After church, Greg went to pick up his daughters from the children’s ministry. As he walked up to the classroom, he had to duck for a paper plane flying by his head. He looked around the room to find the teacher pleading with one kid standing on a desk and another who was throwing paper at other students. “Oh my,” he exclaimed. Greg’s anxious eyes moved around the room to find his daughters. He mumbled under his breath, “This place is a zoo,” and ushered his girls out the door as quickly as possible.
In children’s ministry, running an orderly classroom is high on the priority list. Kids don’t naturally follow rules and routines or act respectfully. Sin gets in the way of our ideal of a well-structured and well-behaved class. Moreover, earnest Sunday school teachers are volunteers with no professional training. Even seasoned parents can soon discover that a classroom of 15 is much more to manage than a couple of kids. Large groups need thoughtful leadership.
What creates a good classroom experience? A well-run classroom requires five components: love, leadership, expectations, routine, and fun.
Paul regularly expressed his affection for the believers under his care. He spoke tenderly of the saints: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7). If Paul spoke this way to the adults, how much more should we relate to the children in our classrooms with encouragement and affection?
A wise teacher once said, “You get more of what you encourage.” Shouting orders and threats at the kids may improve behavior, but it won’t win their hearts. To borrow Paul’s analogy—if I have classroom order “but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).
Adults oversee the classroom. They’re in charge, not the kids. The Lord entrusts adults with children’s lives, including discipline and training. This requires leadership. We’ve often said to Sunday school teachers, “You’re the boss, so act like it.”
It’s tempting to goof around, act like a kid, and be silly when you’re serving with the children. But we must embrace the benevolent authority God has given us to lead and love little children. While there’s certainly a time to have fun, if you don’t take charge, the children won’t respect you.
Teachers need to set out a few basic classroom expectations for their children: We listen during story time. We listen to the teacher and other kids. Don’t talk over others. Raise your hand if you have a question. We share with one another. We will treat everyone—adults and kids alike—with respect.
Make your expectations clear and review them together at the start of every class. In some classrooms, we’ve seen the expectations in big, bold letters on a large poster board mounted to the wall. That makes it easy for everyone to know the rules, and it makes them easy to review and reinforce each week.
When adults are inconsistent about their expectations, they hurt their students and themselves. Some adults don’t want to be viewed as strict, but low expectations, excessive leniency, and inconsistency can ruin a classroom. If expectations are low, that’s what kids will live up to. High expectations shouldn’t intimidate a teacher so long as the expectations are undergirded by positive reinforcement, consistency, grace, and love.
Consider two scenarios. In the first, Johnny walks into a classroom, and the teacher says, “Just do whatever you want for now.” Johnny wonders, What should I do? What are the other kids doing? His uncertainty causes anxiety to rise. In the second scenario, Johnny has attended his first-grade class for six months. He knows the class always begins with work on a coloring page for the first five minutes. Once enough students have come, the teacher begins with “Good morning class,” and he then reminds the children about the classroom expectations. Johnny knows the routine, so there’s no uncertainty when he arrives.
A free-for-all leads to chaos, anxiety, and frustration. But the order, structure, and predictability of a clear routine gives children a sense of security that helps them to thrive. It can be helpful to post a classroom schedule on the wall so it’s visible to all. Doing so can help the children and new teachers as well.
Suppose a teacher, Mr. Jones, merely reads the David and Goliath story (1 Sam. 17) to his first-grade class in a humdrum, monotone voice. What would happen? Even though it’s an exciting story, the kids would get fidgety and distracted in a matter of minutes.
When adults are inconsistent about their expectations, they hurt their students and themselves.
Teachers must make the classroom engaging and fun. If Mr. Jones instead stood on a chair for all of Goliath’s lines and growled as he spoke them, the children would be laser-focused on his presentation. Kids love to move and participate in the teaching. A teacher might have the children shout out Goliath’s defiant cries (“I defy the ranks of Israel this day!”) and David’s faithful replies (“I come to you in the name of the LORD.”). Mr. Jones might encourage the kids to act out David’s slinging the stone at Goliath’s head or pass around props like Saul’s armor to try on or a sling and stone to touch and feel.
God is the point of the story, but creativity makes learning more enjoyable. If the teacher makes the lesson fun, the kids are less likely to misbehave and more likely to stay engaged. It creates a better overall classroom experience for everyone.
The five classroom strategies taught here don’t always come naturally to volunteers. Leaders will need to encourage, train on, and reinforce each one. But these skills can be helpful as we seek to remove every obstacle that stands in the way of children hearing, learning about, and knowing God.
This article is adapted from Build on Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide to Gospel-Based Children’s Ministry by Deepak Reju and Marty Machowski (New Growth Press, October 2021).