You have a wonderful, but difficult job. People say “bless you” when you tell them your title. You wake up on Sunday mornings with this week’s Bible verse on your lips and butterflies in your stomach. You have witnessed more people giving their hearts to Jesus than most people will ever do in their lifetime. You have walked into church with glue on your hands and a cotton ball stuck to your shoe.
Your subject matter is invaluable, but you don’t get paid. Your job is monumental, but you already work full-time somewhere else. You try to keep the kids quiet and happy, but they are miserable until they can make some noise. There is a curriculum, but no principal. There are expectations, but no tests. It’s the weekend, but you’ve got to convince them to go to school. Sound familiar? If so, then you’re a Sunday school teacher.
And I owe you an apology. I fed you lunch, handed you the curriculum, gave you details about logistics, and even prayed for you…but I left you to guess about the unspoken struggle when dealing with children’s ministry: discipline.
I don’t claim, in any way, to know everything about classroom management or discipline. In fact, there are many ways in which I could improve in this area, but I can pass on a few tools that I’ve learned along the way.
- You can expect the kids to obey you. One of my favorite quotes about training kids is from Dr. Dobson: “The two most important things you can teach your young child is that he is loved and he is not the boss.”
- It sounds contradictory, but while you are expecting them to obey, you can also expect them to push back. Good teachers are ready for students to try to bend the rules, so when it happens, they don’t get pulled in emotionally or flustered. Your students are kids, not robots, so they will try. But we are the boss, right?
- You can expect them to be smart. Sometimes, we are so quick to feed information and we miss out on an opportunity for kids to figure things out themselves. It sends the message that they should be passive and decreases their engagement almost immediately. One of the hardest things I had to learn to do as a teacher was to be patient and increase my “wait time”. This involves less talking from the teacher and more thinking space for the students.
- Offer a second chance. "Try that again” -usually when you offer a kid a second chance, he will obey/respond appropriately.
- Proximity and Touch is so effective.- Sometimes, just moving closer to a child who is distracted will help. Or, by simply putting your hand on a child’s shoulder while you are giving instructions or to redirect him, adds to the impact.
- Choice is very motivating, even when it’s in disguise. “You can choose whether you would like to play a game or do this craft.” It’s freedom within boundaries, and it usually leads to less rebellion. Also, choices can be taken away if needed. “Sorry, you’ll have to move to another activity since you aren’t following the rules here.”
- Talk to the parents. Please don’t feel like you have to lie and say a child is behaving “great” if he isn't. Let the parent know what you are struggling with, and ask what motivates the child at home. Good parents want to be told the truth about their children, even if it’s not pretty. Make sure to follow up and report any improvement. And to be clear, we are talking about patterns of behavior, not isolated incidents, unless very serious. Everyone has a bad day.
- Balance your schedule well. For elementary students, for every minute that you need them to sit still and listen, also allow for two minutes of movement and appropriate noise. If you expect them follow only your directions for a certain time, also give them other opportunities to choose what they would like to do.
- Don’t ask for permission: Eliminate the word “Okay?” from your instructions. Instead of saying, “I want you to take out your Bible, okay?” say: “It’s time to take out your Bible.” Let your language show who is in authority.
- Smile. Talk. Ask questions and listen. The more you engage with the kids, the more they will feel loved and want to participate appropriately. You all are so good at this! :)
And finally, there aren’t enough ways to thank you for your countless hours of service, for enduring the graham cracker crumbs and crashing block towers, and for using your gifts in such a sacrificial way.
Your church loves and appreciates you. And the kids do too, they just show it a little messier.
Elementary Education Coordinator
Central Presbyterian Church