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Sunday School mirrors day school in many ways. In the first place, it’s called school. Second, it’s usually held in a classroom with a group of children and a teacher. Sometimes, it’s in the very same classrooms that are used during the week for day school. Most often, the children are grouped by age or grade, just as they are in day school. The class is directed by a teacher who sometimes stands up in front of the group and leads the students in some type of learning. Sometimes, there are reading and writing activities in an environment that feels very similar to day school.
There are also ways that Sunday School is not like day school. My favorite is that you don’t have to give or receive grades. No grading papers! No giving or taking tests! As a Sunday School teacher, I am not responsible for teaching reading or math and I don’t have to worry about teaching my students neat handwriting. Of course, these are all very important skills and teachers who do these must take that job very seriously. In Sunday School, however, I am not responsible for remediating deficiencies in reading, math, or handwriting. I can leave that to someone else and pay attention to the important task at hand, that of sharing Jesus with all the children in my charge.
Initially, it might feel most comfortable for you and your students to start with some of the same familiar frameworks as day school. Things like coming into the room quietly, finding a place to sit, and having the teacher pleasantly greet and direct students upon their entry. These are all good things. This type of predictability is very comforting to students and helps them feel safe. When students feel safe, they are open to building relationships with their teacher and other students. That relationship building will be key to your success on all levels. Once you’ve got them in your room, however, there’s no need to stick to any preconceived notions about what teaching and learning should look like.
Ideas to ponder wherever your Sunday School may be situated.
- Keep ’em moving; then sit ’em down to think. Rinse and repeat often.
- Be predictable. Have a structure that you follow every week so children with anxiety and self-regulation issues know what to expect. Within that structure, plan different kinds of activities to get and keep their attention. No need to do the same thing every week; even the most successful activity repeated over and over gets boring.
- Keep a picture schedule or written agenda, or combination of the two, on the board or where students can see it. This might ease anxiety for some students and help them to have a road map for the class. It also helps you keep on track.
- Make sure everyone feels welcome. Work hard to learn children’s names. Use their names whenever you can, especially when you see them outside of Sunday School.
- Integrate technology, if possible. If you don’t have access to classroom technology, bring your iPad, tablet, or laptop.
- Use lots of music and actions. You don’t have to reserve the music for openings or specified music time. Use music to memorize catechism parts or Bible verses (this music is already available form CPH). Provide calming background music, or sing and get children moving. Music is a very powerful learning and behavior-management tool.
- Do you need any adaptive equipment (slant board, specialized pencil grippers, talking Bible, etc.)? If so, get those things either from the student’s family or from your church or school. Adaptive equipment doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy to be useful. Sometimes, it might be as simple as a piece of Velcro on a pencil to attach the pencil to a desk so the pencil can’t roll away.
- Provide neoprene gloves for children with tactile sensory issues who don’t like to get messy.
- Highlighters or highlighting tape can be useful for lesson leaflets with lots of print.
- Post directions or make a written task card to be on each student’s desk for him or her to refer to regularly.
- Use as many visual teaching strategies as possible. This category is infinitely broad and could range from big posters to pictures on PowerPoint slides to three dimensional items and so on.
- Create social stories for students with autism for Sunday School–specific things. If a child is struggling in a particular social or behavioral area, focus your social story on that one item first. You might focus on situations like coming into the room, switching activities, getting along with classmates, or taking turns.
- Give choices about where students may sit or be. Some students may like to stand off to the side or in the back of the room. Some students may want to be right by you. Do not use these areas as punishments, but give students options. Some students easily experience sensory overload and thus have anxiety in large groups or in large open spaces. Figure out the place that each student feels safest. Children may be better able to pay attention if they can sit on a rug, a mat, or an exercise ball.
- Provide “fiddling” options to keep hands busy—play dough, Koosh balls, Silly Putty, fun coloring pages, puzzles, etc. Don’t assume that just because their hands are busy, the students aren’t listening. Many times, it’s just the opposite: because their hands are busy, they are able to focus their listening on you. Many children cannot look at you and listen to you at the same time. It’s just too much to process at once.
- Use larger fonts on printed material and less clutter on pages.
- Choral reading is a great choice for a classroom that has a wide range of readers.
- Use a digital timer to help get students started, stay focused on a task, and disengage from a task.
- Utilize alternatives to writing such as stickers with the words on them to fill in blanks, a scribe for writing, or a rubber stamp with letters, names, or words. Or just skip the writing all together. You can do that; it’s Sunday School, not spelling or language arts class.
- Get another helper to be your extra pair of hands and eyes in the classroom. Remind that person that he or she does not have to prepare lessons or talk in front of a large group. It is remarkable how an extra person can calm both teacher and student stress. A nonanxious and pleasant adult sitting next to a fidgety child who struggles with academics or behavior provides the external boundary and safety net that students sometimes cannot set for themselves.
- Finally, continually emphasize each child’s identity in Christ. Every class period, remind every child that he or she is God’s child and is loved beyond measure. They are all valuable and precious in His sight, and all this not because of how well they read, write, or behave, but because of who they are in Christ Jesus. None of us ever tires of hearing that message.
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