Back in 2008 I received a letter from a woman that teaches a class every Sunday at church. She was having difficulty managing the behavior of the children in her class (or rather, the children were having difficulty managing their own behavior!). She wrote:
“I teach Primary [Note: Primary is for children less than 12 years old] at church and have taught several different age groups over the past few years. It seems that every yea, there is at least one child in my class who has a lot of problems behaving properly at church. I was just wondering if there is a way for me to apply the same principles with my Primary students that you’re teaching. Many times, I feel helpless or unsure of what to do because I’m NOT the child's parent; I’m only with them for a short period of time once a week (or less if their attendance is irregular). So, my responsibility for them only goes so far. As you can imagine, these children are very distracting to others in Primary and in our class. I don't think it’s fair to the other kids to allow them to misbehave. But I have yet to find a way of responding to them that’s consistently effective, as well as teaches and encourages them to behave appropriately in the future — but doesn't distract from the Spirit. Do you have any pointers for situations like this where you must deal with other people's children for a relatively short period of time and may or may not have the support/help/reinforcement of parents or other leaders? (I think this question could apply to a babysitting situation as well.)”
This was a great letter with a common problem teachers in school, church and elsewhere encounter. First, it depends on what kind of misbehaving the child is doing. I’ve done different things for different kinds of behaviors. It always helps to know specifically what type of behavior needs to be addressed. Without knowing that, I can only give some general advice.
Seek to Understand
When children act up, they are usually communicating to you that they are tired of the same old stuff, or that they don’t want to accept your authority right then. Also, some children have a harder time sitting still. Ask yourself, “What are they trying to tell me with their behavior?”
If they’re telling you that they’re tired of the same old stuff, then that’s an easy fix. Give them the real meat of the Gospel. The hard stuff. Tell them stories and doctrines about the Church that excited you and are new to you. You’ll be more inspiring if you can share the things that you’re most recently passionate about. But, this may mean you’ll have to spend more time studying the material. When I’ve taught at church, I’ve even added Shakespeare into my lessons because that’s was the source of my most recent inspiration. They loved it! Inspiring people naturally attracts the attention of others. The other way to capture their attention is to really know your subject. Give them “meat” that they’ve never heard previously. Get rid of the “Gerber Gospel.”
It’s also a good idea to get them talking about what they think. Get them to relax and let their fun side show. If you’re not a "yellow" person, find a little "yellow" in yourself, so the children can have the opportunity to develop more love and respect for you. Dr. Andrew Groft gives a great class called, “Teacher of the Year.” This class has helped me bond with groups of children better.
They Need A Vision
What if you see that your student doesn’t respect you as a teacher? Well, what would you do at home? You would go back to the vision stage. Your student might need a vision of what their responsibilities as a student are. To present vision you must have a spirit of love and connection. I would pull that one person causing the disruption aside. But don’t lecture or talk about bad behaviors.
I would look him in the eyes and say, “Johnny, I’m so happy to have you in my class. You’re really smart. I think you understand many things about the Gospel that other youth your age don’t. I was wondering if you could help me with something. I’ve noticed that our class gets off track sometimes. You probably have the greatest influence in changing the mood of our class. Can you watch for times when the class seems to be getting off course, and during these times ask a really great question to bring us back to what’s important? This would be a great help to me and to the students in our class that don’t understand as much as you do. Let’s think of a subtle sign that I can give you so that you know I need your help. I would also like you to think about something you would really like to learn about this year. Whatever it is, we can have a lesson when we talk about it. Can you think of a really great topic and let me know as soon as possible? Thanks so much for your help.”
Or, I would look him in the eyes and lovingly say, “Johnny, in the Primary room you were turning your eyelids inside out to try to get people to laugh. Your teachers and friends think that you’re trying to show off. Most people don't like showoffs. Did you know that when you do that everyone gets bothered? Did you know that some people don’t want to be by you or talk to you because you do this? He responds, “No.” I say, “What you should do is sit still in your chair and keep your hands in your lap so that your teacher and your class feel comfortable around you.” I tell children things like this in a way that suggests I’m just letting them in on a secret that only I know, but that they need to know.
The first example empowers children and tells them that you understand them. It also gives them a vision of what class could be like. The second example really happened. In this example I used a corrective teach without having a synthetic consequence. I explained the natural consequences and what the correct behavior was and that was it. The boy was great the rest of the time. Children don’t know what they’re communicating to others when they’re attention seeking. It’s a great service to them if we tell them privately what they’re communicating when they choose to do a certain behavior in public.
Correcting My Student
I had a student that would start crying and pouting every time he didn’t get picked for something or didn’t get a treat or turn. He was used to life always being fair. I knew that he wouldn’t listen to me if I pulled him aside like the above stories, so I developed a system with him. I basically did a corrective teach.
Every time he chose to have one of his fits in front of the group, I would say, “Parker, just now you didn’t get picked to help me with the game. You chose to become upset. Instead, you should choose to be okay and calm. In life, we don’t always get what we want.” Then I would continue on with class and completely ignore any other crying or pouting. After about 5 times of this response from me, he realized that even though this response worked with his mom and other people, it didn’t work with me. So, he stopped it while in my class. He chose to control his behavior, even if it was only in one setting.
TSG Without Knowing It
Even though they don’t know the steps to accepting “No,” etc., you can simply say, “You need to say okay.” This simple instruction isn’t something they are used to, so they will probably follow it. Sadly, children are used to lectures, threats, frustration and tricks. If you just tell them what to do in a situation, they will probably do it.
Be sure to praise all good behavior too. This is the best way to get it repeated in a group setting. Pre-teaching also works. In Part 2 of this blog post I’ll share a story of how you can create a system for rewarding good behavior.
Above all, don't ever act stressed or worried. If you’re calm and analytical, then the children feel that you’re really in control of the group, even if you’re not.
Yes, I use the same style of parenting with other people's children too. I corrective teach the same, prep the same and praise the same. Out-of-instructional-control behavior is for their parent or someone who has the authority to use consequences with them. I have even taught groups how to accept “No,” criticism and follow instructions.
When I start directing a play, the first thing I do is tell everyone how to accept criticism, “No” answers, and follow instructions. I explain that as a director, it’s my job to give all of the above. They do very well if I spell it out first.
So yes — it's okay to correct someone else's child if they're being disruptive or disrespectful! For help in learning how to train a child’s heart, check out this class.