10 Tips for Church School Classroom Management

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Kids at churchPerhaps you’ve had a student like Aiden in your Church School or other ministry class. A young and energetic boy, Aiden was constantly interrupting his class with, “Teacher, teacher!” He began to dominate the classroom with his frequent talking and interrupting, distracting his peers and making it difficult for his Church School teacher to get through the lesson.

Knowing that it was important to share expectations for the class and teach Aiden and his peers the appropriate behavior, his teacher made a sign in the shape of a hand and explained that if you wanted to ask or answer a question, you needed to raise your hand and wait to be called on to speak.  When Aiden would begin to speak, his teacher would simply raise her sign, prompting him to remember the rules and stop speaking until she called on him.  Aiden learned that it was okay for his teacher to call on his peers and he felt rewarded when he was called upon to give an answer.

If you have ever led a Church School class or another ministry event with children, you know that classroom management is important. From my experience as a parent, special educator, and children’s ministry leader, I’ve learned that many issues that arise with classroom management can be prevented by being proactive, just like Aiden’s  teacher communicated classroom expectations. I hope you find these suggestions for classroom management helpful; feel free to share your ideas in the comment box!

  1. Understand the age group.

    Before you begin leading, it’s important to understand the developmental level of the age group you are teaching, as it will help you plan your activities. If you’re unsure where to begin, talk with your children’s pastor or a local teacher to get some insight on realistic expectations for the children you serve.

  2. Preparation is key.

    If you are a teacher at your church, you should plan for the lesson and have all your supplies ready to use. Don’t try to pull everything together when the students are with you.

  3. Focus on routine.

    Set up a basic routine for classroom time and communicate it with students and helpers. This is important especially because many churches have volunteers that rotate from week to week, so it is helpful if they are all using the same basic schedule for the class.  Students will then know what to expect, taking away some anxiety.

  4. Set clear expectations.

    Tell your students what you expect at the beginning of each class. For example: when you raise your hand, students should raise their hands, stop talking, and look at you for instructions.

  5. Use motivational tools.

    Implement reward systems for participating or good behavior (for example: if you answer a question two times, you get to pick something from the prize box). Words of affirmation can also be motivating to students.

  6. Be a student of the kids in your class.

    Think about how you can get kids involved in your ministry or class, allowing them to contribute their gifts (for example: allow them to write the verse on the board, pass out a snack, assist another student, or put story figures away).  Giving students purpose within the class helps them know that they’re important, which can help them behave and even attend more often. Focus on their giftings and even ask them how they would like to serve.

    For help with this, ask their parent/guardian to fill out a short survey. (We created one that you can download for free at this link. Though this survey was designed to help you get to know the gifts and needs of individuals with special needs in your church, many of the questions can help you get to know persons with a variety of ability levels.)

  7. Think about special needs.

    Understand if there are any special needs (physical, socio-emotional, or cognitive disability, medical condition, or allergies) that students have in the classroom. We blogged about that recently in this post, “Preparing Your Ministry to Receive Individuals with Disabilities”.

  8. Be prepared for misbehavior.

    Before a student misbehaves in class, it’s important to have a plan. Often, many ministries have a discipline plan, so be sure to check with your children’s pastor or appropriate leader. Share with your class what students can expect if they misbehave (for example: they will go back to their parent for the remainder of the class, take a break, miss an activity, etc.).

  9. Communicate difficulties with your leader.

    Whether it’s over a phone call, email or coffee, share your struggles with your children’s pastor or leader before the situation gets out of hand. Conversely, if you are the children’s pastor or are in charge of volunteers, be sure to provide an opportunity for teachers to express any difficulties they may be having by checking in with them throughout the year.

  10. Know how to utilize helpers in the room.

    Often children’s classes have teens or adults on hand to offer assistance with students who are being disruptive or need some extra assistance. To make the most of these extra volunteers’ time, consider these suggestions:

    1. Plan for how you want to use them. Can they run a station? Get a craft ready? Sit with a particular child? Think beforehand how you would like them to serve in your class.
    2. Communicate with them beforehand. Be sure to connect with the helper before class and share how you would like them to serve in your upcoming class or ministry gathering. When the helper is prepared, they will be able to take more initiative within the classroom setting.
    3. Share ideas for how to help particular students. Again, preparation is key. If the helper is working with a particular student, brainstorm some ways that they could work with that student. If you’re out of ideas, talk with your ministry leader or collaborate with other classroom or ministry teachers.

Kim LuurtsemaKim Luurtsema is a church consultant for CLC Network. She has a background in special education and has served in children’s ministry for more than twenty years.


photo credit: via photopin (license)

What We’re Reading: 13 Books to Keep Your Learning Alive this Summer

Summertime: it is a time to relax, spend time outdoors, and possibly catch up on those tasks that fell to the wayside during the school year. Though the following books are not exactly “beach reads”, we invite you to join us in some fun summer reading that will stretch your mind as you stretch out at the beach. Here is what our staff is reading this summer. Be sure to let us know what you are reading in the comment box below!

Note: If you’re inspired by this list and decide to purchase a book or two through Amazon, we invite you to use AmazonSmile and designate the Christian Learning Center. When you do this, Amazon will contribute a percentage of your purchase to us! Simply click this link to enroll! 

  • Adam, God's BelovedAdam, God’s Beloved” by Henri Nouwen

    This is truly an excellent book that talks about the profound impact Adam had on Henri Nouwen’s life. Henri was assigned to come alongside Adam in the L’Arche Community called Daybreak in Canada. – Barbara Newman, consultant and director of church services

  • Design and Deliver“Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning” by Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

    This is an easy to read, practical, and idea filled resource book on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It explains key principals of multiple means of engagement, representation and action/expression for diverse learners. It also gives practical ways to put them into action. – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

  • Flipping 2.0“Flipping 2.0: Practical Strategies for Flipping Your Class” by Jason Bretzmann

    The chapters range from details on flipping certain content areas to philosophical reasoning and empirical evidence on the benefits of flipping.  I’m finding great details and suggestions so far! – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

  • Have the Guts to Do it Right“Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Era of Indulgence” by Sheri Moskowitz Noga

    This obscure book is a treasure of common sense wisdom and practical strategies to assist parents in understanding their relationship with their children in their own styles of parenting.

    For example, in a section titled, “Manners”, the author points out the importance of teaching children to say “please” and “thank you”, a process which should begin as early as possible. The parent’s clear expectation is for their child to treat people with politeness, good manners, respect and appreciation. The author adds, “If you want your children to be polite and have good manners, work on relating to them [with good manners].”

    Other compelling topics in this gem of a parenting resource include: respect, autonomy, gratitude, boundaries, self-control, work/chores, computer use and access to media (as in “do not allow your children to have television sets in their bedrooms”). –Doug Bouman, S.Psy.S.

  • Lost at School“Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How we Can Help Them” by Ross Greene D.

    I’m finding that this book is a really great reminder that when students are struggling, it is important to meet them where they are and work with them on developing the lagging skills, either behavioral or academic. – Linda Weemhoff, teacher consultant

  • No Greatness without Goodness“No Greatness without Goodness: How a Father’s Love Changed a Company and Sparked a Movement” by Randy Lewis

    I’ve recommended this book to several people in the short time since I’ve read it. Randy Lewis goes over the steps he took and lessons learned from helping Walgreens re-design their distribution centers to employ persons with disabilities. Although pithy at times, it challenged me to think more purposefully about how we design our work and organizations to unlock the gifts of every person. – Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski, advancement director (as of September 2015)

  • Quiet“Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

    This book is PACKED with cool stuff.  This writer looks at introversion/extroversion from every possible angle.  She includes interesting data from psychology, sociology, history, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, politics, and education.  You could pretty much make a meal out of each section.  It would be a fun book to study with a book club…at least if the book clubbers want to gain personal insight and cultural awareness  It is possibly more a winter read rather than a summer read…but with that being said, it is very readable, full of stories and fun facts.  It feels like both a novel and a textbook.  – Dr. Sherri Rozema

  • The Wounded Healer“The Wounded Healer” by Henri Nouwen

    I was so taken with “Adam, God’s Beloved”, that I also intend to read “The Wounded Healer”as a way to understand Henri Nouwen’s encouragement to engage in ministry in our faith communities today. – Barbara Newman, consultant and director of church services

  • UDL in the Classroom“Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom: Practical Applications” by Tracey E. Hall Ph.D., Anne Meyer Ed.D., and David H Rose D.

    This textbook-type book dives into the theory, practice and evidence of UDL. – Becci Zwiers, teacher consultant

What are you reading? Leave us a comment in the box below!

“Time Out” for Empathetic Development

I know a few grown-ups who, when confronted about their hurtful behavior, offer this as their apology.  “I’m sorry that you misunderstood what I said (or did)”.  Hmm…I have always wondered why they believe their inability to take personal responsibility for their actions along with their lack of empathy is a real apology.

Grumpy boyDuring my graduate years in college, I worked at a residential treatment center for adolescent boys and girls that used a very rigid behavioral approach to therapy.  There was a complex token economy and level system and very clear guidelines for when and how to use the behavioral strategy of “time out”.

I remember clearly a 12 year old boy named David who had severe anger and who frequently exploded with both physical and verbal outbursts.  After an outburst he would be given the required and necessary “time out” period.  Upon completion, I would ask him if he was sorry.  He would always answer that he was (but under his breath he would add the phrase, “sorry I got caught”).

David’s version of the “Golden Rule” was similar to that of many of the other residents: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”  That was the “ah ha” moment for me.

Psychologists Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg have provided us with some of the building blocks necessary for understanding that there are clear stages for acquiring empathy and moral development.  Social psychologists believe that although children are born with a capacity for empathy, they must learn to become empathetic.

How can we help children learn to become empathetic? 

Using “time out” followed by developmentally appropriate processing can be very effective.  Before allowing our students and children to re-enter an activity from a “time out”, ask the following questions:

  • Why did I ask you to take a “time out”?
  • What did you think was happening?
  • How do you think you would feel if it happened to you?
  • How would you want that person to respond to you? (Ah ha…the golden rule!)
  • What will you do differently next time?

Saying “I’m sorry” is more than just a formality

As our children grow, we need to model and directly teach them how to apologize. Children in the early stages of social and moral development have not yet internalized the value of seeking and wanting forgiveness.  That of course, requires having empathy and an understanding of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  Therefore, such values eventually have to become seamlessly spontaneous and sincere.

For example, Erin’s teacher tells her:

“Tyrone is crying. Paint is splashed all over his picture. You must tell him that you’re sorry.”

Although Erin may have participated in a brief “time out”, if she is forced to say she’s “sorry” without understanding why or how it relates to Tyrone’s feelings, she may have difficulty learning empathic behavior. Apologizing just so she can return to an activity might teach her that others’ feelings don’t really matter. Instead, the teacher may need to encourage Erin’s participation in the process by asking:

“How do you think Tyrone is feeling? What might you do to help him?”

Teaching Children to meaningfully apologizeTry the following 3 step process to help your children get started with a meaningful apology.  Ask them to:

  1. Say “I’m sorry for…..(be specific about the behavior)”
  2. Describe how it impacted their friend (or neighbor, etc.)
  3. Tell how they will behave differently in the future

Grampa and the Golden Rule

The other day I was babysitting my 4 year old granddaughter, the one who is the most strong willed and oppositional of all 5 of my grandchildren.  I intervened several times during the day with brief “time outs” because she was not following the house rules or because she was having trouble sharing with her sister and cousins.  After the “time outs” in the morning, we talked about what Jesus would say about the golden rule and about treating others.  After the “time outs” that occurred later in the day, the processing became relatively brief.  “I know Grampy, I didn’t follow the Golden Rule!”  I’m still smiling as I think about her growing realization that Grampy thought this was such a big deal!

Works Cited

W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. By Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, EdD, and Ellen Booth Church

How to nurture this important gateway to a social and emotional growth
Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Matthew 7:12 English Standard Version (ESV)

The Life Space Interview (LSI) – Behavior Advisor

photo credit: sokabs via photopin cc


Jeff Ashby PhotoJeff Ashby is a School Psychologist at CLC Network where he integrates his  intensive training in the fundamentals of cognitive behavioral psychology with his Christian faith.  He endeavors to help parents and professionals develop compassion in their understanding of the many challenges that students with special needs face throughout their lives. 

Behavior Management 101

Earlier this week, Phil Stegink shared a review on the documentary, “Who Cares About Kelsey?”, a high school student that struggles with behavior and emotional challenges. In today’s post, he shares how schools can address behavior management and create a positive and supportive school community.

Stegink blog post poster cropKelsey’s story, that of a student who brings challenging behavior to school, is told and retold each day in schools throughout our country. Young students tell the story when they do not follow classroom routines and rules, and when they do not comply with expectations. Her story is told by older students, who, like Kelsey, run afoul of school codes of conduct and who receive frequent suspensions and expulsions. In the documentary, Who Cares About Kelsey?, Dan Habib describes how educators and parents are left to wonder “Who cares about my kid?” and “How can I care about my kid?”

Paradigm Shift

Very often we conclude that students who bring challenging behavior to school do so because they lack motivation to change or because they willfully choose to behave poorly. We describe their challenging behavior as “making bad choices.” In this paradigm, our response to challenging behavior is to provide a consequence that will cause a student to avoid, or simply stop doing the challenging behavior. Essentially, consequences are designed to extinguish inappropriate behavior, hopefully leaving good behavior in its wake.

This paradigm is a time-honored tradition. For years we have written rules that we expect students to follow. School rules are common-sense rules designed to promote an orderly flow of educational business. And, in the face of egregious behavior, we establish zero-tolerance policies intended to eradicate negative and dangerous behavior targeted to either oneself or others. Unfortunately, statistics suggest that negative or challenging behavior has not declined; rather, the data suggest that challenging behavior has maintained a robust status or has increased (Boccanfuso and Kuhfeld, 2011; Skiba et al., 2006). Clearly, punishing students for negative behavior is making a limited positive impact at best or is even counter-productive. There is another way.

Lost at SchoolRethinking How We Respond

In the book Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them, Dr. Ross Greene presents an important paradigm shift in responding to challenging behavior. Greene asserts two radical and critical points on which we can re-think how we respond to negative behavior, including the kind of behavior shown to us by Kelsey.

Classroom - FlickingerBradFirst: “Kids do well if they can.”

Greene makes the case that students know they are supposed to behave appropriately. They know they are to follow rules and that they are to comply with social norms that keep society functioning, particularly the society of a classroom and a school. He suggests that students will do well if they can, because

“doing well is always preferable to not doing well, but only if a kid has the skills to do well in the first place” (p. 11; italics added).

For many of us, this is a radical shift in how we interpret challenging behavior.

Second: Lagging Skills    

Greene suggests that students present challenging behavior because they lack skills required to function in a particular situation. Greene calls these “lagging skills” and when we understand which skills a student lacks, we will be better able to

  1. Anticipate situations where the challenging behavior will likely occur;
  2. recite-19096-599400518-1fs31h0Teach the student the lagging skills, thereby equipping him or her to function in the situation. Greene describes challenging behavior as maladaptive behavior, meaning the behavior is not appropriate for the situation. Put another way, challenging behavior is behavior that occurs when the demands of the situation (or the task) exceed the student’s capacity to respond.When that situation arises multiple things can happen, including:
    1. Resorting to a challenging or maladaptive behavior that has been used before, because no other option is known to exist in the student’s repertoire
    2. Or “choosing” challenging behavior, because the student has not other behavior option from which to choose (such as a behavior that adaptive or appropriate to the situation).

Behavior as a Skill Set

Greene tries to get us to see challenging behavior as a lack of skill so that we rethink our response to it. Viewing behavior as a set of skills required to navigate the world of social interactions opens us up to consider that challenging behavior represents a lagging skill set that must be taught or retaught. If we want maladaptive behavior to become adaptive, we must teach the student the missing skills.

Just as beliefs about classroom teaching have changed over the years, so has the idea of teaching associated with teaching lagging skills that lead to behavior.  In Greene’s model of teaching lagging skills, he makes the case that it is essential that students and adults work cooperatively to solve the problem of challenging behavior. While Greene has worked out this model in considerable detail, for our purposes it includes the following elements:

  • Empathy:  Here the adult seeks to find out why the student is engaging in this behavior. The adult starts a conversation with some form of the observation and question, “I noticed … What’s Up?”
  • Problem Definition: In this step, the adult and the student each identify their problem. Both problems must be on the table in order for both participants to own the partnership of problem solution.
  • Invitation: Brainstorming potential solutions to solve both problems. Both problems must be addressed, not solely the problem identified by the adult.
  • Summary: “I heard us say …” and “When shall we begin?” and “Do we think this will work?” are three questions that highlight this part of the model.

Greene’s argument is that if we are to help students make enduring change to their challenging behavior, we must engage them in the process of learning new skills for troublesome situations, just as we teach reading or mathematics in using methods that engage students as active participants and constructors of new learning.

In Kelsey’s story, she reports that she is a “… mean person …” supposing that she is mentally disabled …” I wonder whether and how her teachers or her parents would support Kelsey if they reframed their response to her challenging behavior as a result of “lagging skills.” Instead of suspending and expelling her from school, what would have been the impact if adults who attempted to support her throughout her school career had interpreted her challenging behavior as an example of demands that exceed her capacity to respond, rather than as bad choices on her part? What if they had worked with Kelsey to identify the situations and associated lagging skills that led to maladaptive behavior?

The problem of challenging behavior is not new. Challenging behavior has been challenging for many years. Our approach to creating positive and supportive communities of learning for all students reflects our beliefs about students, behavior, and choices. Our practices in responding to challenging behavior will determine whether we give the gift of true change to students or whether we focus our efforts on managing challenging behavior.

How have you managed challenging behavior? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

Phil SteginkPhil Stegink is the director of educational services at CLC Network and an assistant professor of education at Calvin College.

photo credit: flickingerbrad via photopin cc

photo credit: Sara Björk via photopin cc

Eye Opening Documentary Addresses Challenging Behavior

WhoCaresKelseyposterIn today’s post, Phil Stegink reviews Who Cares About Kelsey?an eye-opening film that raises questions about school practices and strategies that create a supportive school environment. 

In the documentary, filmmaker Dan Habib (director of Including Samuel) confronts a challenging and critically important issue facing students, families, and schools:  supporting students with emotional and behavioral challenges. In this film, Habib tells the story of Kelsey, a high school student who is significantly at risk for dropping out of school and becoming, in her words, “… a screw up like my brothers and sisters.”

Through this video, Habib confronts the real difficulty of supporting students who, like Kelsey, have difficulty regulating their emotions and modulating their behavior. He shows the raw pain of isolation, abuse, and self-mutilation. In this story, we meet committed school staff who seek to reach Kelsey and we learn about Kelsey’s family, who want the best for her, but who do not know how to consistently support her. The story ends with Kelsey’s graduation from high school and her finding a powerful purpose to move forward with her life.

Who is Kelsey?

Who Cares About Kelsey? opens by introducing us to the players in her story: Kelsey, who lives with her dad and stepmother; her dad; her mother; her siblings; and, her boyfriend, who is four years her elder. Though we don’t know this until the end of the film, if Kelsey graduates from high school, she will be the first one from her family to do so.

Failing Grades + ADHD + Self-Mutilation + Abuse Does Not Equal DropoutThe story begins when Kelsey is a senior in her fifth year of school. She was retained during her middle school years, and reports that she was diagnosed with ADHD in 4th grade,. Kelsey says she is a “… mean person …,” supposing that she is “mentally disabled,” but “… not really disabled. You know?” Teachers and support staff of Kelsey’s high school report that she is, among other things, “… stubborn, obstinate, mature, immature, and a champion of the underdog.” Kelsey says that she usually wins arguments, because she has the “… ultimate meanness.”

Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports

During Kelsey’s first year of high school, the administration decided on a very intentional effort to change the trajectory of graduation percentages. They implemented a program known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), designed as a school-wide approach to creating a safe school culture. The goal of this program is to reduce the dropout rate for all students, particularly those who are at significant risk of dropping out. Empowerment, rather than control, is an essential element of this program. At Kelsey’s school, this program was known as “RENEW.”

Kelsey receiving help with schoolworkA team of school staff, including teachers, administrators, and support professionals was created to envelope Kelsey in order to support her throughout her high school career. The RENEW team began with and returned often to visioning and goal setting with Kelsey. As is true for many students who struggle with emotions and behavior in school, Kelsey’s vision of self was grounded on her personal definition as “mean,” which led her to view her future as short term. Before she began to give voice to personal dreams in the context of the RENEW team, her vision for self centered on dropping out of school and finding a job. Through supportive planning and visioning with the RENEW team, Kelsey came to articulate hopes and dreams that including having a home, having an intact family, having kids, and having a job that would fulfill her desire to help others.

The Journey Forward

Firefighter KelseyThroughout Kelsey’s story we journey through the ups and downs of her holding and molding a vision that evolves from the “mean girl” persona, to a time when Kelsey is able to accept the reality that it is OK to seek and accept support from others. This isn’t a smooth, forward motion journey, however; steps forward are balanced with steps backward. Finally, after ups and downs, Kelsey passes a final exam for an Emergency Medical Technologist course, which allows her to graduate; the first person from her family to do so.The film ends a year later with Kelsey returning to her high school to speak with students who are participating in the same program from which she received support.

Final Notes

This documentary is not an easy movie to watch. It is not a simple how-to video. Though it ends well, it is not a feel good film. Habib and his associates explore the painful life in which many students live. The filmmakers do not presuppose a positive outcome, though by the end Kelsey has made great progress to managing her challenges and in letting down the walls that formed her boundaries for many years. Throughout the film, the viewer wonders, however, whether or how she can possibly “make it.” There are times when the film brings the viewer to the edge of despair as Kelsey struggles mightily with who she is and what she will be. The producers do not expunge harsh language used by Kelsey as she confronts challenges and speaks out her frustrations. If harsh language is upsetting, I suggest a viewer activate the “bleep” function in the DVD settings.

I think this film is targeted to schools that struggle with high dropout rates for emotionally at-risk students and that are looking for ways to include successfully those students in a positive learning community. The content of the film can be used to stimulate discussion about what faculty and staff believe about school culture and climate. Questions will emerge regarding practices intended to promote positive school culture and strategies used to manage students. The producers of Who Cares About Kelsey? partnered with a variety of educators to prepare discussion guides that should be useful to guide school development teams. I recommend this film to schools interested in implementing PBIS for students who bring challenging behavior to school.

Later this week, I’ll share strategies schools and educators can take to help students with challenging behavior and create a positive and supportive school community.

Phil SteginkPhil Stegink is the director of educational services at CLC Network and an assistant professor of education at Calvin College.