Whether you’re a pushover, a control freak, a scaredy-cat, or just plain clueless about discipline — you can become a better classroom manager.
One recent Sunday I was on my usual rounds checking on our Sunday school rooms. I noticed an entire room of fifth-grade boys sitting with their heads down on the tables while the teacher and assistant stood at the front of the room with their backs turned, writing on the whiteboard. I casually stepped in and glanced around. The room was silent and full of tension. There wasn’t a single wiggle or giggle — highly unusual for a group of preteen boys. I figured something really big must’ve just happened, so I decided to break the silence. “Mrs. Smith,” I asked, “is there something I can help with?”Mrs. Smith turned to me and said with a huge smile, “Everything’s fine, Pastor. We’re running five minutes ahead of our next scheduled activity, so I told the boys just to put their heads down.”
Her response stunned me. I couldn’t believe it. Back when I was a kid we only got the heads-down treatment when someone did something really bad — running in the hall with a pair of safety scissors or correcting the teacher on a Scripture reference. But being ahead of schedule? The lesson wasn’t even on patience that day. (I checked.)
So I got to thinking…How many times had these kids sat with their heads down because their teacher wasn’t flexible enough to handle minor variations from schedule — or willing to let go of regimented control? I mean, five minutes? We’re not launching the space shuttle here. We’re telling kids about Jesus. I knew Mrs. Smith was a new teacher. But during our interview process she hadn’t shown up in combat gear. So naturally I had no idea she was really an undercover drill sergeant.
Admittedly, classroom management can be the toughest part of a teacher’s job. It’s a constant struggle for some, and even those who seem to have figured out how to best manage their kids see that doing so is a continual proc-ess rather than one easy fix. Teachers everywhere seem to struggle with discipline in some way — usually because they fall into one of four categories: The Pushover, The Control Freak, The Scaredy Cat, or Just Plain Clueless. So before you get out your knuckle-snapping ruler or let the kids run over you on their way out the door, read on. Discover which discipline style is your default — and how you can strengthen your classroom management skills.
You may be a Pushover if you…
• Can’t say no — even when you know you need to.
• Grin and bear bad behavior because you don’t see other options.
• Can’t (or won’t) set or enforce limits.
• Notice the kids are taking over and you’re not sure you should regain control.
• Must repeat yourself constantly to be heard over the general roar in your classroom.
Rules are healthy. Saying no is a foundational development stage in all children. In fact, no is one of the first words most children learn to say. And if a child is old enough to tell you no, then the child is old enough to hear it in return for inappropriate behavior. Ministry to children isn’t only about spir-itual principles; we’re here to help give them a productive, healthy approach to life.
When kids take over, no one wins. If kids are calling the shots, everyone will walk away feeling unfulfilled. If you allow children to write the rules, you give them a false impression of what real life is all about.
Testing is normal; your job is to define the boundaries. You can rest assured that your kids will test the limits. It’s a normal aspect of childhood. But it’s important to understand that while this testing is natural, children feel comfort and security when they know where the boundaries are. They want to know you love them enough to tell them no.
Post a few simple rules. Then — and this is key — hold kids to them. At first it’ll seem like you’re mean if you haven’t been enforcing rules up until now. You may get some initial push back from your kids, but this is normal. Keep steady and hold your ground.
Help kids self-regulate. A marble jar is a great way to encourage collective self-monitoring from your kids, and it produces positive peer pressure. Put the jar of marbles in front of your class, and add marbles when kids are attentive and on-task. You’ll find kids self-regulating if they know that marbles could get taken away. You’ll be surprised the first time you hear someone say, “Zach, stop! We’ll get a marble taken away!”
Help yourself. If you still need an extra push to establish and enforce rules, consider asking someone you know who has great classroom management skills to join you in your classroom for a few weeks to help you build your discipline muscles.
You may be a Control Freak if you…
• Can’t say yes — even when doing so would have absolutely no negative impact in your classroom.
• Tightly control every aspect of kids’ interactions and behavior.
• Are terrified of what might happen if kids “take over.”
• Hear kids tell their parents, “Church has too many rules.”
• Constantly use no, don’t, can’t, and stop when you talk to kids.
Rules are good, but too many rules cast a shadow. When keeping control is your number one goal, that emphasis paints church and Christianity as a stuffy, staunch, and stressful lifestyle. For kids to feel ownership of their class and to build relationships with one another, they must have a level of freedom. That means you must relinquish a corresponding level of control.
Church is fun. If your classroom’s fun factor has waned along with kids’ enthusiasm, you’re probably exerting too much control. Make an honest assessment — is it time to loosen up and remember what it was like to be a child? Trade in those long lectures and constant corrections for hands-on manipulatives and laugh-inducing experiences.
Micromanagement isn’t effective. Especially when it comes to helping kids sprout wings and grow. If your default is control, reign yourself in and remember that children don’t need to be managed; they need to be nurtured.
First control yourself. Make an intentional effort to get kids excited and interested in your lesson and activities rather than depending on your tone or mannerisms for classroom control. If you feel yourself reverting to Control Freak status, keep a handle on that tendency and instead put your energy into breathing life into the lesson. If you can pull kids into the content of the lesson, you won’t have to spend your time on discipline.
Study kids. Go to a children’s venue — a museum, zoo, playground, or recreation center, and watch kids as they learn. Most kids enjoy quickly moving from one concept to another and getting their hands on what they’re learning. Notice, too, that they tend to be noisy and boisterous when truly engaged in learning. This is typical of the species.
Take a relational break. Take a leap and intentionally schedule time for your kids to interact with one another every week. Ten minutes of free play or talk time is a great way to let kids connect. Prayer time is also important to help children relate in a group setting.
You may be a Scaredy Cat if you…
• Are terrified of what’ll happen if you dare to discipline.
• Are scared of parents.
• Are scared of kids (though you may be unlikely to admit it).
• Prefer to endure classroom chaos rather than ruffle feathers.
• Feel ill-equipped to go toe-to-toe with a misbehaving child.
You have a purpose. God placed you in kids’ lives for a reason. You’re ministering to these specific children not by fate, but by God’s providence. It’s your place-and your right-to make the most of every opportunity.
It’s not a popularity contest. Don’t be scared that kids won’t like you if you discipline and hold high standards. Frankly, children today don’t need a big brother or big sister or best friend; they need leaders in their lives who’ll guide them with loving boundaries.
Kids will respond. Kids will respect authority, but like any new responsibility they need you to teach them how. Your responsibility as a spiritual influencer goes beyond passing on biblical knowledge to kids. They see your actions and will model their lives after what you say and do. If you’re too scared to confront conflict, they’ll view that as a normal response to conflict. But if they see you boldly — yet lovingly — address issues, they’ll see that as normal and healthy.
Don’t be afraid. God’s Word tells us we don’t have a spirit of fear in our lives, but a spirit of power and wisdom. (Check out Romans 8:15 and 1 Peter 3:14.) Strengthen your prayer time. Ask God for courage in your classroom.
Focus on your kids. First John 4:18 says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” So set aside time to pray for your kids by name every day. A consistent pattern of prayer helps you focus on the kids and the issues that most need your attention.
Find out what’s at the root of your fear — and then do some weeding. If you’re concerned that people might not like a bold new you, take small steps to let kids and parents know you’re ready for a change. Focus on the positive aspects of a better-managed classroom: more learning, respect, and fulfillment for all. If, however, your fear is still crippling your classroom management, it’s time to ask for honest coaching from your leader.
Set the stake. A great starting point for a former Scaredy Cat is to establish and post a few simple ground rules. Introduce the rules at the start of your next class — and return to them whenever you need to. This will help you and your kids stay on track.
You may be clueless if you…
• Find yourself asking, “What boundaries? What rules?”
• Don’t have the foggiest notion why kids need parameters.
• Question why kids don’t come with the rules programmed in.
• Believe that rules are too cool for Sunday school.
Kids aren’t little adults. They can’t balance checkbooks, don’t know what FICA is, and are still learning self-control. For the most part, they don’t see abstract consequences as reality. So it really is all fun and games until somebody puts an eye out.
Kids need rules. Plain and simple. Kids actually thrive most when they know the rules and are expected to follow them. Boundaries offer a safe environment where kids can focus on learning. Classroom guidelines are critical to the success of your ministry.
Your job isn’t Director of Chaos Management. You have the huge task of molding and developing kids to follow God. This is no small task, so don’t take it lightly. It requires that you have a healthy, functioning class where kids feel emotionally and physically safe. Fun should still be a key ingredient, but there’s a line between total chaos and controlled chaos.
Get a grip on reality. Letting kids run wild isn’t doing them a favor and won’t please their parents — or your leader. If you don’t see a need for classroom order or can’t imagine requiring kids to follow rules, take stock of your current classroom situation. What’s actually happening? How much more might kids learn in a more controlled environment? Settle down with some popcorn and watch a few episodes of “Super Nanny.” Take notes on the before and after. Imagine how your classroom is now and how it could be. Which environment is more honoring to kids?
Get a mentor. Set up a time to observe a more seasoned teacher. Notice how the person guides kids’ focus and transitions from activity to activity. How are rules enforced? What does a class session look like when guidelines are in place? Kids respond positively to structure and stability.
Challenge yourself. Create a plan and timetable to implement structure and guidelines. Include rule-setting, plans for consequences, and transition ideas between class segments.
Your individual discipline style will show through in your teaching, and that’s the way it should be. God picked you because you bring something special to the kids you’re working with. But keep your balance-somewhere near the middle of the discipline continuum. Too far in any one direction could spell discipline disaster. Strengthen your style, and you’ll be a more effective teacher.
Adam Day is the children’s pastor at Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio.