Bribing Little Bobby to learn the Bible

by Melissa Hunt

Some folks call it bribing. I like to call it creative behavior management. I’ll bet you call it something too....what you call it depends on whether or not you are a children's Sunday school teacher.

What in the world is she talking about? I don’t know what I call "it" because I have no clue what this woman is talking about. What I am talking about is the behavior management plan I implemented during our church’s week of Vacation Bible School this summer. As I readied myself to teach the missions portion of the curriculum, I not only studied the teacher’s manual and accompanying videos, I also came up with a behavior management plan for the week.

Josh was very intrigued by the fact that, on "decorate-your-classroom-for-VBS-day" at the church, I not only spent time and money on decorations to make my classroom look like the Far East, but I got my wooden clothes pins and candy bucket ready as well.

Clothes pins and candy bucket? Okay, she’s lost me again. What is all of this about?

That is exactly what Josh asked me. "What did you buy these clothes pins for?" he questioned.

I explained to him that although I had gone over all of the materials to be taught, I had cut out every little piece of paper that the teacher’s manual instructed me to cut, I’d gathered my supplies, previewed the daily videos to be shown to the children, hung the map on the wall, placed the Bible verses on the bulletin board, and the oriental decorations were on display, it would all be in vain if I did not have a plan in place to keep these "little angels" in check while they were with me throughout the week.

I went on to explain my plan. As each child enters the room during the coming week, my assistant and I will clip a wooden clothes pin to their collar, sleeve, etc. Once all of the children are seated I will briefly go over the rules of the classroom and the behavior I expect from them as students. Each child will then be shown a huge bowl of assorted candies and gum. Typically, at this point, every little eye grows wide with hopeful anticipation of getting one of those treats. I then go on to tell them that everyone in the room will receive any one of those treats of their choosing at the end of class time, IF AND ONLY IF they still have their clothes pin at that time. They quickly understand that if any of the rules are broken during our twenty-five minutes together, my assistant or I will ask them to give us their pin. There will be no big discussion or dialoging. No nagging or negotiating. No begging or bargaining. The pin will be taken, the lesson will continue, and, at the end of class, any child whose pin has been taken during class will not choose from the treat bowl, while all those who still have their pins will.

Now these treats I am describing here cost about 1 to 2 cents apiece ( it really doesn’t take much to motivate a child). I purchased one big bag for less than $4 which lasted the entire week (and that was after my own children and Josh sneaked a few pieces for themselves). Personally, I feel that it is a very small price to pay to help create an environment where learning is more apt to occur.

At this point I feel sure that some of you are thinking, "Does she really think that just because those kids were quiet for twenty-five minutes that they were really paying attention to that lesson?" No, I don’t, but I have taught children long enough to know this: There are always those kids who REALLY DO WANT TO LEARN. At the same time, there are also those kids who make it very hard for that learning to take place because of all of the distractions they create. By doing what I do, I feel like everyone wins. First, I win. By the time the kids leave me I am not feeling like a "frazzlin’ fool." As they walk out of the classroom I can have a smile on my face and I can say to each child, "I’m so glad you were here tonight. I look forward to teaching you again!" without lying while standing in the House of God. Second, the disruptive kid wins as well. He may or may not actually have been listening and learning the Bible lesson that I taught, but at least he didn’t get called down or "fussed" at, and at the end of class he gets a treat. Last, and most importantly, the child who truly came in wanting to learn got what they came for, PLUS, they leave with a treat as well. What could be better than knowledge and candy?

All silliness aside, I can not imagine going into a teaching situation without a management plan. As a former elementary school teacher, and a longtime church worker, and VBS Director I have seen teachers end their VBS week feeling very relieved it was over because more times than they’d like to admit, they wanted to pull their hair out. They felt like they had fought kids all week and not taught them. They end up exhausted from doing battle all week long and find themselves wondering if they will do this again next summer. That may not sound very spiritual, but any of you who have taught children and have had little "Babbling Bobby" in your class KNOW that what I say here is true.

I am not so naive to think that candy will fix every behavior won’t. If you are dealing with a child who has a serious behavior disorder, it probably won’t help at all- the extra sugar might even make it worse, but realistically speaking, most of the little "knuckle-heads" we encounter in the church setting are not severe behavior problems, they are just typical kids who would rather be outside throwing a ball, or watching TV than listening to their Bible teacher. As the teacher, instead of sitting around the coffee table with our other Sunday school teacher friends saying things like, "When I was a kid we sat still and listened to our teachers because we knew daddy would bust our behinds if the teacher told on us." We need to come to grips with the fact that it’s not like it was when we were kids and IT IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY to not only know the content of the lesson and how to present it, but it is also our job to manage our classrooms in such a way that learning can actually take place.

This idea and others like it won’t fix every problem, but they can certainly help.

By the way, during our VBS....not one clothes pin was taken. There were some happy gum-smackin’, candy chompin’ kids walking out of my room each night at First Baptist Church Las Cruces. Hope you have the same type of results after you try it. It just might turn "Babbling Bobby" into a blessing....for both of you.