"Children crave someone to guide them so that everyone can feel safe, secure, loved and wanted. When you take the time to work on the structure of your group (and sometimes your own heart!) you will see the results."
Along with changing leaves, candy corn, and pumpkin spice, October brings a familiar set of challenges in faith formation classrooms. Your students are past the 'honeymoon' phase. They are starting to push the envelope, testing your patience and your boundaries. Don’t feel bad—they are doing it at school and often at home as well.
Creating and Maintaining Structure
Using 'achievable' as your classroom management goal, look at the written, verbal, and non-verbal ways you are communicating desired classroom behavior. If you started the year with class or group rules, guidelines, or covenant, now is the time to pull them out. Take a look at what you wrote just a few weeks ago. Are they short and clear? Are they achievable?
As a class, review your rules—briefly, quickly, and concisely—each time you gather. Remind the children that the guidelines are there so that everyone can enjoy and learn during your time together.
Don't panic; now is the time. Rules or guidelines should be no more than 5 and they should be broad, but clear. Some examples might be:
- Listen to others
- Respect each other and each other’s things
- Use kind words
- Treat people the way you would like to be treated
- Follow directions
Searching for ‘Simple Class Rules’ finds a wide variety. Pick those which work for your group and age level. Post them where they can be seen easily. Talk about them each time you meet. Make them a part of the classroom environment by connecting them to scripture or referring to them when they echo class lessons. Help children to monitor their actions toward one another by setting a good example. Most importantly, reward with verbal praise when someone is following them.
Beyond Written Rules
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess 5:14)
Achieving a classroom environment where everyone can learn is more than the list of rules. You will need to shape your students the way Paul shaped his churches, with continual reminders of how and why they should be learning. Do your guidelines create an atmosphere of working together toward the common goal of learning about God?
Your class guidelines should be the norm not the exception. If you have a guideline that when someone is talking, others are silent, be sure you are helping the children follow that guide. If you find that you can’t enforce a guideline consistently, consider changing it.
Remind Your Group Why They Are Together
The goal isn't a grade, or a lollipop, or a sticker. They are in this group to learn to love God even more.
Look At Your Routine
Is it too predictable? Consistency is good, but stale lesson plans lead to antsy children. Play a new game, bring donuts, watch a video, or simply play different music as you welcome them. Is there a place where your students are consistently antsy? What happens right before and right after that time? Are they sitting still for too long or waiting needlessly? Are they transitioning from a high energy to a low energy activity too quickly?
Make Transitions a Little Easier
For young children, singing a song can be a great transition aid. For older kids, try a class chant, or dedicate transition time to learning a Bible verse with hand motions or sign language. Simple changes, like asking them to move or line up in a different way can ease transitions – call them by birthdays, or clothing color, or have them crab walk to the new area. Now might be a good time to institute some beginning or dismissal routines as well, such as a blessing or a prayer that helps to start or wrap up your time together.
Look at Your Environment
Are your materials set to go, or are the children having to wait in between activities while you get organized? Are the pencils sharp, the crayons and other supplies efficiently and attractively arranged? You don’t have to be camera ready, but kids, like grownups, appreciate being able to find what they need easily. We found having caddies on the tables has really helped keep our supplies well organized this year. Dollar stores are a great place to find inexpensive solutions for this. A little bit of effort to let the children know you are prepared for them and they are welcomed and wanted will go a long way.
Examine Your Environment
Your attitude, your presence, your preparation all contribute to the learning environment in your room. Have you gotten into a rut of not being prepared? The better prepared you are, the more likely you are to present an engaging and enjoyable lesson. If you are always flying by the seat of your pants, your group will notice, and being children, will take advantage. When you are with your group, are you fully present? Cell phone off, grocery list put aside, and that hour or so spent only with those in front of you?
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:14-15).
Children aren’t the only ones who can have a case of the grumbles…be sure they aren’t catching a case of them from you!
Pray Without Ceasing
Leading faith formation requires teachers to be spiritually prepared as well as organized. Spend time in prayer during the week, in preparation for your lesson and also for the children or youth in your group. How can you make the scripture or holy story more meaningful in the everyday? Are you looking beyond the surface of the scripture or lesson to see where it might intersect with your group and with your own life?
Take Learning Home
Like faith formation itself, the work you do in the classroom can both benefit families at home and reinforce your teaching. Use social media, email newsletters, or even just simple signs to share your classroom tools and how they can use them at home. Partner with parents by talking with your students about how the class guidelines are good for home – listening to others, respecting each other, and using kind words are good lessons anywhere. Challenge your children to be respectful to everyone, including their parents or their annoying sibling.
Remind your parents that children need loving, consistent boundaries that allow them to feel safe and secure. Help parents set boundaries with read-at-home information that echoes your classroom. Are family rules clear, consistent, reasonable and known? Perhaps families want to know more about holding a family meeting or they need help making sure everyone knows what is expected. Do daily routines create challenging transitions? Can they adjust small things like laying out clothes the night before, making sure everyone knows the schedule for the day, or even planning meals ahead?
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:9-10)
Most of All, Take Heart
Children crave someone to guide them so that everyone can feel safe, secure, loved and wanted. When you take the time to work on the structure of your group (and sometimes your own heart!) you will achieve a learning environment that works.
Anne Shelton serves children from birth through fifth grade, and their families, at Advent United Methodist Church, Simpsonville, SC as Director of Children’s Ministry. She is a curriculum writer for InsideOut Camp Curriculum and an active member of the Greenville District and South Carolina Conference of the UMC. Anne's own experiences of mothering three boys, as a Navy spouse, and a special education teacher inspire and inform her ministry.