How do You Deal With Kids Who Are Defiant in Children’s Ministry? – Part 2 of 2

Tonya Langdon —  May 25, 2011

Children with difficult behavior and those with a  diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) often leave us frustrated, resentful or angry. What tools do we need to effectively minister to these children and their families without sacrificing our Sunday school lessons?

Choose your battles carefully!

These children will vie for control of the class and engage you in a battle if you are not careful. Is the issue at hand a battle that you want to win for the sake of being right or is it a battle where safety is an issue? Often times, not acknowledging their comments or attempts to manipulate will help you to stay in control. This is not always easy, but it is worth the effort so your classroom is not disrupted and learning can take place. Control battles with a child with ODD are destructive to everyone and creates a huge amounts of stress.

Praise them when  you see them doing something right.

It can be as simple as noticing and telling them that you noticed that they listened well that day or that they had a good day! These kids get very few pats on the back or kudos for things they do right or well. Adults in their lives are often angry and a bit stand-ofish due to their chronic defiance, and these kids can use any positive affirmations in their lives.

Offer choices with limits!

This is my favorite tool for all children, but it works really well with those who want to exert control over others. Often times this tool can stop an attempt to gain control over the class or at least slow the progression of the attempt. This is how it works:

  • Choices must be legitimate and get equal billing. Think of it in terms of shared control. If you offer choices with an ulterior motive, it will backfire, and they will call you on it. No one likes to feel manipulated.
  • Choices must be equally acceptable to both you and the child. Whatever you do here, make sure that both choices are ones that you can live with. For  example “Sally, do you want to sit in the front of the classroom with squishy ball or do you want to sit quietly in the back of the class? Whatever you choose is fine with me.”  or  “Tom, I know that you really want to know about that but we are not discussing that right now. I can answer that for you either after the lesson is done or during snack time, which do you prefer?”  Another example is ” Susan, I know that you do not want to be here, but since you are here you have a choice. You can choose to be happy and enjoy class, or you can be stay mad. It’s your choice! What do you choose?” This gives them power over their own behavior, and they feel like they have some control.
  • Pay attention to how you phrase your requests. Use words that help them to have a sense of control. For example teachers often say “Tommy you can’t play until you clean up your mess” because he is dawdling  or has run off leaving a mess. What does Tommy do but roll his eyes, make huffing sound and/or stomp back, right? Next time try ” Tommy, I know that you want to go and play, so as soon as you clean up you may go play” before he makes a move to leave the table.

Dish out consequences close to the time of the behavior.

If you are going to give a consequence to a behavior, the closer you give the consequence the more effective it is. A lot of time, at the end of the class I will ask the child what other alternatives they could come up with instead of engaging in the behavior that  they did. A lot of these children have a hard time reading social cues and will make a social errors that will appear as misbehavior.

Really learn about the kids as individuals.

Find out about what makes them tick…hobbies, sports, music ,Wii or Xbox. It helps to know a little about the current music trends and electronic video games so you can start or carry a conversation that is meaningful to them.

No matter what happens in class, with the exception of  safety issues, only sing praises to the parent or parents.

Parents already know that their child is difficult, and they do not need to hear it once again. As a mom of a child with ADHD, ODD and Tourette Syndrome I appreciated the time I was able to go to church to recharge for the difficult days ahead. If I need more information from a parent concerning, for example, how to handle something, I will lead with a question like “Tell me about how you handle…”  This often leads to an open dialogue with the parent without passing judgment or inferring that their child is unwanted in the classroom.

Ask the parents/parent what they need.

Do they need help with respite? Prayer? A support group? What can you do for them? Sometimes it can be as simple as a hug. I have had many parents crying in my arms because they are physically and mentally exhausted, frustrated and yearn to be like other parents. Marriages and finances are often strained to the limits, and the demands of caring for other children in the family leave these families desperate for hope and acceptance.

For more information on Oppositional Defiance Disorder or challenging behavior contact me at

Tonya Langdon

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Tonya is married with three children. Tonya currently spearheads The Agape Connections (special needs ministry), teaches the 4th & 5th grade Sunday school class and leads a support group for parents who have children with A.D.H.D. and Behavioral Disorders at Skyline Church in La Mesa, Ca. The Agape Connections work with families who have special needs children so the entire family is able to attend church services and age appropriate church activities. In Tonya’s “free time” she is studying for ordination, writes articles and co-owns an office products business with her brother.

5 responses to How do You Deal With Kids Who Are Defiant in Children’s Ministry? – Part 2 of 2

  1. These are some great tips. In fact, I think these work with all kids. A lot of these things are similar to what I do with all kindergartners in my class.

    Thanks for helping teachers deal with some difficult issues.

  2. I know I have some kids in the after school program with ADHD and emotional self-control issues (, and I have some that exhibit behaviors of ODD (whether they are diagnosed or not). This insight will be really helpful!

  3. Very helpful article.

  4. I’m a missioanry in Brazil and my husband and I are planting a church in the city of Manaus. Fortunately God has blessed us with an autistic child in our children’s ministry which made possible for her whole family to attend church on Sundays. The family seems very excited and started to invite other families whit autistic kids to visit the church and hopefully come to the knowledge of Christ. I find it exciting but very challenged, since I have no experience with special needs children. Could you recommend me any book or website to help me learn more about it? God has given me a great love for those kids and their families but I confess I don’t fell prepared to work with them.
    Thanks for your attention.

  5. Caludia, I would definitely check out “The Inclusive Church” website, by Amy Fenton Lee. Amy has a ton of articles and links to resources.