Sooner or later, every Sunday School teacher and children’s ministry volunteer faces a wild and crazy class of kids. Sometimes it’s the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Sometimes it’s just a tough group of kids.
When my wife started teaching 3rd grade, she inherited a class that the other teachers didn’t want to teach. Some of them started teaching different grades that year just to avoid this group. Like you, she needed a grab bag of reliable methods to calm kids down and salvage class time.
Here’s a list of 13 ways to calm kids down:
1. Take them outside
When kids are acting out in class, it’s often a signal that they have too much built-up energy. If you keep trying to push through your lesson, it’s like shaking up a 2-liter of soda and waiting for the pressure to go away on its own. When your class is out of control, it might be time to go outside.
You may think taking your class outside is wasting precious time. But if your kids are too rowdy to teach, every minute you try to get them to focus is wasted. Get them outside, tell them to run “to the fence and back,” then go back inside and continue with class. To get some extra craziness out of their system, tell them to run in a particular way: like a monkey, a bear, or a cheetah.
2. Dim the lights
If your whole class is out of control, not every kid will notice what you’re saying or doing to settle things down.
But they’ll all see the lights turn off, and their eyes will instinctively turn to the light switch.
You’ll have to know your class to decide if this is the right method for you—some kids get even wilder when the lights go off. You might only have a brief window to steer them back on track before you lose their attention again.
3. Play a music video
Similar to running around outside, the idea here is to burn some energy and “get the wiggles out.” Create a list of music videos you’re comfortable showing in class, and that the kids love to dance to. The more elaborate the dance moves, the better it will be for burning energy. Take a moment to show kids any tricky moves, and before you know it, all you’ll have to do is push play when your kids get rowdy. Taking three minutes to dance through a video will help you get more out of the rest of your time together.
4. “If you can hear my voice, do this!”
This technique lets you use the kids who are still on task to quickly regain control of the class. Depending on the volume of your class, you can whisper or speak in a normal voice. Tell the kids who are listening to do something weird—like make moose ears, stick out their tongues, or put their hands on their heads. You could also have them clap their hands a specific number of times or in a rhythm. The kids around them will see that everyone is participating in something that they’re not part of. After doing this a couple of times, everyone should be listening.
5. Call and response
Using call and response requires you to teach the response in advance. The more you practice, the faster they’ll know what to do when they hear you give the signal. It might be something simple, like “1, 2, 3, eyes on me” (with the response being “1, 2, eyes on you”), or something a little more elaborate, like a song.
6. Rainstick (or another unique sound)
A rainstick is essentially a big tube with beads in it. When you tip the tube, the beads gently roll and make a distinct sound. Seeing you holding up a big tube at the front of the class will also provide a visual cue to look to the front. You could also use a maraca, a harp, or another instrument to get their attention.
7. Bubbles (or another visual cue)
Blowing bubbles is an invitation to play (what kid doesn’t instinctively want to pop them) but it puts you back in control of the chaos. When the bubbles are gone, hopefully the kids have got some energy out, and they’ll look to you—the source of the bubbles—for more.
When your class is focused and on task, let them know that sometimes in your class you will yell, “Freeze,” and they will have to freeze in place. If you feel it’s appropriate, you could offer an incentive for being the fastest to freeze. Be sure to practice a few times while the kids are on task. You could have a 30-second dance party to get kids used to freezing in place while they’re being crazy.
9. Point out kids who are on task
If your class hasn’t completely surrendered to the chaos yet, you should hopefully have a handful—or if you’re lucky, maybe even a majority—of kids who are still doing the right thing. Draw attention to them and use them as models for the rest of the class. Tell them, “Thank you [name] for doing [task]. Class, do you see how [name] is doing such a great job with [task]?” If you’re having trouble with a couple of kids in particular, highlight the on-task kids next to them.
10. Identify inappropriate behavior
Calling out kids by name is risky. And publicly shaming kids is never a good way to regain control. More than they’ll remember your lesson, they’ll remember how you made them feel, or how much trouble so-and-so got in. You’re not just responsible for these kids for one class time.
But if the positive reinforcement of highlighting good behavior doesn’t work, it may be time to highlight bad behavior. I’d recommend keeping it impersonal by saying things like, “Anyone who is doing [inappropriate behavior] right now is not doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” or “If your neighbor is doing [inappropriate behavior] nicely tell them that you’re trying to do [appropriate behavior].”
11. Give the class stars for behaving
When every kid has a stake in the class’s behavior, they’re a lot more likely to steer each other in the right direction. Find a positive incentive your kids can get excited about (perhaps a game, a party, or a snack) and determine an appropriate number of stars or points they have to earn in order to get the reward. When the class gets out of control, they lose points. When they’re focused and on task, they earn points. You can decide if they have an opportunity to earn back points and how fast they can earn or lose points.
12. Take a stretch break
It’s not easy for kids to sit in place for a long time. A stretch break is less disruptive than running outside or dancing around, but sometimes it’s just enough to get kids back on track. You probably want to try this when your kids start to look restless, before they get out of control.
13. Quiet Coyote
No list of kid-calming strategies would be complete without the famous “Quiet Coyote.” Most school-age kids have probably encountered Quiet Coyote before, but take a moment to tell the kids about this well-known creature. Bring your middle and ring fingers to your thumb to make his snout, and raise your pointer and pinky fingers to make his ears. Tell the kids that the Quiet Coyote doesn’t like noise, and when they see him come out, they need to get quiet and bring out his friends (making their own Quiet Coyotes).
Want more help managing kids?
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