Beyond Zero Tolerance: When Kids Behave Aggressively at Church

Our blog series for Fall will take an in-depth look at issues and challenges that arise in ministry with kids who demonstrate aggressive behavior at church. We’ll kick off the series by examining why this topic is so vexing for church staff, volunteers and parents.

Four years ago, when I was in Washington D.C. to work on a project for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry I took a break and went out to McLean Bible Church to pick Jackie Mills-Fernald’s brain. Jackie heads up McLean’s remarkable Access Ministry, was very involved in the development of Jill’s House respite facility, and hosts the church’s enormously popular Accessibility Summit. I’d asked Jackie if there were specific topics or ministry concerns where our team could develop new training or address an unmet need. Her response was for us to put together a workshop for the 2008 Accessibility Summit on the topic of serving kids with aggressive behavior at church. Katie Wetherbee (then a Key Ministry volunteer) and I led that first workshop. Based upon the attendance, we knew Jackie had truly touched on a significant concern among folks serving in children’s, youth and disability ministry.

Why is this such a hot topic? Here are a few thoughts…

Serving kids who become aggressive is messy. It’s not pleasant getting hit or bit. Kids who exhibit aggressive behavior probably aren’t going to say “Thank You” or give you a hug at the end of the morning. Working with a kid who regularly becomes aggressive doesn’t make for the most satisfying volunteer experience. And what church leader wants to run the risk of losing committed volunteers?

Kids with aggressive behavior don’t do what they’re supposed to. Their most troublesome behaviors can easily be conceptualized (sometimes, incorrectly) as sin. Their behavior doesn’t fit with our expectations for how kids are supposed to behave at church.

Kids who behave aggressively evoke fear…fear for yourself, fear for the safety of other kids in your ministry environments, fear of the reaction from parents of other kids exposed to troublesome behavior, fear of liability and fear of possible responses from church leaders.

Kids with aggressive behavior expose our judgmental nature. It’s hard for church staff and volunteers to work with kids with disruptive or aggressive behavior without at least occasionally making assumptions about the parents. Unfortunately, parents of kids with disabilities are exquisitely sensitive to the perception of being judged at church.

Kids who behave aggressively take us out of our comfort zone. They violate our sense of being in control…and I’ve met more than a few church leaders who really like being in control. They force church staff and volunteers to re-evaluate everything about what we’re doing…the content of our programming, the environments in which we do ministry, the way we train volunteers, and the outcomes we desire when working with families. They force us to think. A lot.

I’ve saved this topic until now because the challenges kids present when they routinely exhibit aggressive behavior can be extraordinarily complex. Kids with aggressive behavior are among the most challenging patients in my practice. Not all kids who behave aggressively necessarily have disabilities. But I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where Jesus gives us a pass on our responsibility to share His love or the Gospel with kids prone to act aggressively and their families. So let’s get to work in exploring how we can do a better job of including kids vulnerable to aggression into our ministry environments while maintaining the safety of those environments for all kids, staff and volunteers.

Here’s what we plan to cover…

What do we know about kids at risk for behaving aggressively?

Why kids might become aggressive at church

When are kids most at risk for aggressive behavior at church?

Strategies for maintaining safe environments

Tips for Sunday School teachers and youth leaders

The ABC’s of intervention when kids become aggressive

Just one more thing…

Put yourself in the parents’ shoes

What can parents do to help?

Thinking outside the box…what if the risks are too great for a child to come to church?

Tuesday: What do we know about kids at risk for behaving aggressively?


KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to Beyond Zero Tolerance: When Kids Behave Aggressively at Church

  1. Pingback: Untitled 1

  2. Steve, a truly important topic if the church is going to be a place of welcome and inclusion for all children…even those with challenging behaviors. I look forward to discovering how those of us in special needs ministry go about preventing or de-escalating crisis behaviors in a way that is unique to who we are as Christ-followers!


  3. mr e says:

    Zero Tolerance DOES NOT WORK! I was fired from a job for of all things “sneezing without permission”


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