I haven’t been in Primary very long, but it has been long enough to notice this: most adults could benefit from a few simple ideas that will make them much, much better at teaching a group of children.
First and most importantly, know that about 90% of children’s misbehavior is due to the fact that they are not interested in what you are doing. I learned this in a most forceful manner when I taught in the public schools; most days felt like playing whack-a-mole: as soon as I put down a problem in one corner of the room, another one would erupt somewhere else. One day, in a speech class, I was delivering a model speech to my students. It was about ten minutes long and the topic was pranks that I had played in college (which included stealing a car and filling an entire bathroom–floor to ceiling–with leaves we had raked). During this speech, not a single student moved a muscle, let alone talked or moved about. Know that if you are presenting material that is interesting to students, almost all of your ‘discipline’ problems will disappear. As a general rule, an activity that involves just sitting and listening will not interest children. There are two exceptions to this: children respond well to stories (actual stories, including scripture stories, but not theological discourses), especially when there are visual aids. Further, an activity that involves one child coming to the front and doing something while all the others sit and listen may seem different to you, but for almost all of the kids, it is functionally the same as sitting and listening.
Know your material. Children smell fear and lack of preparation and will punish you for it. They will also punish hesitation and weakness. Know your stuff. If you are telling a story–scripture or otherwise–you must be able to do it without reference to notes. Reading it once per day for a week should accomplish this. Writing key phrases on the back of your visual aids may be an acceptable trick.
Have the children’s attention before you begin.They should all be quiet and have their eyes on you before you start. An easy way to accomplish this with Junior Primary is with a quick round of Noah Says: “Noah says hop like a kangaroo . . . Noah says crouch down in a ball like a beetle . . . Noah says be quiet as a mouse . . . Noah says sit in your chair like a quiet Primary child.” (Manipulative? Probably. But it works.) With Senior Primary, simply tell them, “I’ll know you are ready to begin when I can see your eyes and can’t hear your mouths.” and then wait until it happens.
Correct misbehavior. If you ignore it, it will not stop. In fact, it will spread like a virus. A few techniques for stopping it:
(a) Make eye contact with the child until s/he notices you and stops.
(b) Remind the whole group to pay attention.
(c) Ask for the teachers’ help–either generally or specifically.
(d) Say, “I’m sorry, Devilspawn, but I can’t go on until you are quiet.” And then stand quietly until they stop.
Remember: if you ignore it, it will continue. If you act, it will stop and set the tone for the rest of the children.
Do not expect children to sit still and be quiet or to engage in any single activity for more than 10 minutes. A three-hour block of sitting and being quiet is physically impossible for many children and extremely difficult for the rest. And there is no reason for Primary to involve sitting the entire time. Get those kids out of their chairs–use any excuse, for any reason. A Sharing Time that involves no movement is highly unlikely to be successful. Move the chairs and have everyone sit on the floor for awhile. Before you begin, announce a change in seating arrangement. Have everyone sing a song while standing on one foot. March around Jericho until the walls fall down.
Think outside the box. I’m not sure when or why matching a picture with a phrase or title became The One and Only True Sharing Time, but there is no reason for this. If you need ideas, consult the back of Teaching, No Greater Call for a laundry list of different activities. Another good option is to use all of the old Friend magazines online (do a keyword search for your topic) and you’ll find a wealth of ideas.
Know the abilities of the children you teach. The Senior Primary will not be interested if you show them a picture and ask them to identify it as the nativity. (Duh.) Challenge them with scripture stories they haven’t heard before and real-life situations with a little more depth than “Molly’s friend wants to watch a bad movie. . . What should she do?” (How about: “Molly is spending the weekend at her aunt’s house and her aunt wants her to watch a bad movie and asks her if she thinks she is holier-than-thou when she says no . . . What should she do?”) On the other hand, the Junior Primary has virtually no ability for abstract thought. (True story: a stake visitor gave each child in my son’s CTR 5 class a pinwheel and explained that the priesthood is like the wind: you can’t see it, but it makes things happen. My child came running out of class saying, “Look Mommy: when I blow on this the priesthood power makes it go around!”)
Consider the children’s attention to be like a firehose: be careful where you point that thing. Simple as it sounds, if you encourage the kids to, say, all look at a picture on a side wall of the room, it will take an almost Herculean effort to aim their attention back up to you. By the same token, one the ten commandements of Primary is not that the entire class must stand at the front of the room for the entire time when a class presents a Sharing Time. More often than not, they are a huge, wiggling distraction.
Watch and learn. After being a classroom teacher, I consider myself better-than-average at teaching a group of children. Still, as I sit in the Primary room and watch how the children react to what is presented to them, I learn something every single week about what will and will not hold their attention. When you notice chaos in the room, deconstruct it so it won’t happen again. When you notice wide eyes and quiet mouths, figure out what led to it.
A final thought. Jesus, our Master Teacher, rarely did anything that engaged only one of his audience’s senses. He taught about the sabbath as his followers walked and ate, he talked about children with one in his arms, he touched people while healing them, he fed them, he compared himself to water as the Samaritan woman drew water from a well. He never gave abstract theological discourses: he told simple stories with deep messages and used everyday objects to teach eternal truths. Go thou and do likewise.