As both a former child and now a teacher, I have come to believe that you cannot fully address student misbehavior without viewing it from a spiritual lens.
For many years of my life, I found myself caught in family patterns which I gradually learned to change as an adult. As a child, I frequently tested limits and my actions mirrored the instability of my home life. Ultimately, my teachers and friends did reach me. By experiencing the consequences that my actions had on loved ones AND being wooed into change by the love I had for them, a process of transformation started in me that eventually led me to Jesus. To this day, loyalty and love still motivates me to love others when its difficult (something I learned through loving family).
Now as a teacher, I have had many opportunities to reach out or isolate myself from students, based on their behavior. I have learned that most students respond to love, and most have the will to change if they are doing the wrong thing. Children often know when their actions are wrong, but they don’t always know how to stop. They usually need someone to show them a better way.
Just like the goal of the gospel isn’t just behavior modification but transformation of the whole person into the likeness of Christ, the goal of responding to student misbehavior should go beyond behavior modification into heart transformation. Similarly in Matthew 23, Jesus reminds his listeners that transformation must come from the inside out.
Some Ineffective Behavior Modification Methods
Since joining the field of education, I’ve seen instances of various methods being used for behavior modification. While some of these strategies may have the appearance of goodness, they are not powerful enough to transform the heart. The fruit they produce is insufficient.
- Greater surveillance (implies distrust-worthiness at identity level)
- Material Rewards (like stickers, which give joy but don’t transform)
- Increased relational attention based on performance (teaches conditional love)
- Food (Working in low-income schools, I’ve seen how offering food as an incentive dehumanizes the food-insecure. It can also stimulate trauma bonding with teachers who have a dysfunctional classroom management style, and creates further barriers to students receiving unconditional love. In my prior school environment, using food as an incentive was very common. Instead, school communities in developed areas should provide open access to food through partnering with external organizations. If these organizations do not exist, generosity and creativity can provide other ways of feeding hungry students and their families.)
- Greater access to choice/academic freedom (academic and social freedom should be accessible regardless of behavior –> to control for the sake of manipulation instead of stewardship is to misunderstand the Freedom in Christ)
- Punishment (Not the same as natural consequences. Punishment is adding an additional negative consequence that would not exist through natural consequences. While natural consequences can help students draw relationships between the causes and effects of their actions, punishment alienates children and does nothing to teach them a better way, abandoning them to the spiritual and environmental strongholds contributing to their bad behavior.)
So how do you respond to the internal needs of students in a way that starts with the spiritual issue, and provides freedom that manifests in the emotions and their natural environment?
Know Your Students’ Families
Before understanding how to support students, one must realize that student well-being is intrinsically linked to the well-being of their families. Deuteronomy 6 is a great place to see how parents actions affect future generations, and parents’ responsibilities in raising their children.
Therefore, it is important for teachers to know their students’ families well, because families are their children’s first and most effective teachers. Since God designed parents to be children’s overseers, protectors, and guides, parents are meant to be their children’s first spiritual directors, helping them discern the voice of God. In recent years before the coronavirus pandemic, it has been increasingly common for parents to shift the responsibility and authority of parenting to teachers. Instead, teachers should play a supplemental role to parents, both providing supports and holding them accountable for their children.
Knowing and loving students’ families helps teachers understand which student traits and behaviors are familial patterns (for better or for worse). While many parents are healed of trauma and grounded enough to support their children’s holistic health, in a broken world, it is not reasonable to expect that all families will be. Many parents are still trying to process their own trauma, and are caught in cycles that they also need to be set free from. Helping students overcome the root causes of their negative behaviors much easier when family members are supportive, and are not committing the same errors themselves. However, students can still start the healing process even in an unstable environment with the support of caring adults.
While many resources and organizations already exist for counseling for both children and adults, that is not the lens of this post. Instead, this post is written from a lens of spiritual warfare.
What is Spiritual Warfare?
Spiritual warfare is based on belief within certain Christian groups that spiritual strongholds, and not people, are the root cause of most individual, regional, and systemic dysfunction. Therefore, Spiritual warfare is a set of practices whose goal is to address the spiritual root of an issue. One of the most commonly quoted verses on Spiritual Warfare is Ephesians 6, which says ” our wrestle is not against flesh and blood…but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). It is important to note that these principles directly relate to right relationships between people. Before discussing spiritual warfare, Paul describes right relationships between those in authoritative roles and those who support them, whether in families or in the form of slavery practiced during Paul’s day (which resembled indentured servanthood more than modern chattel slavery). If we would see the world restored, we must start at home.
If this concept still seems a little vague or spooky, a practical example of this issue could be that of addiction. If someone was guilty of neglecting their children due to some form of addiction, it is clear that root cause isn’t necessarily that person’s hatred for their family, but their addiction that is manipulating their behavior. In general, problems must be addressed at their source at the spiritual level. If problems are resolved at the spiritual level, students will come into freedom to see God correctly in their situation, providing their lack. They will also be equipped to see themselves as God sees them (capable, smart, trustworthy, etc). That knowledge can set students free!
The following are steps that parents or teachers might find useful in supporting students from a perspective of spiritual warfare. I recognize that the topic of spiritual warfare is intimidating for some. However, if we are in Christ, Jesus has already put the enemy under our feet. There is no need for fear and no need to settle for less than being empowered by the Holy Spirit to overcome spiritual strongholds and live in freedom. These are several steps I’ve found useful in interceding in prayer for students, along with some anonymous anecdotes of what has happened afterwards.
1. Start in Prayer. Ask God how he sees the other person. Discern the root cause, and war against the spiritual stronghold that is hindering them.
Prayer should always be the starting place for resolving any conflict. Just like the practice of praying for enemies, by praying for individuals, God shows us his heart for them and equips us to love them. By starting in this relational place of love, we can then inquire from a softened heart (instead of hurt, anger, or pride) how God wants to speak into the situation. Restoration that comes from God will transform the other individual at the heart level, transform us to love better, and transform communities.
But one must know how to pray effectively! In order to understand and address the spiritual side of student behavior issues, you have to practice discernment to understand the root cause of student misbehavior. Once you have named the root cause (remember: spiritual, not people), pray that God would 1) bind the specific spiritual stronghold/root and 2) pray to release the opposite.
2. Address the issue at the individual and communal level. Discern how the Holy Spirit wants to speak into the issue. Do what you see the Holy Spirit doing.
Once you have dealt with the issue in prayer, you are then free to discuss the issue with the student and their surrounding community. This could mean a variety of different things, so it’s important to again, seek and obey the Holy Spirit. For the individuals Jesus healed in the four gospels, healing always occurred at the level of the individual, but resulted in restoration of the individual to community (and healing of the community itself). Similarly in Job, healing proceeds from the individual to the community level. Ultimately the story of Job is just as much about communal healing as it is personal encounter, given the great missteps of Job’s family and friends. Both individual and communal restoration are a process that can happen either instantaneously or progressively.
3. Allow change to affect your practice at a systemic level (changing YOUR OWN heart).
As communal restoration progresses, it is unlikely that your heart will be unchanged. Sometimes, the communal restoration process unearths the limits of our own love, our own patience, or own own grace. Luckily, we are created to be dependent on God, and he gives to all who ask him freely.
In the story of Jonah, Jonah had no intention of being used by God to bless his enemies. Once it became clear that God would not take Jonah’s no for an answer, Jonah obeyed begrudgingly, but in spite of his external actions, his heart was still unchanged. It took an encounter with God to expose the uncleanness of Jonah’s own heart, and reprove his hatred of the Ninevites. The story ends as a question with no recorded reply, with God asking, “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” This cliffhanger ending is meant to prompt the listener into reflection about the hardness of their own heart.
It is very likely that this heart change will result in changes to classroom systems and procedures. For example, seeing one family who has struggled with isolation and hopelessness start to believe that God has a greater purpose for their lives will probably help you to feel less annoyed in receiving untimely texts asking for passwords to digital learning platforms. Enough instances of transformation such as these will probably inspire you to prioritize making a connection with families earlier in the school year and to be less easily offended when individuals fall short. You will be equipped to genuinely rejoice with those who rejoice because God has given you genuine love for them. Much more effective than awkward and/or punitive parent teacher conferences.
So how does this all look in practice? Here are some recent anecdotes that will hopefully shed some light. I’m intentionally including 3 anecdotes whose external behaviors were nearly identical in order to make the point that discernment is everything.
- Unmotivated Student A: The root cause of this students’ apathy was rejection and isolation, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. This student was the only high achieving male in his predominantly female classroom, and past teachers had failed to keep him adequately challenged. Combined with low impulse control and all-or-nothing explosive emotions at home, praying for this student meant declaring his high calling in the Lord, and binding anything that would attempt to derail him from his future (discouragement). This student needed to know that 1) his teachers saw his capacity, and would hold him accountable to it 2) that he is one of many highly capable young men (requires relationship/mentorship), 3) any classroom boundaries would be used as a tool to help him pursue things he is passionate about. While I’m still working on getting this student connected to mentors/highly motivated peers, I have seen a great shift in his willingness to be challenged and desire to emotionally engage. Based on our grade level structure, I will still have him in my class next year!
- Unmotivated Student B: The root cause of this students’ apathy was a sense of rejection that he felt both from peers and also from his parents. Meanwhile, his parents felt increasingly isolated (even before the pandemic), and needed to deal with their own difficulties with low self-worth/fear of authenticity. Praying for this student meant reaffirming his chosenness and his value before God (binding an Orphan spirit). Working with this student meant communicating a deep sense of solidarity and persevering to show him grace when his limit testing behaviors did not openly invite it (think the Prodigal Son). Ultimately, this student needed the security that comes from knowing you won’t be abandoned in order to choose a better path. While he’s still working on his responsibility level, his work completion, social skills with peers, and interactions with teachers have improved tremendously as a result of feeling wanted. This is the type of student who seems really difficult at the beginning of the year, but holds a special place in your heart by the end of it. Ironically, this student has needed a sense of belonging and for people to make room in their hearts for him. It’s no coincidence. As a bonus, befriending this students’ parents has allowed them to have a greater tether to the school community, that they didn’t have before. I have watched a sense of loneliness and the corresponding burden lift, and watched as they have been increasingly transparent with me about their limits (and more willing to ask for help). Lucky for me, we have a very functional school support system, so it’s not up to me alone to reach out to them. Still, I enjoy our chats.
- Unmotivated Student C: The root cause of this students’ misbehavior didn’t come from a lack of parental support, but too much of it (in this case, co-dependence). He is one of many codependent boys I’ve known raised by single moms, who often in spite of their best efforts, expect too little from their kids. Since this student is so bright, he’s managed to underperform on assignments because he knows that the less he does, the less seriously others will take him. As might be expected, social skills are a little tricky for him too. The most important factor in all of this is that he has few family members who have gone an explicitly academic route. In spite of this boy’s capacity, he would prefer others do things for him, and doesn’t identify himself as particularly scholarly. In praying for this student, I had to specifically declare that he was destined for sharpness (in academics) and not dullness, that he and his family were meant for more than just making ends meet, and that he would be held accountable because the Lord disciplines those whom he loves. In addressing these issues on a parent teacher conference with our grade level team, I made it very clear that because I know he is capable, I expect more from him. Since then, this student has begun to believe that he is truly capable, and has been optimistically giving me more when I ask, almost like he’s hoping I will. While he still is working to set his own goals and believe in himself without others’ support, the fact that he is looking forward to challenges is marvelous.
While each individual can choose how they want to parent their children OR support their students, I find spiritual warfare to be a useful lens and the most effective method to intercede for my students. While some of the aspects of these anecdotes may seem personal, in reality, most details are in plain sight for anyone who has the interest to observe. Knowing these details prompts me to protect my students’/families’ privacy, not expose their flaws or condemn them.
To any skeptics, I understand. I didn’t endorse this sort of thing for various years. However, I’ve seen God do tremendous things, and I feel confident that at the very least, my prayers are doing no net harm. Full disclosure: as someone who went to counseling for years but didn’t see any noticeable changes, my rationale for supporting this lens comes out of personal experience. However, I believe that God can use a variety of methods to address individuals’ holistic health, including counseling or medicine for those who need it. That being said, I am certainly suspicious of any methods that do not have the effect of helping those who are earnestly in search of help.
May we all see God clearly, love our students and their families from a pure heart, and be transformed by many glorious answers to prayer. Amen!
2 thoughts on “Going After Heart Change: Addressing the Spiritual Root of Student Misbehavior”
I love how Haley weaves together good educational practices, authentic care for her students and their families, and her own spiritual gifts to help students succeed. Her grounding in scripture and the lens of the transformation possible by the power of God help us see how we also can implement a similar approach with those we are in position to influence.