Behaviour Management & Discipline

The behaviour of participants in a children's ministry program needs to be managed:  

  • to ensure a safe environment
  • to create an environment in which all participants can learn/enjoy themselves
  • to teach children to manage their own behaviour.

We used to call it 'discipline'. 'Discipline' had a clear link with 'disciple', training people to be followers - of a teacher, a parent, a law, a program, a whatever. Unfortunately 'discipline' became linked with an attitude of 'you will respect and obey me because I am bigger than you'. 'Discipline' also became almost synonymous with 'punishment'. Severe punishment techniques are now seen as - not only illegal, but -counter-productive.

Today we tend to use the term 'behaviour management'. To run a safe, successful program with children or teens you need a behaviour management policy that is understood and agreed on by all leaders.

Behaviour management generally involves four inter-related components:

  • responsibility 
  • negotiation 
  • boundaries 
  • consequences.

School-aged children may be more familiar with these components than leaders who were raised under the old 'discipline' model. A trained teacher can help your leadership group understand what is considered 'best practice' in behaviour management.


The underlying aim of any behaviour management policy for children is to help children take responsibility for managing their own behaviour. This is a gradual process and goes through a number of stages from infants who have almost no responsibility for their behaviour to young adults who are (by definition) responsible for their own behaviour.

Your overall approach to behaviour management will give progressively greater responsibility to children as they become and more capable of taking responsibility for their own behaviour. They gain this capability by exercising greater and greater levels of responsibility. 
Pre-school children: With practice and encouragement, even young children can take some responsibilities, eg returning toys to a toy box. They can learn to respond to a signal (perhaps a bell) that tells them to sit down and listen.
They may not be capable of 'sharing' without constant reminders. They may need adult intervention to avoid dangerous behaviour.  
Lower Primary Children
 still need very specific instruction about behaviours that they can begin to manage themselves, eg how to handle a scissors, walking not running, raising a hand when they want to speak, staying in the room . . .
A leader can not assume, for example, that children will automatically move from one place to another in a safe, orderly way.
The leader will need to

  • state the rule - walk, don't run - in a clear, succinct, memorable way
  • demonstrate and practice it (and possibly the natural consequences of not following it)
  • have the children create a poster (or a chant or signal) for the rule 
  • praise children as they follow the rule 
  • give children who don't follow the rule the opportunity to review the rule (using the chart or signal) and try again.

This seems tedious - as there are many behaviours to be managed. Concentrate on the most important ones, and remember, you are teaching children to take responsibility for their own behaviour. The behaviour you work on this term may never need mentioning again.

Upper primary children
 have a better understanding of cause-and-effect as it relates to their behaviour.
They can cope with less specific, more general guidance, eg the old 'golden rule' about treating others the way you want hem to treat you. However, it is still a good idea to work through a process similar to that mention above:

  1. state the rule 
  2. discuss what it might look like, feel like, sound like in specific situations 
  3. demonstrate and practice it 
  4. have the children create a poster (or a chant or signal) for the rule 
  5. praise children as they follow the rule 
  6. give children who don't follow the rule the opportunity to review the rule and try again. 


Negotiation is a process in which children discusses with the leader what kinds of behaviour will make the program successful for them. Negotiation can apply to both boundaries and consequences.
Negotiation can begin in a limited way with lower primary children (eg 'What do you think we could do ... to keep the cupboard tidy? ... to remind people that they are not to leave the building? ...)
Negotiation can be taught as a skill with upper primary children and can be the basis of nearly all behaviour management with youth.


Behaviour boundaries define expectations and what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in a specific situation.
Mr. PG is a device  used to remind children of some basic boundaries at the Kids Club at Parafield Gardens. At the start of each session a volunteer child draws the head and explains the rules that relate to each feature:
Circle that becomes the head: we stay inside the marked areas of the building
Eyes: we watch for ways of helping others
Ears: we listen to leaders
Mouth: we say only kind words.


Consequences are the results of behaviour, good or bad.
The natural consequences of good or 'appropriate' behaviour are a program that runs smoothly in a safe, peaceful atmosphere. There can also be created consequences such as praise or rewards.
The consequences of bad, or 'inappropriate', behaviour are problems and conflict. There are natural consequences: if you are talking when you should be listening, you won't know where to go, what to do. And there are created consequences: if you are talking when you should be listening; everyone else will turn their back on you.
The more natural the consequences, the more children will learn to manage their own behaviour. However, in the case of really unsafe behaviour, there is a need to intervene without letting the child or others suffer the natural consequences.
And that's why we help children understand the need for boundaries.

The hard cases!

There will always be some cases where the best intentioned behaviour management policies don't produce the desired results. This is particularly true for church based programs where

  • the leader and the child may not have regular ongoing contact 
  • there is no external compulsion 
  • there is a culture of grace and forgiveness, which may look like softness and not produce the short-term results we feel we need.

When a child in your program regularly (or suddenly in an out-of-character way)

  • acts in ways that compromise their own safety and the safety of others, 
  • interferes with their enjoyment and that of others, or 
  • defies agreed upon boundaries,

then it may be necessary to take other steps.

Your behaviour management plan will include the steps and when they are to be used, eg  

  1. prayer for the child
  2. supervised time-out
  3. a one-on-one chat with the child about the way their behaviour is effecting the child's relationship with the leader and the group (and, with an older child, seeking a negotiated solution)
  4. a conference with the child's parent/s to identify underlying causes and to find out if the problem is general or specific to your program
  5. transfer from the group program into an individualised mentoring program with a responsible teen or adult.

In all areas of behaviour management in church settings, avoid

  • physical punishment 
  • emotional abuse 
  • labelling, and
  • 'Bible-based' threats.


Additional resources:

There are many resources for leaders working in children's ministry. If you are looking for a book to read on this topic see books for leaders. The below links are a presentation that Melissa Cellier did at the 2007 Back to Basics training day.