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Keep a troubled kid in Sunday school?

Your church’s Sunday school is on the rebound. Another new student arrives in your classroom. She’s a troubled foster child with a history of being expelled from school and bounced from home to home. Despite your efforts to help her integrate, she is becoming increasingly disruptive. Other children have stopped coming. What do you do?

By Ken Gallinger and Ruth McQuirter Scott

Obviously this is a child who needs the church in her life — perhaps more than those who are staying home because of the disruption. So my responsibilities, as a leader, are clearly defined. First, I need to make the Sunday school experience as accepting and wonderful as possible for this child. And second, to minimize the disruption to the program as a whole.

I’ll sit down with the foster parents, try to learn the child’s history and establish some understanding about how we are going to manage the situation together. At least part of my agenda will be to provide some pastoral care, as these folks have taken on a significant challenge. I want them to know that their congregation is a place they can look to for support and encouragement, which might involve shielding them from some of the other lovely people who are keeping their kids home.

Then, I’ll sit down with the leaders of my Sunday school. Dealing with a child like this is likely not part of what they imagined when they took on leadership roles, so they may need a chance to vent. It’s frustrating, for sure, watching a carefully constructed Sunday program being trashed by an out-of-control child. But when the venting is over, I will develop a specific plan for meeting this child’s needs, without compromising the needs of the others. This likely entails recruiting more lay leadership — always a challenge — to work with this kid on an almost one-to-one basis for a while.

 I’m glad my Sunday school is on the rebound and sorry some people are now keeping their kids at home. But if the Sunday school can’t find a way to deal with a special child like this one, it’s not really worth having at all. Ultimately, we’re not about programs — we’re about people.

Author's photo
Ruth McQuirter Scott is an educator and member of Port Nelson United in Burlington, Ont.

Respect is at the heart of any effective school, whether in the public education system or your own Sunday school. Children need to see what that means: respect for their teacher and for one another. Most of all, they must know they will be treated with respect by the adults around them. The one hour each week in Sunday school must be a safe time for everyone — teachers and children alike.

For this reason, I cannot ignore this girl’s disruptive behaviour. It is unsafe for the other children and unsafe for her. The world has clearly shown her that life is unpredictable and often very frightening. She has been exposed to a long line of authority figures, each with a different set of expectations and routines. She needs to be shown in a compassionate but firm way what appropriate conduct is for your Sunday school.

Rather than imposing a list of rules that make sense to you, try engaging all the children in a discussion of what will make Sunday school enjoyable for them. Together, create a covenant of behaviour that can be agreed upon. Share this covenant with the adults in their lives. Emphasize the positive. Instead of saying, for example, “There will be no interrupting,” phrase it as, “Everyone has the right to be heard.” When a problem arises, refer to the covenant. That way, emphasis is on the inappropriate behaviour, not the transgressor.

The child in your Sunday school may have emotional problems that are difficult to address in the short time each week she is with you. With her turbulent history, she may not be in your community for long. Let her experience a respectful environment, where she and others are safe to learn about Jesus, who would never turn any child away.

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