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Classrooms That Click

Jennifer Hooks

Each new Sunday school year means new faces, new personalities, and new opportunities to create a classroom environment that keeps kids coming back. Great activities, relevant lessons, tasty snacks, and cool decorations are all part of that package -- but you'll see kids light up like never before when you create experiences that engage their emotions.

You already have all the tools you need to make your class irresistible to kids. What's necessary is learning how to incorporate engaging experiences into the fiber of your class. Read on to discover important elements of emotional development that'll draw kids in and keep them coming back.

Structure

"He must enjoy having guests in his home and must love all that is good. He must live wisely and be fair. He must live a devout and disciplined life." -- Titus 1:8

Min loved kids and couldn't wait to teach second-graders on Sunday. But by the end of the third class she was exasperated -- all the kids wanted to do was talk to each other. Her first three classes had been spent "shushing" jabbering 7-year-olds. The problem? Min's class lacked structure. The kids sensed the disorganization and took the opportunity to misbehave.

You love it; kids secretly crave it -- even though they'll protest long and loud about it. Structure is critical to a thriving classroom. And by structure, we mean the presence of an identifiable system or routine and a discipline policy that's familiar to kids. Structure is vital.

Why it works: Structure works because it removes the unknown. Kids feel at ease when they can predict the routine or consequences. When routine is absent misbehavior, inattention, and distraction often result. An unstructured classroom is typically a disorganized classroom -- physically and emotionally.

Structure provides kids with a sense of ownership, confidence, belonging, and well-being because they can predict consequences and understand the overall function of the class.

What it looks like: Kids recognize the beginning, middle, and end of your class. For instance, they know that music worship time is always at the end of class and that snacks come at the halfway point. They understand classroom processes and have ownership in procedures.

What it's not: Structure doesn't mean kids are tied to their chairs or take a mandatory three-minute bathroom break halfway through class. Structure is about discipline and consistency -- not legalism and rules.

Problem-Solving

"This man Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar, has a sharp mind and is filled with divine knowledge and understanding. He can interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means." -- Daniel 5:12

"The process of solving a problem is just as important as the actual solution to the problem," writes Jody Pawel, a licensed social worker and author, in her article "Effective Problem-Solving" in Parent's Toolshop.

Adults tend to think of problems as troublesome issues in need of remedy. For kids, though, developing problem-solving skills is really finding the solution to a puzzle, such as learning how to operate a toy for the first time. When kids get the opportunity to use their problem-solving skills, they're acquiring self-esteem and resiliency.

Why it works: Kids need opportunities to solve problems for several reasons. Critical thinking skills flourish when kids are allowed to work through problems. Kids also learn that they have the intrinsic ability to overcome obstacles successfully, which in turn helps them establish positive self-esteem. Additionally, kids who have good problem-solving skills are often empathetic, willing to help others, and able to lead.

What it looks like: In a class where kids are encouraged to view situations critically and think through solutions, they get to explore problems in a learner-appropriate way. Teachers may ask children to think through Jonah's predicament from his perspective or imagine what they might've done in Jesus' position.

What it's not: Problem-solving is not word searches or puzzles. It's not rote memorization. It's not learning through lecture.

Creativity

"For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." -- Ephesians 2:10

"Creativity is fostered by taking the pressure off children to acquire skills and by encouraging them to do what children are inclined to do naturally -- to play in imaginative ways," writes Lisa Samalonis in "Inspiring Creativity in Children," her article in BabyZone.

Kids are innately creative, but sadly our teaching methods often crush this God-given talent. Allowing kids to explore their creative inclinations is vital developmentally, and it's a foundational part of helping kids learn their interests and talents, especially beginning around age 8. The great news is that the Bible is the centerpiece of creativity, starting with Genesis.

Why it works: Kids who experience creative opportunities in your class get to come up with new ideas and look at situations from a new perspective. They're challenged to think about situations in new ways, and they're less likely to be bound by unoriginal thinking. Children who are encouraged to be creative are less likely to be fearful of new situations and more likely to express their opinions.

What it looks like: Art, pretend play, open-ended activities and experiences, music, and manipulatives are all great ways to guide kids toward creativity.

What it's not: Fostering creativity isn't giving kids a free pass for anything-goes behavior. Creative experiences are guided and related to your lesson. Creativity can be messy, so teach kids to clean up after their creative endeavors.

Relationships

"But the Lord said to her, 'My dear Martha, you are so upset over all these details! There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it -- and I won't take it away from her.' " -- Luke 10:41-43

Perhaps the most vital of all classroom experiences is relationship. Humans have a fundamental need for positive relationships with others, including peers and adults. And relationships really are the underlying theme of our efforts in children's ministry because it's that all-important relationship with Jesus that we're trying to instill in our kids.

By intentionally fostering relationships with our kids, we're not only giving them a sense of self-worth, we're also modeling positive relationships. A child can never experience too many positive relationships.

Why it works: Kids need to feel they belong. When positive relationships are a primary focus in the classroom, all children feel included, important, and connected to the group. Feeling liked and valued is priceless to a child.

What it looks like: Kids work together to achieve goals -- interactive learning. Games and activities are geared around relationships. Teachers and volunteers genuinely care for their children. All children are actively engaged in the classroom activities.

What it's not: While building relationships is about making personal connections, it's not about attending each child's extra­curricular activities or spending every evening on the phone with kids or parents. Don't become a stalker -- just make a consistent effort to personally connect with each of your children.

Autonomy

"Do you see any truly competent workers? They will serve kings rather than ordinary people." -- Proverbs 22:29

"Autonomy refers to a sense of choice, of individuality, of independence, of being able to make a difference," says David Corsini in "Developing Positive Relationships With Children," his article for The National Network for Child Care.

"The type of adult relationship that helps children develop a sense of autonomy encourages children to consider alternatives, make choices, and explore possible consequences," continues Corsini. "Activity options such as sports, crafts, academics, drama, nature studies, and hobbies also will allow children to develop aspects of their individuality."

Why it works: Autonomy is critical to helping kids learn to believe in themselves because they get to make decisions and guide their own experiences. Autonomy results when kids feel capable and secure in their abilities through practice; its cousin is self-esteem.

A side effect of autonomy is that kids long to learn. You can create an atmosphere that's primed for life-changing learning and loads of fun by offering kids the chance to be autonomous.

What it looks like: Kids make choices and accept consequences. Adults convey to children that they're capable, and children get opportunities to demonstrate this. Kids are allowed to run with their interests. They're also held accountable.

What it isn't: Autonomy isn't a free-for-all. It's not a child dictatorship. It's guided independence coupled with positive feedback.

All these elements have something in common: They lead to positive self-esteem-building experiences. If your goal is to make your class irresistible, focus on incorporating all of these concepts. You'll be delighted -- and kids will be excited -- as each experience lights up their eyes and hearts. cm

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children's Ministry Magazine.

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