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When Wild Kids Show Up

Stephanie Martin

"Wild kids are the ones who show up to your class with their own agenda," says Eric Wesley, children's pastor at Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. "They have it set in their minds that they're going to have things their way regardless of the consequences to them or anyone else around them."

So how do you avoid a showdown with each wild child? Follow these tips from seasoned children's ministers.

Wild Kids Defined

There are many adjectives for wild kids: uncooperative, disruptive, loud, defiant, fidgety, inattentive, violent, disrespectful, and unpleasant. But these children are also wildly different.

There are many degrees of wildness. "Wild kids come in all shapes and sizes," says Patty Anderson, minister to children and families at Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Some have a loud, boisterous personality yet usually stay on task, she says, while others talk at inappropriate times because they struggle with self-control issues.

Sharyn Spradlin, co-founder of a Seattle consulting and training ministry, differentiates between children with emotional and behavioral disorders, who rarely attend church because most ministries aren't equipped to care for them, and "mildly wild" kids, who argue about reasonable requests and ignore reasonable rules and boundaries.

Essentially, there's one main cause. Although abuse and neglect, family stressors, media overloads, and even too much sugar can contribute to problem behaviors, experts agree that the main motivation for wild kids is attention-seeking. Wild kids "want attention and seek it the only way children know how -- they act out," says Steve Harney, children's pastor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Somerset, Kentucky.

Harney says wild kids desperately want unconditional love but seek it in all the wrong ways. They end up with the attention they crave, but it's negative attention.

Spradlin calls "misplaced adult attention" the key factor in children's problem behavior. She cites the research of family and educational consultant Glenn Latham, who found that adults typically ignore 95 percent of children's appropriate behaviors.

"It's no secret that kids will do what gets noticed," Spradlin says, "and all the rules, reprimands, and threats of timeout are actually rewarding the wild kids."

To prevent showdowns, don't view wild kids as your opponents. They're not "a challenge to be endured" or a problem to be "fixed," says Spradlin. Remind yourself and your staff that these children are no different from others in their desire for love; they just don't know the positive ways to get it.

Impact on Your Ministry

Even when you understand the types and causes of wild behavior, experiencing wildness firsthand can still feel like a head-on collision. Wild kids can affect other children, your planned activities, and your attitude.

Behavior spreads like "wild"fire. Out-of-control behaviors and attitudes can be contagious. While some students "help hold the wild kids accountable and are eager to model the expected behavior," Anderson says, "others jump on the bandwagon and go wild, too."

"Other children begin to resent the troublemaker who's collecting all the attention," says Polly Wegner, child and family ministry director at Peace Lutheran Church in Arvada, Colorado. And such conflict "takes the joy out of teachers' service and makes them feel inadequate as classroom managers," she says.

Flexibility helps. It's frustrating to spend time carefully planning lessons and activities, only to have a wild child check in "and within minutes influence the behavior and attitudes of the whole class," says Spradlin.

Looking Beyond Typical Responses

Common responses to wild kids include sending them to extended timeouts, taking them to their parents, and even removing them from the program for awhile. While these actions may avoid a classroom showdown, they don't address the children's problems, meet their needs, or project Christ's love and acceptance.

Tactics That Backfire -- When teachers lose their cool, raise their voice, and threaten or degrade children, Harney says, wild kids achieve their goal of gaining attention -- albeit negative. "They learn that church is no better than home, it has nothing to offer them, and they soon quit coming," he says.

Tactics That Work -- Instead of the usual responses, Spradlin asks, "What would it be like for a wild child to be received by a church staff and volunteers who have been trained to recognize, embrace, and celebrate this child whose behavioral traits aren't normally accepted in the church culture?"

Steps to achieve this worthwhile goal:

Set rules and behavioral expectations. Having clear, consistent rules is the experts' #1 solution to handling wild kids at church. "Explain to everyone the rules that need to be followed for the entire class to have a good time," says Wesley. "Also, let children know the consequences for breaking rules."

Notice positive behaviors. Make children aware not only of the bad behavior that won't be tolerated but also of the positive ways to get attention. "Affirm what children do right," says Anderson. "If you have to correct, do it gently and then suggest what's appropriate."

Spradlin advises teachers to be aware of how children get their attention during class or club time. When you spot positive behavior, she says, "Praise kids specifically and authentically. Encourage them to recognize their own positive behavior."

Transform children into helpers. Assigning wild kids specific tasks not only provides positive attention but also corrals their energy. "Having these children serve as classroom helpers or leaders gives them a sense of importance and lets them know they're wanted in the program," says Wesley.

Enlist extra help. "A lack of workers is a real reason kids act up," says Jim Wideman, executive director of children's ministry at Church on the Move in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Have plenty of help so there are enough folks to handle a situation and let the class go on."

Harney recruits grandparents or other older adults who don't want to teach anymore but can sit with a child and help him or her stay focused.

Provide attention outside of class. Sending cards, visiting children's homes, listening, letting children vent and cry, and praying with them are excellent ways to give wild kids positive attention and express your love for them.

Teachers shouldn't "assume students will be wild or bad because of talk from previous years," says Wegner. "Give children the benefit of having matured a little, and begin with a 'clean slate' in the new year."

New teachers' inexperience "may just be the best thing going for them," Spradlin says, because "refocusing our attention from the negative behavior to the positive is a difficult transition."

Also, make sure teaching styles aren't contributing to kids' wildness, Wideman advises. "Videotape your class, then watch how fun and interesting it really is. Be honest and put yourself in the kids' shoes."

Demonstrating Christ to Wild Kids

When Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me," he didn't mean just the calm or well-behaved ones. Reaching out to wild kids models Christ's unconditional love and acceptance.

"Look for every opportunity to show God's love and grace," says Anderson, who also suggests praying a lot to avoid showdowns.

She remembers a wild boy from her first year of teaching Sunday school. After a great morning, she wanted to tell his father what had happened. But the dad interrupted by saying, "What did he do now?"

"Imagine being that father," Anderson says. "He must have encountered negative reports about his wildly wonderful child often. I was able to share how God worked in his child's life that day. I still have that child in ministry, and because of God's grace and love, he's come very far."

Harney remembers spending a day with a wild boy who "never fit in with the other kids." After riding Harney's horse, the boy was excited and enthusiastic. "He hasn't been a discipline problem since," says Harney. "He is, however, my friend."

Children's ministers should focus not on attendance numbers but on making each student's day, Harney says. This eliminates showdowns as "students will want to be around us because it's evident we want to be around them."

Harney continues: "Jesus left the many to go find the one. The 99 were already in the 'classroom,' but Jesus took a chance to go after the one who had run away. If the wild kid was worth his time, then surely he or she is worth ours, too." cm

Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in Colorado.

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