How to Hold Students Accountable When You Don’t See Them Every Day

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am a Sunday school teacher. I will be going to one of your conferences this summer and I read your blog, but I can’t find an answer for my question: How do I hold kids accountable for their behaviors at Sunday school? We can’t keep them in for recess or give detentions. What’s left?      -Amelia, Athens, Ohio


The answer for how to react to negative behaviors in a Sunday school setting is the same as for anywhere else: use interventions (which you will learn this summer) to gently guide kids towards positive behaviors, and when those don’t get you the desired behaviors, use consequences. Not being able to keep kids in from recess and not using detention are probably positives, since most teachers use those tools as illogical punishments instead of logical consequences. Punishments will make behaviors worse.

Your question of when to do these consequences is a common one. What really doesn’t work for Sunday school teachers is feeling like you need to use immediate consequences. When are you supposed to do those?  Having to do immediate consequences can become totally impossible in Sunday school, especially when dealing with savvy kids who have figured out that they can act out in the last 10 minutes of Sunday school because the teacher will have no time to administer the consequence.

What works is to delay consequences. For Sunday school teachers, the easy fix is to simply administer the consequence on the next Sunday that the child attends Sunday school. This works perfectly because it is worth the child missing some instruction since, when we use consequences instead of punishment, the child is learning that negative, anti-social behaviors don’t work for people. There is nothing that we can teach kids that is more important than that. This is especially true because if kids don’t learn that these negative behaviors won’t get them what they want, they won’t get the benefits of other Sunday school instruction, since they will be too busy causing problems to learn anything.

Here is how I would deal with a kid who needed a consequence because of his behaviors in the last two minutes of Sunday school.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. Yikes. I will have to do something about this. I don’t know what it will be though. We’ll talk about it when I see you again. Try not to think too much about it.

Kid: Then I am never coming back to church!

Kid Whisperer: Well, I suppose this is goodbye then.

Kid: Wait. What?

Kid Whisperer: Just in case our paths cross again, I will be helping you to learn about how to make good choices. Remember, God loves you no matter what, and so do I.

If Kid ever finds his way back to church, I will give him a consequence that will give him a chance to practice making the world better instead of worse. He may be in charge of arranging snacks for kids, helping a younger student, or cleaning out a long-neglected closet full of art materials. Since I have at least a week before this will happen. I can make logistical arrangements and talk to the kid’s parents if necessary. I can create a meaningful learning opportunity for this kid because I didn’t try to react immediately to the negative behavior.