How Birth Order Affects Children’s Ministry Classroom Behavior
Published: March 1, 2020
Children’s Ministry Magazine talked with Dr. Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, about how birth order impacts classrooms and what to do about it.
Devan is bossy and disruptive in Sunday school. Annie is quiet, follows the rules, and wants to please her Sunday school teacher. Jacob kicks the table leg in anger when the paint smears on his art project.
What do these three kids have in common? They’re all firstborn children. They’re perfectionists, but they show it in different ways.
Birth order—whether a person is born first, second, or later in a family—powerfully influences what kind of child you’re teaching. By knowing a child’s birth order, you can discover if he or she is born to win, avoids conflict, or charms the birds out of the trees.
To begin with, Leman advises Sunday school teachers to “have children each diagram their family, including ages of siblings. This gives teachers instant insight into what they’re up against in the classroom.”
Here are more of Leman’s insights into how to deal with each child.
Birth Order: Firstborn Child (Only Child, Too)
Firstborn children ask lots of questions and want details. They thrive on being in control, on time, and organized. These kids have a strong need for approval. Kids who are firstborns are likely to be the best readers in your class. That’s because firstborns are generally like little adults — perfectionistic, reliable, and conscientious. They don’t want to make mistakes. They like structure and order. And they’re motivated to achieve. Firstborn children can be compliant or strong-willed.
If Steve is disruptive and a leader and you know he’s a firstborn, “you can assume he doesn’t want someone else to be more powerful,” says Leman. “Children who want to be the boss do what they want to do.”
Leman says teachers shouldn’t let this kind of child run the classroom. Talk with the child privately and tell him or her what’ll happen if disruptions continue. Tell kids you’ll call in their parents, if necessary.
But tell kids you love them, too. For example, Leman suggests saying, “Steve, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that you really want to make sure people do what you want them to do. And again I could be wrong, but I think this is one of the ways that you say you don’t feel good inside. You don’t know if people can just love you because you’re Steve. And you feel like you have to do things to get extra attention. I’m your teacher, and I want you to know I really do care about and love you.”
“You might be the only person in the entire week who has said something positive to Steve,” says Leman.
Don’t ask firstborn children to do lots of extra jobs just because they’re dependable. They can’t say no and often try to do too much. Emphasize that you appreciate firstborn children for who they are, not for what they do.
Birth Order: Middle-Born Child
Unlike the firstborn child, the middle child is harder to define. Middle children have lots of pressures coming from different directions. So you have to look at the entire family to understand the specific pressures on the middle child.
Middle children often feel misunderstood and out of place. “So they often go outside the family to create another kind of ‘family’ where they can feel special,” says Leman. “Middle children generally have many friends.”
They often are mediators, and they avoid conflicts.
“In the Sunday school class, middle children blend in like a bird might to ground cover. So give them authority,” says Leman. “For example, have them choose who goes first in a Bible game or who lines up at the door first. Sometimes insist they put themselves first and then choose who comes next.” Otherwise, middle children will allow others to make choices in an effort to keep the peace. Spend time listening to middle children and let them know you really want to understand them.
Birth Order: Last-Born Child
The baby might be born last but is seldom least.
Last-born children are often affectionate and uncomplicated. They can be charming one minute and rebellious the next. Babies thrive on praise and encouragement. Babies often tend to manipulate, charm with an engaging personality, blame others, and show off. Many last-borns are messy and are poor readers.
Last-born children may try to shirk responsibility. So help them be responsible. For example, expect them to pick up after art projects. And let them know that no amount of complaining can get them out of a job they need to do.
The baby will try to hide in your classroom if you allow it. “It’s going to take a teacher to bring the baby out,” says Leman. “Let the baby participate and let him or her do some risking. Encourage his or her participation.” If babies are stuck on a word while reading or don’t know an answer, help or give them clues. Don’t just pass them by.
Often, the baby is the class showoff. Leman says teachers can counter this. Say, “I want everybody to stop, put down what you’re doing, and look at James.” As soon as you do that, you give him attention he doesn’t really want.
Babies thrive on praise and encouragement. When a baby participates or does something positive, affirm him or her. Respond to what the child does or says. Say, “Good job.” Don’t say, “You’re a good girl because…” Give the message that the child is somebody. Notice children’s work. Touch their shoulder. Comment about how you appreciate their contribution.
Barbara Beach is a former editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.
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