14 Oct 2016
Can I tell you how I often feel on a Sunday morning? I wake up knowing that I’m teaching Sunday School – again. I’ve worked hard on my prep, giving it the time I can – alongside other commitments. I enjoy teaching Sunday School. But I still wake up with a weariness. I’ve got friends in that big church down the road… they tell me how amazing the kid’s work is, how many kids they have and how they never get to teach more than once a month because the rota is so full! I am pleased for them, truly. I wearily get out of bed, I check my phone and my volunteer has overslept and will be late. I have a mixed age group, with children between 3 and 11 years old.
We can all feel overwhelmed with how to teach a mixed age group of children. It can feel second rate and just not good enough.
What does the Bible call us to do?
- We teach the Bible to children any way we can. (Deut 6; Psalm 78:5-7; 2 Tim 1:5). These passages ask us to teach children however we can. As we walk along. As we sit at home. Teaching our children, our grandchildren or just the children in our church. We teach them individually and also in groups. A father with a few children might talk to his children all at the same time, but will sometimes choose to talk to just one a time. Both are good. However we do it, we want to tell children about the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.
- We train all the children’s leaders we can. (Eph 4:11-12) Let us see the need to train as many others as possible so that all of God’s people are equipped to serve one another.
- We encourage the children to serve in any way they can (1 Tim 4:12; 2 Tim 3:14-15). All of God’s people are called to copy Jesus, who himself was considered nothing; a servant of all.
- We can only teach children in God’s strength (1 Cor 1:26-2:5). The great Paul explained God’s word with ‘great fear and trembling … not with wise and persuasive words’ but with God’s Spirit who works powerfully in us. We can only teach and disciple the children in our Sunday Schools, when the Spirit works in their hearts as we show them the words of the Bible.
Looking at these biblical truths and principles has so helped me to be freed from expectation, worry and the trap of comparison. Let’s do our best to uphold these truths from God’s word – and He’ll go to work! He cares about the children much more than we ever will. He takes our cares and our burdens about prep, room space, different ages etc. Children will flourish as God’s goes to work through our best efforts.
Practically, how can we teach a mixed age group?
1. Pitch the lesson at the group you have in front of you
• Pitch one idea. Most of us try to teach too much with too many ideas. Strip the Bible passage right back. Teach one simple idea. This is hard and takes work. But once we are clear on the one big idea we will feel more confident as we teach simply and the children are more likely to leave having understood the lesson.
• Pitch it simply. Every child will benefit. With a room of mixed ages pitch it to the middle age group. Children learn when we teach one simple idea, in a variety of ways. Use visual aids, stories, sport, music, drama. Children who are under 7 years old can only think in concrete, literal ways, so avoid conceptual language; for example say, “Jesus is always with us” rather than “Jesus lives in our hearts”
• Pitch it to particular age groups during small group discussion. Can you split into age groups for discussion? Give each adult in the room take one single-age small group. Can each group be in a different corner of the same group? Can the oldest children be trained to oversee the younger ones as they colour or do a craft, perhaps asking them one or two simple questions about the story? Prepare the discussion group for the over 7 year olds carefully, so that this time feels like their special time, when they are being engaged.
2. Train the leaders you have available
• Train everyone! It’s a great opportunity for Mums and Dads to practice speaking to children about the Bible. Let them watch you; if the lesson goes badly it is often more encouraging to them than a lesson that goes perfectly! Others in the church family can enjoy the ownership of preparing and teaching, whatever their background or capability.
• Train in different ways to suit different people. Be aware of different backgrounds and skill sets. For instance, a full time teacher will have a more complete skill set than a student, or someone who is speaking in their second language. However, everyone can be trained and encouraged to do something. Anyone can be trained to run a game and lead a discussion time.
3. Teach the lesson to the best of your ability
• Break up the session. Children can concentrate for the same number of minutes as their age in years. So, a 5 year old has a 5 minute attention span. With a mixed age group, you need to plan for the concentration span of the youngest in the room. Between periods of high concentration, give the children “brain breaks”. Have an achievable single aim for the session- if you ask too much of the group you and they will be discouraged by your failure to achieve the aim. Use the lesson plan to help you break up the lesson.
• Break up the space. Can you move around to give each new section a fresh feel, to help concentration? Can you use an outside space for games? Can you use the corners for small groups? Can you use corridors? Use the different ways children learn to help you: If a story has a journey, then move the group around as you tell the story. Use the children’s senses as the characters in the story use theirs.
• Break up the children. Remember the culture we’re fighting is “you children are amazing; the adults are here to serve you”. Look for every opportunity for the children to be trained and to serve. Children will willingly prepare to lead something if they are given adequate warning and materials. Ask an older child to run the game or ‘man-mark’ a little one – helping them to understand the main point or theme. They could tell the story back to the younger ones after you’ve told it. We did this on Sunday and the older ones LOVED it! They stood in a line and told the story of Noah one sentence each, with promptings/questions.
For each of these case studies:
• Which of the four Biblical principles, from above, should be brought to mind?
• What are the practical next steps to take?
1) It’s chaos. It’s a baptism or thanksgiving. 20 times more kids than expected. You’re not on the rota; a student and the Frenchman are. Two visiting parents have gone in with their children, looking nervous at the chaos…
Hurray for more kids who get to hear the Bible being taught! Great experience and training for the leaders. You could ask your leaders how they feel, if they need help – maybe ask some of the older ones in the group to think about how they could be extra helpful this week. Do you need to offer support to ensure that the group is safe and constructive? Fight the urge to take control from your leaders- let them learn. Encourage them afterwards.
2) Your normal group consists of four sets of sibling boys. How do you help them – especially when they’re rolling around on top of each other…?!
Hurray they’re in Sunday school learning from the Bible! Remember it’s not school. We’re not correcting behaviour but changing hearts. We will need calm and order when the Bible is being taught, but can we find a way to physically engage them in the story telling? Sometimes we can learn from games which feature rolling around on the floor! If they’re stopping others from learning about God, we need to have a word and pray with them – reminding each other why we’re here. But let’s have fun! Maybe try and encourage some men at church to step in to teach or help?
3) You’ve noticed that the eldest girl in your Sunday school (10yrs) has been very quiet in recent weeks. She’s kind in helping her sister and seems to be listening. She’s from a mature family and loves Jesus for herself. You hear from her Mum that she’s got no friends at school. The other children are kind but she seems socially removed. How do you help her interact with the group, but also give time to chat/discuss and apply God’s word into her life?
We’ll leave this one to you to ponder!
Sometimes on Sunday mornings we feel weary, burdened and second best. Good! What an opportunity to remember that it’s God’s work, and be encouraged to keep on pressing on… Do we truly believe His word and His Spirit are powerful to change lives?!
Written by: Alice Ashton