Teach wide-eyed, jaw-dropping lessons every time — and stop disruptions before they start.
That Sunday morning, I’d just had it! My Kids Church ministry had attracted three out-of-control fifth-grade boys. They’d snickered, joked, and disrupted their way through worship. When it was time for them to go to class, I called them aside. I issued a simple ultimatum: Correct your behavior or suffer the consequences.
And like most rambunctious boys, they chose to test my authority. I’m not proud to say that I let them get the best of me. Feeling overly tired and having no tolerance left, I sternly told them to “leave!” I gave them no grace and directly escorted them to the door.
The next day I had a heart attack. I was given plenty of time to review my actions as I lay in a hospital bed.
I know the value of discipline. I know discipline must be fair, consistent, and appropriate. I’ve used time-out chairs, separated friends, and taken away privileges. I’ve given the “look,” delivered the lecture, and sent students to their parents. But the effectiveness of that kind of discipline has been short-lived, and it cramps my teaching style.
There are other means of achieving desired behaviors that are more productive. If you’re at your wit’s end trying to figure out how to get and keep kids’ attention, try these new ideas.
Spot potential problems before they escalate into disasters. The child who always seeks attention by speaking out in class would be great as the main character in your Bible story. Stand behind him and move his arms and hands to imitate the actions of a Bible character reaping grain or making soup. Or bring your class wanderer up front with you. Move him from place to place like a Bible character traveling from town to town. Use him as you would a puppet for a short period of time. I once put a class comedian in a 38-gallon garbage can (lid on) to demonstrate how it might’ve felt for Joseph to be thrown into a well by his brothers. His funny antics disappeared in the can, yet it was appropriate for everyone to laugh for a moment.
I guarantee you’ll have your distracted student’s full attention. But beware! Not all students will respond positively to being the center of attention. Nor is it good for the same student to receive all the attention all the time. Know your students well.
Be on the move. Today’s children are used to having their eyes flooded with moving objects. A teacher glued to a chair inadvertently gives permission for every student’s mind to wander. Circle your students. Walk beside them. Walk behind them, all the time presenting the lesson without interrupting your flow of thought.
Use common items as props. As you wander, pick up a child’s coat and put it on, illustrating Joseph’s coat of many colors, or simulating how cold it must’ve been to watch sheep in the night, or demonstrating an ill-fitting suit of spiritual armor. Choose someone’s hat to represent a crown. Or pick someone’s scarf to represent a blanket shielding a poor widow from the elements. Take away someone’s glasses to see how the blind might respond. Or put yours on someone else to get that same response.
While telling the story of the 99 sheep, I picked up a young boy to demonstrate how a shepherd might carry an injured lamb across his shoulders until that lamb was completely healed. The class was wide-eyed as I carried their classmate around the room for the remainder of the lesson. I finally put him down as I told them how that lamb wouldn’t wander far from the shepherd ever again. They all wanted me to do the story again and carry each of them. I quickly declined, but I’ll have no problem choosing a willing volunteer in the future.
Teach to your discipline problem. If you prepare your lesson to meet your most difficult student’s needs, the chances are great that you’ll meet and far exceed the entire class’ needs. That may mean supervising a lot of life-application-oriented art projects. It may mean creating lesson demonstrations by using sports. It may mean cooking unleavened bread in the church kitchen. Whatever grabs that child’s attention will usually grab the others’ attention. If your student knows the Bible story and wants to tell it, let her. Just don’t lose control. Steer her through the story quickly, positively adding details she doesn’t remember. Acknowledge her accomplishment when she’s finished.
Replace distractions with ordinary stuff. What boys don’t want to talk about swords and spears and shields and slingshots and rocks? What girls don’t want to talk about queens and jewels and babies and slingshots and rocks? Brooms make great swords and spears. Garbage can lids are good shields. Old prom dresses are terrific royal robes. Small stones from a rock tumbler are precious in little eyes. Shooting paper wads from an old wrist rocket shows how difficult it can be to hit a moving target with a slingshot.
None of these things should become the focus of a lesson, but they should be brought out at the appropriate time to focus student attention back to the point. Each object should be used just long enough to accomplish its purpose, then put away. It may be used more than once in a lesson or in conjunction with other props as well.
As I told the story of Abraham offering his son, I loaded firewood into my son Isaac’s arms. Several times during the story I checked to make sure we had everything we needed. Isaac obediently followed me as we trudged along. At the end of the journey, Isaac asked me, “Where is the sacrifice?” I recounted our supplies: wood, fire, water, food, knife. “God will supply the sacrifice,” I said. Abraham’s deep trust in God became crystal clear to the observers as I prepared to lay my son on the pretend altar.
Use questions as golden opportunities to teach. If students whisper questions to each other about the material, let them ask you. When lesson-related questions pop up in class, deal with them on the spot. You have kids’ full, immediate attention, and you’ll get the hand-waving child to put his or her hand down. It eliminates the chance that the question will be forgotten later. And it shows the students you care about them as individuals because you’ll adjust your agenda and answer them. Don’t worry that you may not be able to present your lesson in the “proper” order, or that their questions focus on a different point than yours, or that you may not have time to present the entire lesson. You’re tailoring the lesson to your students’ needs. If your class has questions about salvation that are prompted by telling the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, by all means skip the story and get straight to the point. As important as Bible stories and lessons are, it’s more important that students are able to apply biblical values and principles to their lives than to know every detail of the story.
Handle your classroom dilemmas creatively. Did you say you’re not creative? If you can solve your problem by one of the methods mentioned above, you’ll be a creative teacher. Creativity is taking an idea, anybody’s idea, and reshaping it to fit your unique situation. Be positive in your approach to challenging students. Learn from their impish characteristics. Incorporate kids into your lessons. Make the time they have with you creatively count for Christ.
Use humor, when appropriate, to reduce class tension and add an element of fun. If your lesson isn’t going as planned, stop and redirect your class with a game. Even if you didn’t complete the lesson as planned, your class is still engaged in fellowship.
Gary Forslund is a children’s pastor in Stanwood, Washington.