After responding to the woman who teaches Primary at church with my initial, general tips on how to use self-government principles in the classroom she wrote me back the following:
“Thank you for answering my question! Here are a few more specifics if it helps. I am mostly dealing with younger children. I am teaching the oldest age group I have ever had this year, the 6- and 7-year-olds. In past years I have taught 4- and 5-year-olds.
"Some of the specific misbehavior I’ve dealt with includes: hitting, hurting, touching others; using rude or unkind language (to me and other class members); answering questions in an off-the-wall, smart-aleck way; TRYING to give the wrong answer (to get a reaction from me or the other class members); drawing violent or crude pictures; making gross noises; always bringing up subjects that have no relevance to the lesson (or are highly distracting to the other children); and of course having trouble sitting still/staying in their seat/being quiet (with some children displaying ADD/ADHD-like behaviors).
“I also have dealt with children who behave rather well the majority of the time but laugh at or repeat the poor behavior they see in another child who attends more irregularly. This in turn seems to encourage the misbehavior in the other child, and they feed off each other and get more and more out of control.
“I have had some success in encouraging good behavior by arranging the environment carefully, such as keeping certain class members away from each other, making sure toys/papers and other items are put underneath the chairs, allowing the children to go to the bathroom and get drinks only in between classes (except in dire emergencies!), having those struggling sit closest to me or on my lap, and praising good behavior.
“The children who cause the most trouble don’t seem to care if I praise or correct them, or they move from one type of misbehavior to the next so quickly that it is very hard to find something to praise and still teach a lesson. Or when their behavior is ignored, they escalate it until it is impossible for the other children or me to ignore it."
Now that I know more of the specifics, here’s my advice: The first thing that you should do is pray to feel love for the child that is causing all of the problems. When people make life hard, we stop loving them. The children sense this, even though they probably couldn’t explain what they feel. The most important thing you could do to change the heart of this child is develop the relationship with him. Go out of your way to bond with him and let him into your heart. Every good mentor has to do this first. Often with church we look at our callings as an in-and-out type arrangement. Write the child cards, and letters, open dialog with the parents, stop by to visit, ask for help with projects outside of class, etc. It sounds like it could take a lot of work to become friends, but once you’re friends, the child will defend you against anyone. It sounds like whatever this child chooses to stand for, he stands firm.
If it isn’t possible to foster a relationship with the child, at least make sure you privately pray before class to have the spirit with you.
When the children do act up, don’t ever react. Just quickly look at them and describe what they are doing. For example, “Johnny, you’re making inappropriate noises in class.”
The Need to Praise to See Cause and Effect
I had a class one time that did a lot of the behaviors you described above. After pondering the class, I realized that the class completely understood what would happen to them if they chose wrong and didn’t care about the consequences. But the class didn’t see what would happen if they chose good. I started coming to class with a folded paper bag weekly.
On the first week with the bag the children asked me what was in the bag. I told them that they would see. I asked someone to say prayer. If the child said “Yes,” then I wrote his/her name on the board. I praised the child for volunteering and told him/her that he/she earned a position on the class honor roll for that day. (I probably called it something else, but I don’t remember.) Each time someone appropriately participated, or volunteered, etc. I praised the child and either wrote his/her name up on the board or made a mark next to the child’s name. In essence, I created a visible cause-and-effect system for the class.
At the end of the class time, I had them all stand in a line by the door. I took my bag and stood by the door. I asked each of them what they learned in class that day and gave them a high-five. Then I asked them how many good marks they had on the board. They each reported, and I gave them that many Tootsie Rolls (or whatever treat I had). I went through each student the same. This system made it so that I didn’t need to give any lectures or bad looks. By the second week, the children understood the system and were motivated to behave better. Some weeks I would bring the bag and it would be filled with stickers, candy, and even air on some occasions. On these weeks, I would give them 7 high-fives, or something like that. This system worked really well for this particular group. They needed to see cause and effect. They also needed to know that good equaled good.
When Do You Involve the Parents?
Here’s my rule on when to get parents involved: if the child hurts another person or is hurt, then I involve parents. If the child does anything sexual or has anything sexual done to them (I would include sexual pictures in this or sexual jokes or stories), I let the parents know. These are all things that parents need to know. Pray before you tell a parent. I know you don’t want to drive a parent away from you or your church, but if I were the parent, I would want to know. And, it’s better that you say something than some child in the class tells her parent and then they talk to the other parent or something like that. Then the other parent would feel embarrassed about being exposed. Try to be sensitive, but I would definitely take them aside as a friend. Make sure the parents understand you’re not judging, but that you simply want to help and is concerned.
Teach Them Goodness
I know that there are some really hard kids out there. If they come to live with me, I can help them learn to govern themselves. If they never live in my home, there is only so much I can do. I can live and teach by the self-government principles, but they get to choose their own behaviors for themselves. If they keep acting up and you’ve acted in a calm way and tried to help them, then you can be free from guilt. That child may ruin every class he’s in, but you can’t make him act like he should.
Is it fair to the other children? No. If you teach the other children what’s acceptable behavior in this strange time, then they will learn many more things about life from you than Gospel principles. Hard situations teach us a lot too, even though they’re not fun to endure.
Give the good kids most of your praise and attention. Good equals good. For help in learning how to train a child’s heart, check out this class.