You and others in your ministry have worked hard to create a loving, welcoming, safe environment for every young person who attends your Bible classes and events. Yet it can all be undermined by any toxic behavior of one or more of the students in your environment towards their peers. Unfortunately, toxic children and teens have long ago mastered the art of hiding these negative behaviors from most adults. If you don’t root it out, however, you will begin to notice a decline in attendance or an increase in cliques or students who isolate themselves from others. None of which enhance the effectiveness of your ministry.
So, how do you find and root out any toxic behavior in your student population? It’s not always easy, but there are a few changes you can make that will increase the chances of you discovering and handling it quickly.
- Pay attention to conversations between students. The biggest complaint those who are suffering at the hands of peers often voice is that the teachers and other adults are in the room when incidents happen, but fail to notice them. You don’t have to eavesdrop on private conversations, merely watch for body language indicating someone is hearing something that is painful. Look for heated exchanges. Listen for key words that don’t sound loving or kind. Watch for anger or fear in one or more faces. Walk around as students work on activities. Not only does this allow you to give needed assistance on the activity, but it makes it less likely that a student wanting to say something toxic will do it in an environment where they are more likely to be overheard by an adult. Pay attention to your students and their interactions!
- Think about “tattling” differently. No, you don’t want children to come to you with minor complaints they could have easily handled. You do, however, need to support and encourage students who come to you either because someone is saying hurtful things or bullying them or someone else. Never send these children away with a scolding for tattling. They are coming to you for adult assistance in handling a situation where someone is being hurt emotionally. You wouldn’t reprimand a child who came to you bleeding or told you about another bleeding child. Nor should you scold a child who is hurting emotionally or knows of someone who is being hurt.
- Reinforce positive peer interactions. Regularly talk about how God wants us to treat one another. Praise children when you hear them encouraging someone. Thank them for going out of their way to be kind to a fellow student. Make it clear that in your classroom the expectation is that everyone will treat each other with kindness, respect and agape love.
- Support your most vulnerable students. Certain young people are more likely to be teased, treated poorly or bullied. It often stems from the fact that those being hurtful perceive them as being different from the rest of the peers in the group in some way. Often this can be improved by making a concentrated effort to helping them discover the things they do have in common (and teaching them how to do it without your help). It can also be helpful to remind students they are all a part of your classroom or ministry family and should treat each other accordingly. What that looks like as far as how they interact with one another should be thoroughly described by you, in case the families of some of your students are also toxic in the ways they interact with one another.
- Address suspected toxic behaviors swiftly, privately and in a firm, but loving manner. There is an old saying that “hurting people hurt people”. That doesn’t excuse their toxic behavior, but it helps you better understand the root causes that may need to be addressed. Be aware though that asking a child with poor metacognition skills what they were thinking before they said or did something hurtful, will be answered with blank looks. Sometimes, asking what is bothering them and continuing to ask them to dig a little deeper, may reveal the cause of the pain that encouraged the toxic behavior. Sometimes it may be something simple lack a poor night’s sleep or skipping breakfast that morning. In other cases, you may find the person has a deeper, more serious pain that needs to be addressed. Regardless of the cause, children who behave poorly towards others do need to be lovingly, but firmly corrected. If there are repeated instances, helping the child develop strategies for making better choices in their interactions with others can be life changing.
Don’t excuse the toxic behavior of children or teens towards their peers as “children will be children”. There is never an excuse for being unkind or cruel towards others. Find out if it is happening in your classroom or ministry and root it out. Your students are counting on you and your ministry will be enhanced once it truly is a loving, caring environment on all levels.