigating. It is so hard to explain this to people in a way that makes sense to them, especially when you are talking about issues of “sin” and “obedience”.

    Really I think this comes down to the fact that many children with developmental disabilities do not process information in the same way, so they do not learn from the traditional discipline techniques as other kids do. Things have to be explicitly taught and reinforced so they will know what is acceptable behavior, and they can’t even learn those lessons if we aren’t meeting their current needs and communication level.

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