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Changing Behavior in the Classroom

Dear Steve,

I teach a class of eight- to nine-year-olds in church. They are high in energy and enthusiasm, but low in self-restraint. How do I encourage and teach and inspire them while keeping order? I’ve thought about helping them establish class rules of conduct, but am short on ideas for rewards or consequences.

Bouncing Off The Walls

Dear Bouncing,

It seems like you’re experiencing that age of wonder, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and wild, unbridled enthusiasm (i.e., wall bouncing). It seems that eight to nine is a magic number because just a couple of weeks ago, I was working with a group of eight to nine executives who suffered from the same problem. I think I have a couple of ideas that will work with high energy kids . . . and executives.

It’s not uncommon to want to move immediately to rewards and consequences when faced with this type of challenge—it’s both easy and fast. However, it’s often not as effective as you would hope. You also spend a lot of time wrapped up in discipline rather than teaching and inspiring. My suggestions will require a little more patience, but should yield better results over the long-term. Here are three big ideas to add to what you’re currently doing:

  • Focus on practice.
  • Build some wiggle room into your rewards.
  • Create audibles.

Focus on practice. Focusing on practice in this case means practicing to focus. Kids come from a variety of different home environments, each with their own set of norms and expectations. Some children will come to your class more calm and with a higher capacity to focus. Others—not so much. The difficulty is that those with a higher capacity to focus will soon conform to the norm set by those that don’t. Many children simply don’t know how to focus, so you will need to help them develop those skills. Take time in your class to deliberately practice paying attention.

Start with shorter time periods and work your way up to longer ones. Let them know that you’re going to practice and allow room for them to fail as they practice. They will need help and coaching throughout the process, and probably won’t get it right the first time they try. Make sure to use a large timer in the process so they can get a sense of how long they need to focus. If necessary, give them something to focus on, and keep track of their progress so that they can see their improvement.

With this approach, you’ll want to introduce challenges to make it fun. Things like, “Our record is two minutes. Let’s see if we can do two minutes and ten seconds.” Or, “Let’s start off with the quiet game. The first person to make a noise makes the timer start over for the whole group.” If you make it a game, they’ll find it’s more fun to practice. Then, you’ll get the group involved in encouraging one another in the process.

Build some wiggle room into your rewards. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about eight- to- nine-year-olds—they are inherently wiggly. And when pent-up for any extended period of time, they will eventually explode in a fit of flailing arms and legs (and that’s the mild version). So a smart approach is to create opportunities to let it all out. This can actually be a great reward for good behavior. I became familiar with a church class run by a neighbor of mine who had music she used to allow the kids to “go wild” to for the duration of the song. Another teacher would choose a child that had demonstrated good focus during the class to lead his or her classmates in a series of wiggle exercises of his or her choosing. There is a movement (pun intended) being championed by Nike and others to get kids active in the classroom for short bursts to break up some of the longer teaching segments. I think similar to them, you’ll find that these types of breaks will be a great reward for the kids, and help them focus by providing an outlet for their need to move.

Create audibles. Along with the previous two ideas, you’ll want to have a strategy to deal with the times that the class falls back into old behavior patterns. And it’s not a matter of “if,” it really is a matter of “when.” The Boy Scouts of America have a great way of dealing with kids when they get too rambunctious. To bring attention back, the leader holds up his or her right hand with three fingers extended straight up. When scouts see this, they are supposed to stop talking and respond by making the same sign. Everybody recognizes this sign and knows what to do when they see it.

With younger kids, I’d recommend something similar, but adding an audible command. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head.” You can use all kinds of variations on this such as clap your hands, stomp your foot, pull your ear lobe, make the high-five sign, etc. So mix it up and be creative—the kids will love seeing the new things you come up with.

Something like this will allow you to see who’s responding and who still needs help. If you find some are not responding as quickly, you may want to add some additional information to your audible. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head. Okay, it looks like we’re still waiting for so-and-so, and what’s-their-bucket.” It usually takes a couple of rounds of commands before you’ll get the entire class, but with practice, they will get better at it.

Hopefully, implementing these ideas will help bring the bouncing under control . . . or at least reduce it to a manageable dribble. Remember, consistency is the key in these situations. Good luck and carry on with the impactful teaching assignment you’ve undertaken. I’m sure there are many grateful parents associated with those kids.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

10 thoughts on “Changing Behavior in the Classroom”

  1. David Hernandez

    As an educator, I have learned from a teaching company I worked with called Project SEED, Inc., the power of prefacing questions with a mode of response. This technique has allowed me to help modify student behavior while teaching content. An example, “Raise a tall hand up sitting up straight with both feet on the floor if you know what is 8×7?”. This allows the students to know how you want the answer rather than them guessing.

    1. Julinda

      I like that.

  2. Julinda

    Nice article. I’m involved in Scouting so I liked your reference to Boy Scouts. I will use your suggestions in Cub Scout meetings and Sunday School class. (By the way, with the Cub Scouts – BSA program for grades 1 to 5 – it’s two fingers rather than three, and it gets used a LOT with those kids!)

    1. Julinda

      I’m replying this so I can check the “Notify me of follow-up comments…” I forgot to check it before!

    2. Steve W.

      Nice! It’s made such a difference with my boys.

  3. Linda H

    Remember that young children (and probably some execs.) have very short attention spans so plan your lesson with several short (5-10 minute) segments and if your classroom allows, incorporate some type of movement between the sitting down times. Movement such as a song with hand motions or an active game can help teach the lesson since the students are actively participating, not just passively listening or reading. If you want them to memorize a Bible verse, place cards on the floor with each word and have them hop from word to word, saying them out loud. If you want them to understand how different characters from a story are related, play The Farmer in the Dell and change the names. Use their need to move as a learning tool.

    1. Steve W.

      I’ve also found that music, and especially getting them to sing, really gets them engaged. It also makes it easier to remember the lesson.

  4. Gretchen Crawford

    When I taught a small Sunday School ‘class’ children of varying ages would arrive at different times in differing states of mind. Some would be dropped off early, others a bit later, their parents seeming a bit stressed with the rush to be on time.
    Over time a ritual developed that promoted calm and focus: An ever-changing offering of mandalas and crayons to color them ! As the children straggled or were hustled in, they were welcomed by name, and naturally settled in to the task at hand. Talking was never repressed, yet for the most part the children were quiet and focused on their coloring creations. ‘Discipline’ was not an issue in our little class.
    Sometimes I would read a story and then let the kids act it out. Once we made paper birds (they colored these as they wished, too) and attached strings to them. When the service upstairs had ended and people came down for coffee hour, the children were ‘flying’ their birds in a large circle around tables spread with the foods of Sunday mornings’ hospitality! The scene was joyous! Children focusing on their birds flight ( they had to use their own movement, a gentle run ) and grown-ups smiling with delight at the unexpected display.
    At most 14 children attended at a time. The only time they needed to ‘get in line’ when was we went upstairs to join the service for sharing the peace and communion time.
    We started with the centering activity of focused mandala coloring, and went from there to a variety of activities, many of which involved movement, such as play-acting, dancing, and even simple yoga stretches such as the sun salutation.
    Lovely memories of a sweet time…

    1. Julinda

      Gretchen Crawford – Enjoyed reading your comment! And it has some good ideas.

  5. Steve W.

    I like the idea of focusing on a replacement behavior that is visceral and engaging.

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