An Ounce of Prevention

Directing Behavior


Four-year-old: “Daniel’s grandmother died.”

Mom: “How sad! Did you tell him you’re sorry?”

Four-year-old: “I didn’t do it!”


God’s Discipline

Discipline means “discipling,” making disciples or followers. I like the word “discipling,” because it puts the focus on the teacher or parent. The goal of discipling someone is to help them grow to be like their teacher. This is a big responsibility. It starts with us. Do we want children to be like us? We must focus on ourselves first, because children will copy what we do and echo what we say.

Who disciplines us? God does. It makes sense, then, to look at how God disciplines us, His children, in order to discover how to discipline the children in our care.

“In our care” is the operative phrase. “The Lord disciplines those he loves” (Hebrews 12:6). He trains us in the ways of love. That’s God’s number one Kingdom Principle of Discipline: LOVE comes first. God’s commitment to us shows His love. When the first man and woman disobeyed, God could have abandoned the entire human race. But He didn’t. Love does not abandon. He said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5). God is committed to pursuing us. He continually invites us to have a personal Father-child relationship with Him.

However, although God never leaves us, His closeness to us is affected by our choices. “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isaiah 59:2). God’s number two Kingdom Principle of Discipline is: SEPARATION is the result of wrong choices. When we follow God’s way, we open ourselves to His close presence, but when we turn from God’s way, we close ourselves to His close presence. “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). The primary consequence of turning from Him is a natural consequence: separation. When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they were separated from privileges they had previously enjoyed: the beautiful garden, abundant provision, God’s close presence as He walked with them in the cool of the day. But we must keep one important truth in mind: Even though sin separates us from God’s close presence, we are never separated from His love (Romans 8:38, 39).

God’s number three Kingdom Principle of Discipline is: God always SHOWS THE WAY. He doesn’t say just, “No. No. No.” He give us “Yes.” When God says, “Stop behaving this way,” He says, “Behave this way instead.” He gives us a vision for who we are as His children. “Put off falsehood . . . speak truthfully” (Ephesians 4:25). “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self” (Colossians 3:9, 10).

In fact, God communicated His rules to us in order to show us the way. He created the world and knows how it works. Instead of leaving us on our own to figure it out, He told us how it’s set up to work. Kindness works. If everyone were kind, life would work the way it’s supposed to. Rudeness does not work. If everyone were rude, life wouldn’t work.

But God didn’t stop at simply communicating rules. He sent His Son to earth to show us that it’s not outward rules that are the most important, it’s the inward heart. “What’s the most important rule?” a man asked Jesus. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself,” answered Jesus, echoing God’s early instructions to His people (Deuteronomy 6:5, Luke 10:27).

God not only told us to love, but also sent Jesus to show how much He loves us. God’s laws were simply schoolmasters put in place to lead us toward Jesus (Galatians 3:24). When we receive Jesus, when His Holy Spirit lives within us, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control become not laws, but fruits (Galatians 5:22, 23). In any situation, we rely on the Spirit. Instead of asking, “What is the rule?” we ask, “What does LOVE do? What does God’s Spirit say? What fruit is operative here?”


Our Discipline

When we discipline children, we go by God’s Kingdom Principles:

  1. LOVE comes first.
  2. SEPARATION is the result of wrong choices.

Discipline is guiding children toward certain behavior choices. At first, the guidance is external. But our rules are designed to cultivate in children a heart that grows the fruits of the Spirit, one of which is self-control. Our goal is to bring children to the place where they are self-controlled. When we looked at the moral development of children, we saw that this is an ongoing process. (If you are like me, you are still in process.)

Discipline, or discipling, is a two-sided coin. One side is direction and the other is correction. A ship captain directs his ship toward its destination. So we direct a child toward his destination: self-control. But if the ship gets off course and goes the wrong direction, the captain must make a course correction to get it back on the right course. So a child must correct his course if he has gone the wrong direction. Children often need help with course corrections. That’s where we come in.



Believe it or not, everything you have read so far in this book has to do with discipline. That’s because it all has to do with setting a positive direction for your child or your class. Positive direction helps prevent the need for correction.

Let’s review some of the factors that keep us headed in the right direction:

  1. Stop, look and listen.

Observe the children in your class. Listen to them.

  1. Build a relationship with the children.

A good relationship helps build trust. According to pediatrician William Sears, “Respect for authority is based on trust.”1

  1. Know what age-appropriate behavior to expect from your children.

Review the chapters on development as often as you need to.

  1. Communicate in ways that your children will understand.
  2. Have a plan, and then take AIM:

Make lessons Age-Appropriate, Interesting, and Meaningful.

  1. Be flexible and make variety the key when choosing activities.
  2. Make variety and believability your goal for telling Bible stories.
  3. Be excited about your class.

If you’re not excited, then change what you can, in order to get excited.


Let’s look at some other specifics in the area of direction and prevention. Grace Mitchell in her book A Very Practical Guide to Discipline with Young Children suggests that we anticipate behavior problems by looking at possible triggers in three areas: people, environment, and program.2 We can do a check-up by asking ourselves some questions about each of these areas.


  1. People: Teacher, Children and Parents

Do we, as teachers, arrive early for class? When the teacher is there before the children arrive, the teacher sets the tone for what will happen in the classroom. The children enter the teacher’s territory, and the teacher is in charge. But if the children arrive before the teacher does, the children set the tone for what will happen. The teacher enters the children’s territory. Who’s in charge then?

Are we prepared? It’s hard for us to greet children when we’re running around looking for the red construction paper and scissors, or punching out the handwork for the day. Some children misbehave to get attention, and the busy-with-materials teacher creates a situation that invites this child to misbehave.

Do we pray for the children during the week? We can post a list of our children’s names at home where we’ll be reminded to pray for them and their families. While we’re greeting children and visiting with them before class, we can say a silent, short prayer for each one. No one even needs to be aware of what we’re doing. We can do this during class activities, too.

Do we love the children? Dr. Slonecker, a respected pediatrician says, “Tell the child every class time, ‘I love you.’ If he understands you love him, you’ll be able to discipline him better.”3 That’s because when children feel loved by someone, they want to please that person. “Every child really wants . . . approval of a favorite adult,” writes Grace Mitchell.4

Do certain children always misbehave when they’re around each other? If you can, separate the children who tempt each other to misbehave. Sometimes this means placing two friends at opposite sides of the story rug, because they are so friendly, they whisper and giggle when it’s time to listen. Or it may involve two rough and tumble little boys (or girls) who itch to wrestle every time they’re near each other. It’s not that these children are intentionally trying to disrupt the class. They are following their natural instincts to have a good time with good friends. Anticipate this, and separate the children into different groups or areas if you can.

Do we tell children when they have choices and when they don’t? If you don’t want the child to choose, don’t give him a choice. For example, let’s say you want the children to put the blocks away and gather on the rug for story time. Avoid asking, “Would you like to come hear a story now?” Someone will answer, “No.” You have given them a choice. Instead, say, “It’s time to put the blocks away and come to the rug for a story.”

Do we give advance warning when activities are going to change? You don’t like someone to come up to you when you are busy and say, “Come on, let’s go! Right now!” If you can give advance notice, then do. It’s always good to let kids know before a change of activities. For example, “In five minutes, we’ll put the blocks away and gather at the story rug.”

Are we specific? If we say, “Put that over there,” the child may put something else somewhere else, because we weren’t specific. Later, we see “that” was not put over “there,” and we think the child has not obeyed. If only we had been specific, the child would have known that we meant for him to put the toy truck on the bottom shelf.

Have we communicated the rules to the children? We can’t expect children to keep the rules if they don’t know what the rules are.

Are parents treated with respect? Are they kept informed about what is happening in the classroom? Are they consulted when you have a problem or question about a child?


  1. Environment

Is your room too large or too open? When I taught four-year-olds, we were in a small classroom. I would often look longingly down the hall at the nice big room the kindergartners used. I would think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a spacious classroom like that?” Then one year, my class moved to that big room. But I was puzzled. This group of kids was different than last year’s class. When these kids came into the classroom, they immediately began racing back and forth. It was hard to settle them down.

Then I began to look at the environment, and I realized what had happened. This year’s kids weren’t any different than last year’s. What was different was the room. I began to look at it from a child’s perspective. It was like a gymnasium to them, and it invited running. The solution to my problem was easy. I blocked the “raceway.” I moved a table and chairs into the open space. I rearranged the bookshelf, easels, sand table, and other furniture so the temptation to run was no longer a factor. My class was much more self-controlled.

Is the room too crowded? If a child has to walk through the book center to get to the blocks, the children who are peacefully looking at books will be disturbed. They’ll get frustrated. Then they’ll be tempted to trip or hit children who pass through. Some children who are crowded do what their instincts tell them to do: they push. It’s their way of communicating. They are saying, “Give me more space. You’re crowding me.”

Is the room age-appropriate? Are tables and chairs the right size? Are there colorful pictures on the walls? Is the setting informal so it welcomes all kinds of learners?

Is the room neat, but not sterile? A messy room will tell the children that the teacher doesn’t care, so they won’t care if they mess it up even more. But a room that’s too neat is not inviting or comfortable. It makes kids feel like they can’t do anything for fear of messing something up.


  1. Program

Does your schedule fit the needs of the children? Are they getting restless just when you’ve tried to settle them down for group time? Maybe you should change the time for your large group activity. Could they be hungry? Do you need to schedule a snack at this time? Is it time for something active? Is it time for a rest?

When do problems occur? Do they happen when you change from one activity to another? If so, you may need to think of ways to make the transition smoother. Could you make a “path” of masking tape the children follow from one center to another? Could you sing or play a tape while they change groups?

Do you have a plan for getting everyone’s attention? Equip your classroom with some type of signal to use when you want to get the students’ attention. I use a bell. When I ring the bell, everyone is supposed to sit down where they are, “freeze,” look at me, and listen. We even play this as a game in order to practice the procedure. Other teachers flick overhead lights off when everyone is to get quiet. Some teachers sing a simple song, and the children can join in.

Do you have enough activities? Do you have things planned for those kids who finish an activity quickly? Do you have enough variety in the activities you’ve chosen? Change the games, puzzles, and toys in the room from time to time to keep it interesting. Is class time fun? Are the activities enjoyable? Do you make choices available? Are you excited yourself? If you’re not excited to come to class, the children will not be excited either.

Do you give the children tasks they can achieve? Do they feel successful in class?

Are you consistent? If co-teachers and aides have different expectations, there will be problems. Changing your rules or your enforcement of the rules from week to week will cause problems too.

After the children know what is expected of them, they will often test you to see if the boundaries are going to hold. Don and Jeanne Elium, authors of Raising a Son, write that children want to know “Who’s the boss . . . what are the rules . . . and are you going to enforce them?”5 Consistent enforcement of the boundaries makes children feel secure. The teacher can be counted on to keep the classroom a safe and welcoming place.

It’s a good idea to ask the children to help make the rules. Then they feel like this is indeed their classroom. They see themselves as valued decision makers. If the chldren make the rules, they are quicker to abide by them and to see that others in class do too. However, they may be more strict in making their rules than you are, and you might want to soften their intensity.

Try to have only a few rules, and state them positively. For older children, write the rules on a chart and post it in your classroom. For younger children, you might use pictures as symbols to represent each rule. In my four-year-old class, we had four rules, written on a poster in “rebus” form: We are “happy” (designated with a smiley face) to “help” (shown by a handprint). We are “happy” (smiley face) to “share” (a hand holding an apple). We are “happy” (smiley face) to “love” (shown by a heart). We are “happy” (smiley face) to “obey” (shown by a big letter O). We “read” these sentences at the beginning of each group time for several weeks until I feel sure the children will remember them. And we can read them to review any time we need to, and we can talk about specific actions that show “love” and “obedience.”


Now What?

There’s an old fable about three blind men who were walking down a road one day, traveling to a world famous bazaar. There they would smell the wonderful spices and feel the rolls of silks. They would hear the music of pipers and buy sweet, cool fruit juices.

The blind men had not gone far when they came to an elephant standing in the middle of the road. The first blind man bumped into the elephant’s trunk. When he felt it, he declared that they had stumbled across a snake. He concluded that they must have come upon a snakes’ den. They would have to circle around until they were sure they had avoided the snakes. Then they could go on their way.

But the second blind man was feeling the elephant’s tall, wide side. He insisted that they had bumped into a wall. They would definitely have to climb over it.

The third blind man had his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. He announced that he had run into a tree. He decided they must be entering a dense jungle. They would need to make their way slowly and carefully through the trees.

The blind men began to argue. None of them could agree on what they had bumped into or how they should proceed. Finally, because they could not agree, they just turned around and went back home.

That’s sometimes the way it is with the question of discipline. We are going along our merry way, doing all we can to prevent misbehavior, when we bump into a child whose behavior challenges us. “What’s this?” we ask. We’re not sure why the child is misbehaving. We’re not sure what to do about it. We know we need to help the child make a course correction, but the area of correction is like the elephant. Different experts look at it and give different opinions. What do we do? The next post will give specific suggestions regarding why children misbehave and what to do about it.


–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 16
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.

photo courtesy

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