Discipleship Training

Strategies for Working With Children With Behavior Disorders


Andrea is a bright, popular, very clever, and genuinely funny young woman who appears to be a leader among her peers. Andrea has one very annoying habit. While her catechist is teaching, Andrea is forever making editorial comments and/or talking to her friend at the same time. After just two weeks, Andrea’s pervasive behavior is tearing the heart of the group.

Eric receives support during his academic day for behavior disorders. He has difficulty sitting in his chair and keeping safe hands (working within the boundaries of his personal space and using pencils, pens, or other handheld objects for their intended purpose). He interrupts the catechist with irrelevant stories and persists in repeating the same story no matter how the conversation has been directed.

One of the most difficult things for a catechist to do is discipline his or her neighbor’s child. It is all the more difficult when the child is bright and capable of taking a leadership role. Disciplining a child whose behavior never seems in control is most frustrating.

The behavior of both of these children must be modified in order for the group as a whole to benefit from the learning experience the catechist has planned.

One simple yet effective strategy is Dr. Thomas Phelan’s “1, 2, 3 Magic.” By searching the Internet, you can find many resources that will lead you to Dr. Phelan’s strategy. His strategies are very effective with children up through fifth grade who are unable to manage their own behavior without adult intervention, whether they are just unhappy about their time in religious education or are diagnosed with a behavior disorder.

In keeping with Dr. Phelan’s strategy, don’t waste time explaining to Andrea or Eric how disruptive their choice of behavior is. The time you have allotted for your session is very precious and all too brief. When dealing with behavior disorders, make a commitment to verbally note behavior from any single individual that is disrespectful and disruptive to the group. If that behavior has been noted three times, you will ask the child to sit outside the circle of discussion. One of the most painful consequences for young people is to sit outside of the circle of activity of their peers. Not only is it embarrassing, they truly do not want to miss the learning experience. If the situation warrants it, you may need to arrange for the child to meet with the program coordinator or director (remember to never send a child out of the room alone).

Simply identify the problem.

“Eric, talking while I am talking is disrespectful; that’s 1.”

“Eric, talking while I am talking is disrespectful; that’s 2.”

“Eric, that’s 3; take five [minutes/time out] or please see Mr.(s) or Ms. Coordinator.”

You and your coordinator will have discussed how to effectively manage this disruptive behavior; therefore, your support system is in place. The director or coordinator can put into motion an effective problem-solving strategy and either get Andrea or Eric back into the room as quickly as possible, or determine an alternative solution or process that returns the child back to his or her peers and helps him or her participate respectfully.

Whether you use the “1, 2, 3, Magic” strategy or another, you will want to follow the safety rules of your program and make the children accountable for their behavior; identify the problem with the appropriate adult; determine a solution; and return to the session and try again.

Engaging the wisdom and assistance of a child’s parents can also help with a child who has been identified as having behavior disorders. If you can collaborate with a management system that is ongoing in the home and school, then you can help complete the child’s circle of support. This win/win situation is good for everyone. If the child is older, you and your director should meet as quickly as possible with the child and his or her parents and identify the problem and ways for the child to take responsibility to manage his or her behavior

Here are some other simple strategies for dealing with behavior disorders:

  • check with catechists who have previously worked with the child to identify effective strategies and techniques
  • surround the child with other children who exhibit appropriate behavior
  • provide a structured environment
  • acknowledge good behavior and positive contributions made by the child with a behavior disorder
  • treat the child with respect and consideration and be fair in responding to poor behavior
  • identify the child’s strengths and work toward them
  • provide encouragement
  • be patient and work toward gradual improvement
  • plan for success but anticipate situations in which the child has difficulty behaving and prepare appropriate strategies to mitigate such behavior
  • put the child in charge of an activity that can reduce his or her aggressiveness
  • avoid confrontation

Discipleship training requires simple, well-articulated, and consistently managed teaching strategies. Children who demonstrate poor control of their behavior do so because they have needs beyond our immediate grasp of understanding. Their attention-seeking behavior is more than we have the time to possibly address in a religious education program. However, we can help them manage their poor behavior and reward their positive contributions. We can help their peers understand that everyone belongs in our community and that we gather in faith to help each other understand God’s love. Andrea and Eric are most likely very bright young children and need our support in order for them to prepare to share God’s Word in their everyday lives.