List the top five fears of beginning teachers, and you’ll find “classroom discipline” near the top of that list. List the top five frustrations of many seasoned teachers, and you’ll find “classroom discipline” near the top of the list, too!

For those who teach in church, this issue can seem even more daunting. Many of us  are volunteers. We’ve had no formal training. We’re not sure how to handle a chatty third grader or the cliques among our ninth graders. What we do know, almost instinctively, is this:

To learn anything, students need to pay attention.

Students who focus on the tasks at hand learn more—much more—than those who don’t. Educators call this “time on task.” Research has shown that in some classrooms, students spend only about 20% of their time on task! In the best classrooms, students spend more than 70% of their time on task. Guess who learns more . . .

Would you like to increase the learning that goes on in your youth Bible study or the midweek CCD class you teach? Research points to these “best practices” for keeping kids on task and learning.

Be (Over) Prepared 

  • What are you praying for yourself and your students? This is no “pious suggestion” that’s included here because readers will expect it! It’s a very practical measure you can take to set the stage for student interest and involvement. Have you told the students you’re praying for them? Have you asked them to pray for you—and included specific needs in your request? (E.g., “Ask that Jesus help me explain things clearly”; “Ask that I can find projects that help you learn what the Holy Spirit wants to teach you.) 
  • How do you set the stage for success ahead of time? Do you plan thoroughly and know exactly what you want to accomplish? Do you have all the materials you will need on hand? Have you verified that the Mp3 player works? If the lesson wraps up more quickly than you think it will, what meaningful extra activities will you be ready to pull out of your hat?
  • Do you expect the best and look forward to meeting your class and learning with them? Studies have shown time and again the power of high expectations and sharing them with learners. When we treat our students as partners in learning and anticipate having a great experience with them, that’s often exactly what happens. 

Initiate Proactive Procedures

Think in terms of routine classroom events and the needs of your students. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • How quickly do I get into the lesson? What keeps me from beginning the moment the clock strikes 9:00? Do I prepare materials before class? Could students help me rearrange chairs or tables before class if rearranging is necessary? How could I incentivize everyone to arrive few minutes early? (E.g., providing highly engaging activities that begin as soon as the first learners arrive.)
  • How could I distribute materials more efficiently? Could learners pick up Bibles, pencils, and snacks as they arrive? What other routines would help avoid delays in learning activities? Learners who stay engaged in learning activities have less time to create disruptions.
  • What events consistently interrupt learning? Does a bell ring mid-way through class? Who could help prevent that? Does someone enter your learning space to collect the offering or day’s attendance record at the same time every week? How else could that process be better handled?

Have the Fewest Rules Possible—and Enforce Them

Do your students know what you expect? Experts suggest these approaches:

  • Let class members help you set rules. Accept ideas and suggestions, but make it clear that as the adult in the room you have final responsibility and, thus, authority.
  • Limit rules to no more than 6-8 in number. Then make sure everyone understands both the “what” and the “why” behind each rule. Post a list. If you share a space, put the rules on a poster and bring it back week by week.
  • Attach clear and appropriate rewards and consequences to each rule. Remember, rules that are unenforced become unenforceable.
  • Don’t over-react. Your goal should be to de-escalate disruptive behaviors. That means you won’t want to “up the ante” by elevating the situation beyond its current level. Many times, you can regain control simply by pausing and looking the offender directly in the eye. If not, walk toward him or her—but not in a threatening or menacing way. Standing nearby will often re-set everyone’s focus, moving it back to the lesson.

 Stay “With-it”

“With-it-ness” is that sixth sense, the “eyes in the back of a teacher’s head.” As students enter your classroom, notice what’s going on. Does E.J. seem unusually quiet? Is Jill fidgeting? Does Madeline look sleepy? And—here’s the key—we act on what we see to prevent problems. We move to stand beside Jill. We ask Madeline a question. We take a moment to check in individually with E.J.

This, of course, may mean arranging the furniture in your space to make it possible. You may need to be creative, but do think about how you could set the stage for a “4 X 4 Approach”—a practice whereby the teacher moves to within four feet of each learner every four minutes.


Effective procedures combined with teacher “with-it-ness” will prevent many disruptions, and prevention is your goal. But disruptions will occur in even the best classrooms. When you notice an issue developing, address it immediately! Students who have collaborated in developing rules and who have seen you enforce them with firm, caring consistency will generally respond to a simple, quiet reminder.

Stay calm. Remember, most rule breaking is not intended as an insult. Usually, disruptive learners have been distracted. Or they are hungry. Or they haven’t fully engaged with the concept you’re communicating. When you avoid personalizing disruptive behavior, you can deal more effectively with it. Address the underlying problem, and the disruption disappears.

Here’s the Key: Maintain Good Relationships with Each Learner

I’ve saved the most important point for last. When, in Christ, we care about our kids, they know it. They respond, in turn, by loving us in the Savior, too. Care is never a “group policy.” One by one, child by child, youth by youth, we notice new shoes, we pray for ailing grandparents, we phone or E-mail to ask about that geometry test.

In maintaining a well-managed classroom, we make learning possible. But even more important, we model Jesus’ concern and his love for our students.

Think about it: How much time does your class spend “on task”? Want to know? Have a friend sit in the back of your room with a sheet of paper and a list of numerals from 1 to 50—assuming your class session is 50 minutes long. 

Your partner should put a Y (yes) or an N (no) next to each numeral in answer to the question: Is the class focused on learning now? 

Then plug the data into this formula: (Total number of minutes available – Number of No’s) ÷ 100 = % time on task.


© 2013 CTA, Inc. No duplication of this article is allowed without the express written consent of CTA, PO Box 1205, Fenton, MO 63026-1205.

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