I volunteer with children regularly, usually very young preschool or toddler age. One of the common issues I have noticed is that handling disobeying children can become complicated when your the authority figure trusted with the child, but in a volunteer format where exact expectations from parents are unclear.

For example, I once was a teacher aid for sunday school class for preschool age children, and I was the one responsible for handling distractions and problematic children so the teacher could focus on her lesson. These kids were so young, with no experience with this sort of format, and so we had a decent number of issues with kids just not knowing what the rules were they were suppose to follow.

Most of the time simple corrections would be all it took, maybe taking away a toy. However, what happens if a child refuses to give me a toy, or if I tell two fighting kids to sit in opposite corners to separate them and one refuses to do so?

With a kid in my family I would physically take the toy, or carry them to where they need to be. However, I don't know what the parents' opinion will be of my using physical force to control their children. I'm already a male , which sadly means I have to watch my every action due to idiotic prejudice about men working with kids, so I'm afraid of any risk of being seen overstepping my boundaries.

One child I remember fondly was not a bad kid, but was hyperactive (ADHD), had a desperate desire for attention, even if negative, and did not yet understand why his acting out in class was a problem. He was a real nightmare of distraction, running away just so someone would have to chase him because he thought it was fun, doing stuff to force me to give him attention to make him stop etc. He could easily single handled prevent any lesson from being taught if left unchecked.

Ultimately I managed to work out a policy of giving lots of positive attention whenever possible, and making 'discipline' from acting out as boring as possible for him; it worked pretty well actually, and his mother told us she was very pleased with the progress he made with us, to the point she felt ready to put him into school a year earlier. However, part of handling him meant (very short) time outs for misbehaving where I would have to sit beside him (while pointedly giving no interesting attention to him) to stop him when he inevitably tried to get up and run away from the char (which happened multiple times per time-out originally). The first time we used this timeout policy I had to physically stop him probably a dozen times in just a few minutes.

I had the mother's defacto permission in this case; however, I don't know how I would have handled this child if I didn't have explicit permission to physically restrain him if needed. I could see some overbearing parents being quite displeased with the same course of action I used with this child if I hadn't gotten express permission.

So my question is how do you handle these situations as a defacto-authority figure? How do you know where the limit of the authority afforded to you by the parents are, and when they would consider it crossed. And what methods do I have to deal with infractions, including fighting between children, which really can't be ignored, if the child won't cooperate with me and I don't know what authority I have?

1 Answer 1


When you are working/volunteering with children, there ought to be specific policies laid out regarding what types of discipline/correction are appropriate and what types are not.

If your church (or other organization) doesn't have a policy like this, perhaps it's time to approach the appropriate people about developing one. Such a policy is important both to protect the children from inappropriate behaviour on the part of adults, and to protect the adults from allegations of inappropriate behaviour on the part of the children/parents.

If a policy is in place, I would assume that any parents leaving their children with you have read and agreed with the policy, so all you need to do is behave according to the policy.

That being said, I assume that you don't currently have such a policy in place, or you wouldn't be asking the question.

It's hard to know how to behave, because there is the occasional parent that has unreasonable expectations of caregivers. (I imagine most reasonable parents would not have a problem with you physically moving a child or restraining them, as long as it was done gently and non-violently.)

Probably the best policy is to try to be as non-physical as possible with the children. If it becomes evident that physical intervention will be necessary to maintain order, then I suggest talking with the parents of that child about it (as it seems you did with one child already). Tell them what is going on, and ask for their permission to physically restrain the child when necessary. Try to phrase it as benignly as possible:

Johnny has trouble staying in his seat during the lesson. If he refuses to sit in his seat, are you OK with me helping him back to his seat, or helping him to stay in his seat?

(Pick the language that you find most appropriate.)

If the parents aren't on board, I think it's fair to request that they either attend the class with the child to help keep his behaviour in check, or else remove the child from the class. Explain that his behaviour is disrupting the other students, and it's not fair to the rest of the class that they can't learn because of one student's disruptive behaviour.

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    Policy: Yes, yes, yes. You need to follow a policy or develop one (in writing, and parents need to be aware of it). There are liability concerns when handling any child, and as a volunteer your "authority" is shaky at best if the children choose not to listen to you. As a volunteer I would never physically restrain a child unless someone was in immediate physical danger. I would consider myself reasonable in most cases, but I would not be okay with a non-employee physically handling my child. In such cases, you'd be best served seeking a staff member for intervention.
    – user11394
    Jul 22, 2015 at 19:17

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