On the Other Side of the Coin

Correcting Behavior

“Never give up.
Keep on trying until you get it right.”
-5 year-old

Seeing Our Opportunity

In the face of challenges, my father often says, “You can see it as a problem, or you can see it as an opportunity.” If we look at behavior challenges as opportunities instead of problems, we have a better chance of bringing about positive change. Misbehavior is our opportunity to do what we’re here to do: teach. Here is a real-life chance to help a child learn how to han- dle his problems, to help a child get her needs met. If we take the challenge of this opportunity, we can affect the child’s life, his future choices, her understanding of how to relate to God and others. Instead of simply trying to squelch negative behavior so we can get through our material or make it until the bell signals the end of class time, we work with children to help them under- stand that certain behaviors don’t work. We show them a better way.

So when children misbehave, our first assumption should be:

1) They don’t know how to solve their problems or get their needs met.

There are two other possibilities:
2) They don’t immediately remember the correct behavior.
3) They don’t trust that the right behavior will work, so they go against what they’ve been taught.

Reasons for a Child’s Challenging Behavior

In order to teach children how to solve problems and make the right behavior choices, we need to think about what might be at the root of the misbehavior. Understanding the child’s misbe- havior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits.

Here are the most common causes of misbehavior.

1. Physical Needs

The younger the child is, the more his physical condition affects his behavior. But even with older children, when misbe- havior occurs, the first cause to consider is the physical. Illness, allergies, sleepiness, hunger, being too hot or too cold, and even sitting still too long can be factors that could be at the root of a child’s misbehavior.

What do you do? Once you suspect that a physical factor is the root of the problem, you meet the physical need the best you can. Provide snacks if you think children are hungry. Contact parents if you suspect illness or allergy. I’ve been in more than one class in which we provided a soft, out-of-the-way place for a sleepy child to nap.

If you can provide for physical needs, misbehavior due to this need will probably disappear. However, if necessary, you can allow consequences to be the teacher. You will find these in the next section of this chapter.

2. Environmental or Scheduling Factors

Perhaps the child does not know the rules. Or the teacher is late or preoccupied. Maybe the child finds the class boring. Or the classroom or furniture may be too large or too small. Activities and toys may not be age-appropriate. Or the chil- dren may need an active break in order to stretch and move for awhile.

What do you do? Environmental and scheduling factors were covered in greater depth in the previous chapter about preventing misbehavior. If you suspect that the problem might lie in factors which are under your control, try changing the schedule or the environment and see if that will take care of the problem.

As a reminder: Understanding the child’s misbehavior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits. If you can provide for environmen- tal and scheduling needs, misbehavior due to these factors will probably disappear. However, if necessary, you can allow con- sequences to be the teacher. You will find these in the next sec- tion of this chapter.

3. Need for Loving Attention

Dr. Ross Campbell says, “The main cause of misbehavior is an empty emotional tank.”1 Unfortunately, when a child needs lov- ing attention and can’t get it, she’ll settle for any kind of attention. That’s why this child may come to class and exhibit behavior that annoys you. According to L. Tobin, your annoyed feeling is the signal that this child’s need is attention.2

What do you do? Ignore the annoying behavior if you can. Then be sure to give the child loving attention at other times. You may need to meet with co-teachers and decide that one of you will make this child a priority in the attention department. Also, be aware of the fact that the first five minutes of class time are very important for this child. So make sure someone is meet- ing and greeting the children, and pay special attention to this attention-starved child when he or she arrives.

As a reminder: Understanding the child’s misbehavior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits. If you can provide for attention needs, misbehavior due to this factor will probably disappear. However, if necessary, you can allow consequences to be the teacher. You will find these in the next section of this chapter.

4. Need for Leadership Opportunity

God has given us lots of children who are potential leaders. And leaders want to lead. They want power. They may not want to be under authority. How does this make you feel? It probably makes you feel angry, because you are the leader and you are trying to lead, but this child does not want to follow. L. Tobin says that your anger is the signal that this child wants power.

What do you do? First of all, try to detach yourself. That means don’t take it personally. If you are angry, or if the child is angry, give yourselves time to cool off before discussing it. When you talk, in order to avoid a power play between you and the child, focus on the rules of your classroom. This is one time you’ll be glad you communicated the rules in a way the children can understand. Posting the rules in the classroom will also help. Now you refer to those rules, asking the child to repeat the one that is applicable to this situation. Be calm and cheerful, but firm. Affirm to the child that she is a leader, and tell her that this is why you can’t let her get away with misbehavior. Tell her that a good leader must first learn to obey, to be under authority.

You will also need to give leaders the leadership opportuni- ties they need. Ask these children to lead songs or hand out materials or read the scripture. Find other responsibilities they can take in the classroom. For younger children, allowing them to make choices will help them feel like they have more auton- omy in the situation. For example, instead of getting into a power play over whether the child will hold your hand or not, ask the child, “Which hand do you want me to hold: this one or that one?”

As a reminder: Understanding the child’s misbehavior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits. If oppositional behavior contin- ues, however, you may find it necessary to let consequences be the teacher. You will find these in the next section of this chapter.

5. Need for Relational Skills

I want to play, but I don’t know how to ask. So I poke or punch or pinch.

Someone just grabbed the marker I was using or the toy I was playing with. I don’t know what to do, so I kick.

I want the glue and another boy has it. Or I want the toy another girl is playing with. I don’t know how to get it. So I grab it.

I’ve been reading quietly, but these other kids keep playing loudly right next to me. They’re tripping over me. I don’t know what to do. So I hit them.

In all these instances, children lack the relational skills to get their needs met. How do you know? Someone or something endsupgettinghurt,eitheremotionallyorphysically. If you need the child to tell you about the situation, say, “Tell me what happened.” If you ask, “Why did you do that?” you probably won’t get the information you need. Children don’t usually know why they did it. Asking why also makes it easy for chil- dren to blame someone else.

What do you do? If the hurting is currently in process (as with a fight, for example), you must move in and separate the children immediately. Your job is to keep the children safe. Then you go to the victim first and give attention to that child’s needs. You also teach this child how to respond when treated that way. Then you talk to the aggressor. Stay calm, but be firm.

Dr. Becky Bailey gives us a helpful procedure to follow when teaching these kinds of relational skills.

Teach the victim to speak up, by simply saying, “Don’t” or “No” or “I don’t like it when you ______.”

For the aggressor, say:
Motive: You wanted _______, so you _______.
Need: You didn’t know the words to say (or what else to do). Limit: You may not_______. ________-ing hurts.
Teach: When you want ________, say (or do) _______.

You may also want the child to practice saying or doing what you suggest.

When you follow this procedure or something like this, you are teaching valuable skills that the child can use the rest of his life. Now you are not only teaching a Bible story from which you extract the moral of the story: Be kind. You are also modeling kindness yourself as you handle this situation. And you are teaching children how to apply kindness to their real life needs.

Some people may question telling a child, “You didn’t know the words to say (or what else to do).” Are we excusing the child? Didn’t he know better than to do that? If he did know, he forgot, or he thought it wouldn’t work in this situation. Actually when we say, “You didn’t know what you were doing,” we are echoing Jesus’ words when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

As a reminder, understanding the child’s misbehavior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits. If a child continues to have diffi- culty remembering the way to handle these relational situations, you may find it necessary to let consequences be the teacher. You will find these in the next section of this chapter.

A boy seems to be content working a puzzle. You are helping another child when the puzzle pieces go flying past and scatter across the floor. You wonder what in the world happened.

A girl has slipped her tie-shoes off and is now trying to get them back on so she can join an activity. The faster she works at the knots, the longer it takes her. The activity is starting without her. In a minute a shoe slams against the wall. You wonder what’s going on.

Your feelings of puzzlement or despair are a sign that this behavior is rooted in frustration or, according to L. Tobin, a feeling of inadequacy. You yourself often end up frustrated by the behavior. What do you do? Stay calm. Be cheerful, but firm. Follow the steps outlined in section 5 above, stating the motive, need, limit, and teaching.

There’s another kind of frustration that we should deal with differently: the tantrum. A tantrum is frustration at not being able to control a situation. Things aren’t going the way the child wants them to go. Most often, we think of tantrums as being physical. But tantrums can be verbal, too. A child yelling at you or another child is having a verbal tantrum.

What do you do? First, remain calm. Keep your cool. It won’t help to have two tantrums going on, one from the child and one from you. Be cheerful but firm. However, it doesn’t work to try to reason with someone who is flailing around or yelling. The most we can do at this point is try to help the tantrum subside by empathizing with the upset child. Paul tells us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Hebrews tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tempted in the same ways we’re tempted. Have you been tempted, even as an adult, to throw a verbal or physical tantrum? Then you can sympathize. You can empathize.

Dr. Bailey gives us some pointers to remember when dealing with tantrums: Reflect what you see and hear and what you sense the child feels. (“I see your arms flying and your feet kick- ing. I hear you yelling. I think you feel angry.”) Allow the tantrum to subside. Then go through the steps outlined above so that you can teach: motive, need, limit, and teaching.

Sometimes you can redirect the child. This works especially well with younger children, and is used almost exclusively for children younger than 18 months old. Distract their attention to something else. Show them what else they might do. Physically move them if you need to.

If the tantrum is physically hurting the child or someone else, you will have to restrain the child. Dr. Bailey suggests holding the child until she calms down. You’ll need to tell the child that it’s your job to keep everyone safe and you won’t let her hurt anyone, nor will you let anyone hurt her.

As a reminder, understanding the child’s misbehavior does not mean you condone it. It simply means that you are more able to accurately deal with the behavior with a loving response as you set and maintain limits. If a child continues to have diffi- culty remembering the way to handle frustration, you may find it necessary to let consequences be the teacher.


Hemfelt and Warren write, “Actions invite consequences. By giving a child a choice of actions, each with its attendant conse- quences, we can reinforce the cardinal rule: What happens to youisuptoyou.”4 Ifyouhavetriedtoteachachildthebestyou can but the challenging behavior persists, you may need to allow the child to experience the consequences of his continuing mis- behavior. This, too, is part of discipline (discipling and training).

1. Natural Consequences

This type of consequence is called “natural,” because it occurs without your involvement. For example, four-year-old James brings a small truck to class. He has it in his pocket for awhile, but then he pulls it out and shows it to the other children. You tell James to keep the truck in his pocket so it won’t get lost. But James doesn’t obey you. So you let the natural consequence hap- pen. After class, James returns to your room with his mother, looking for his truck. At this point you don’t say, “I told you so.” James has learned his lesson. So you sympathize and help him think: “You’ve lost your toy truck? I’ll help you look for it. What could you do next time to keep it from getting lost?”

These are consequences you create. They should be logically related to the behavior.

Remove the material. If Brittany keeps squirting her glue onto her neighbor’s paper, remove the glue.

Remove the privilege. If Megan continues to leave her mess on the table after every craft activity, she loses the privilege of doing the craft. A couple of notes here: 1) If it’s not a privilege, removing it won’t be effective. 2) Be sure you don’t remove a privilege that the child needs in order to help his behavior. Teachers used to make misbehaving chil- dren stay in the classroom during recess. But recess is exactly what these children needed in order to run off the steam that aggravated the misbehavior in the first place. Or another example: Taking snack privileges away from a child who needs a snack only makes the situation worse.

Remove the child from the situation. If Andrew continues to wrestle with children who are trying to watch a DVD, Andrew is removed from the group. We sometimes call this “time out.” It was originally called “time out from positive reinforcement,” which means the child gets no attention during time out. If the child gets up, physically take him back to the chair. Start timing all over again. If he is loud, he has to sit until he is quiet, then the timing starts again.

If you choose time-out, use a timer instead of counting on yourself to keep up with the time. A good way to decide how long to leave a child in time-out is to think of his age. Usually a child can handle as many minutes as his age in years. A five- year-old can handle five minutes. A four year old can take four minutes, and so on. Time-out can be started at about 18 months. At that age, an assistant in class may have to hold the child gently but firmly without talking.

If you are working with a child who gets “revved up,” and if you are able to communicate with him about the feelings he has when he starts to get out of control, you can make a quiet, alone space available to him. This would be a place where he can go to be by himself to calm down. He can learn to choose this time-out himself when he feels like he’s starting to lose control, or you can agree on a secret symbol (like fingers crossed or thumbs up) that you will give him to suggest that he calm down or retreat to his quiet spot if necessary.

Long-Term Training

Occasionally you will need to work with a particular child over an extended period of time to help him choose the right behavior. Richard Lavoie points out that success is the only true motivator.5 Wearetryingtogivechildrenthatglowingandpow- erful sense of success that comes with being able to control their own behavior. Here are some ways to remind children of what they’ve been taught and to motivate them to choose the right behavior.

Counting Down

For younger children, counting “1, 2, 3,” after telling them what to do gives them time to choose to comply. Pause a second or two after each number. If you are working with a child on a particular behavior, you might even be able to start counting without saying anything else. “John, 1, 2, 3.” He will know that you’ve seen him struggling to make the right choice, and you’re giving him a chance to control himself.

Secret Signal

This is related to counting down, but it’s a signal you’ve agreed on with the child in private. It’s between you and him. When he sees you make the signal (pulling on one of your ears, crossing your fingers, even a thumbs up), it’s his reminder to control her behavior.

A Sense of Humor

Sometimes responding humorously will defuse the situation and get the desired behavior. For example, young children sometimes say, “No,” just to make the statement that they are becoming independent. I try at first to smile, reach down, and tickle them gently. In a playful tone, I say, “No? What do you mean no?” Then I repeat the instructions, and often the child complies.

Or you can tell a child, “Throw your grumpies (or loud voice or wigglies or grabbies or wrestles) outside. They can wait for you there, and you can get them again when you go back out the door.” Then you can pretend to throw the grumpies out. If the child is young, you can even walk with him to the door, pretend to put the grumpies by the door and say, “Stay there!”

Again, these are ways to give the child a reminder and the time to make a better behavior decision for himself.

Charts and Rewards

Reward charts can be an indicator of success if that’s what a child needs and responds to. Remember that we are talking about using these as long-term training in specific areas. Some children need a visual reminder of their achievement in controlling their behavior. Make the chart simple and fun. You can place stickers on a chart for good behavior. Or draw smiley faces next to the child’s name.

For maximum effect, I think the chart should be private, between you and the child you are working with. This is part of building a relationship with the child and tells him you are on his side, wanting to help him learn to help himself. It tells him you believe he can and will achieve. So you will meet with him briefly and tell him you want to work with him to, for example, help him keep his hands to himself in class. Explain why. You might explain that hitting hurts other people, and one of your jobs is to make sure everyone is safe. Or hitting starts fights and causes other people to have a hard time controlling themselves. Or other children don’t want to play with someone who hits them, etc. Then show the child the chart. Work out a signal as discussed above. Toward the end of class time, briefly get together with the child and encourage him by telling him you see he’s working hard (or thinking hard) about choosing the right behavior. As he achieves your goal, mark it on the chart.

This brings us to the subject of rewards for good behavior. Some people refuse to give rewards, because they feel that rewards are bribes. But a bribe is payment that someone receives in return for going against his conscience. Rewards are not bribes; rewards indicate achievement. However, it is important to note:

• Some children are not motivated by rewards.
• Rewards should be given for a specific, agreed-upon behavior.
• If rewards are the only behavior incentive, given for everything you want the child to do, then rewards lose their effectiveness.
• The younger the child, the shorter time there should be between the proper behavior and the reward, or between the misbehavior and the consequence. If a three-year-old has to wait four weeks for his reward, he will soon give up.

Think of rewards in the sense of earning a scout badge. The badge is a sign that says something was achieved by hard work. Since we’re looking at rewards in terms of long-term training, we should remember that some children have to work very hard to control themselves. If you have worked out a plan ahead of time with the child, and he is working to achieve an entire class time without hitting another child, for example, you may want to reward his hard work. Your smile and encouraging words may be all that are needed. On the other hand, you might add a sticker or a hand stamp.

For longer term, especially at home where there is more time to work on the desired behavior, earning coupons, pizza points, ice cream points, pennies collected in a jar, or miscellaneous prizes may be effective. Remember, though: The greatest reward is the feeling of success the child experiences through 1) her own achievement (even small successes) in controlling herself and 2) your encouragement as you recognize her hard work. The pizza, ice cream, or pennies are a celebration of her hard work and should be accompanied by your expressions of gratitude.

Connect the Dots Chart

Decide what the reward will be: ice cream coupon, fast food coupon, a pair of sunglasses. Draw that item in dot-to-dot form. The child can connect the dots, moving ahead one dot for each class time that has been completed with acceptable behavior. As soon as the child completes her dot-to-dot, you celebrate by giv- ing her the prize she’s earned. This is a one-time process. The child may slip once in awhile and return to the challenging behavior, but don’t go back to the chart. Simply continue to let her know you have confidence she’ll make the right choice next time. If the challenging behavior becomes a habit again, you may need to try a different path of training.

Pocket Cards

This is a visual reminder. Get one small envelope for each child. Cut the flaps off the envelopes and glue the fronts of the envelopes to a poster board. Write one child’s name on each envelope. Place three colored index cards in each envelope: green, yellow, and red in that order with the green at the front.

The colors of the cards correspond to a traffic light. When the green is showing, it means the child is remembering to make the right choices. But if the child misbehaves, he must pull out the green card and place it behind the other cards to reveal the yel- low card. The yellow means “warning.” If he has to put the yel- low card at the back, the red card is revealed. That means he has chosen the negative consequence you’ve discussed with him.

Teachers who have used this system say it works well. Rarely do their students get past the warning stage.

Other Ideas

Having class “meetings” for a few minutes once a month will help keep everyone aware of the rules. Let the kids tell you if they are having any problems. Let them help you decide if rules need to be changed. If there are behavior problems, the children themselves can suggest solutions.

You should feel free to discuss behavior problems with the child’s parents. Parents are usually glad to be consulted. Approach the situation as a friend of both parent and child. Don’t tell parents what a bad child they have. Instead, tell them you’re learning how to work with their child, and ask them if they have found a method that is effective at home and might work in the classroom as well. If the child is hyperactive or learning disabled or has another physical or emotional reason for behaving the way he does, the parent is probably your best source of information about how to work with him.

As God Does

We started our discussion about behavior by discovering God’s Kingdom Principles: 1) Love, 2) Separation, and 3) Showing the way. Let’s briefly revisit those principles.

1) Love

What does God say about misbehaving? “When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them”
(II Corinthians 2:7, CEV). “Do as God does. . . . Let love be your guide” (Ephesians 5:1).

2) Separation

It’s interesting to note that the imposed consequences listed above are all different forms of separation: separating the child from material, separating him from privilege, separating him from the situation. God used these forms of separation Himself. He separated Adam and Eve from their privilege of living in the Garden of Eden. When the Israelites collected more manna than God told them to gather, the extra manna spoiled, effectively sep- arating them from the material. Jonah spent three days and nights in Time Out in the belly of a huge fish. The Israelites spent 40 years of Time Out in the wilderness. They forfeited their priv- ilege of going into the Promised Land. They were separated from the new situation God wanted them to experience.

3) Show the Way

It’s easy to focus on what children do wrong and overlook what they do right. But God doesn’t just point out wrong, He shows what’s right. He gives us a vision for who we are. He encourages us. So we need to watch for good behaviors and reinforce them with encouragement. “You shared!” “You were very persistent on your project! Well done!” “You put the trash in the trash can without even being asked! You are so thoughtful!”

A Tale to Remember

There’s a tale that’s told about the sun and wind. The wind boasted, “I’m stronger than you.” But the sun said, “No, I’m stronger than you.”

The wind and sun argued back and forth for some time, until they saw a traveler coming over the hill. The wind said, “I’ll prove I’m stronger. I will blow that traveler’s coat off.” So the wind began to blow.

However, the more the wind blew, the closer the traveler pulled his coat around him. At last the wind blew himself out.

“It’s my turn,” said the sun. He began to shine.

The traveler, no longer cold, loosened his coat. With every step, he grew warmer and warmer. Finally he was so hot, he took his coat off.

The moral of the story is: When it comes to discipline, you can get more done by shining than you can by blowing.

–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 17
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.

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