Raising good kids with good character has always been important for parents. But after the global pandemic that disrupted the entire world, looking beyond behavior to help kids become more like Jesus has never been more paramount for leaders as we partner with parents in building the faith of their children.

I recently went out for lunch with an older couple who has served in our kids’ ministry for over four years. The couple came back excited to serve again after making sure that they were healthy enough to return after the pandemic shutdowns.

After just a few weeks of serving, the older male volunteer voiced his frustrations to me. This critical volunteer felt he spent the majority of his time managing the small group from poor behaviors. The sad part is, he wasn’t the only one noticing the rise in behavioral issues.

Dad helping his son climb up slide
Image Credit: Getty Images/Digital Vision/Willie B Thomas

Concerning Data

Our parents, schoolteachers, kids’ ministry practitioners, and global researchers have noticed similar issues. These poor behaviors often stem from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. And as the alarming data below shows, behavior issues in children are on the rise. 

  • The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s data findings from 2020 shows that “rates of children’s physical inactivity, misbehavior, and unmet health needs shot up during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • The National Survey of Children’s Health found a 21% increase in children with behavior or conduct problems reported by their parents or caregivers between 2019 and 2020.
  • In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) joined together to declare a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health because the rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide intensified by the stress brought on by COVID-19.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents jumped 31% in 2020, compared with 2019.
  • Child Mind Institute’s new survey in 2021 shared that about 30–40% of young people say they feel anxious, depressed, and/or stressed. Parents tell the same story when asked about their kids.

Staying Encouraged to Equip our Teams

With the decreasing number of volunteers and the increasing number of behavior issues in kids, how can we as kids ministry leaders stay encouraged and equip our parents in building the faith of their children so that all of us get beyond managing outward behavior?

To go beyond behavior as a kid’s ministry leader, we must constantly ask ourselves these four important questions:

Who am I?

Romans 3:23, Philippians 2:3

Wherever we are in a position of influence, the fallen sinfulness of humanity tempts us to believe that it is our “job” to perfectly know, teach, and fix a problem, especially if it’s a child with the problem. It takes hard work to keep our hearts humble before the Lord.

As leaders and teachers, our attitudes must reflect Jesus’ servant heart. We need to remind ourselves to prioritize how we are with children. To look beyond the behavior and become more like the One to whom we belong, ask yourself:

  • What is it about this child’s behavior that bothers me?
    • Are there any biases or learning styles I might have that might differ from the child?
    • What are some healthy tools or emotional regulating mechanisms I personally use that I can share with the child on how to manage stress?
    • What brought me here to serve these kids today?

Who is the Child?

Psalms 139:14, Romans 8:17

Identity drives behavior. Children share their thoughts when they feel safe and loved. They are just in the beginning stages of discovering their identity and the unique and wonderful ways they were created to reflect the image of God.

We get to have a big impact in helping kids know that they are more than just the choices they make and the behaviors they display. Look beyond their behavior and help them see their true value. Help them become more like the One to whom they belong and ask:

  • What is this telling us about the child? What kind of background, family structure, school environment are they surrounded in?
    • What is the “why” behind the behavior? Is there a hidden trigger that you see? What are behaviors telling us about the child’s underlying processes?
    • What age is the child? Is what you are asking of them age-appropriate? When we fail to recognize that many behaviors represent the body’s response to stress, not intentional misbehavior, we forget to help children logically connect their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors when they simply can’t yet.
    • What is something you can affirm about this child to help them better grasp who they are as a uniquely created child of God?
    • Do you recognize the effort they are making to change?

We get to have a big impact in helping kids know that they are more than just the choices they make and the behaviors they display.

The Community

Deuteronomy 6:1-6

Kids ministry is so much more than a weekend service. It is an opportunity for kids to be in a community of Jesus-loving leaders and friends where they can learn about God through example. It is where they will witness the beautiful ways God shows His love … through His church, His people, and through relationships.

Look beyond the behavior. Become more like the One to whom we belong and ask for help by asking yourself:

  • What are ways I can partner with parents to go beyond managing the outward behavior? Does my method of dealing with the behavior match up to the parenting style at home?
    • What are ways to help everyone at the church value kids to focus on WHO they are vs WHAT they do?
    • Are they acting out at school? Are there tools the schools use that work that I can adapt during my program?
    • If the behavior is beyond my scope of expertise, is there a special needs expert I can reach out to?

The Change Agent

1 John 2:1-29, John 14:26, Psalm 51:10 

It is by the grace of God through faith that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that same Spirit convicts and dwells in the hearts of children. It is the Holy Spirit Who will fully be able to see deep into a child’s heart. Spiritual transformation can begin in childhood.

Look beyond the behavior. Become more like the One to whom we belong and look at the heart of the matter:

  • Have I spent time in prayer asking the Holy Spirit to lead?
    • What is the end goal that I want with that child while they are in your care? Is it to make disciples of Jesus?                                                                                                 

Jesus as the Heart Changer

In our post-pandemic season of ministry, there’s a need for greater specificity and intentionality to look beyond the behavior and understand the why. But according to the CDC, there are not enough child therapists, funding in schools, or access to meet the needs of the mental and behavioral issues that are rapidly on the rise, especially in hurting communities.

Jesus is in the business of heart changes that ultimately lead to behavior changes. He cares about the deep matters of the heart, and He especially cares about children. What if we looked beyond the behaviors and instead focused on helping kids understand the big picture of the gospel in the Bible? What if we helped others to see God as they integrate biblical principles into their daily lives?

Jesus is in the business of heart changes that ultimately lead to behavior change.

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