Primary Class Behavior

Primary Class Behavior

Transforming that Unruly Primary Class
I think being a Primary teacher is one of the best callings in the church.  I loved teaching the CTR-7 class, even though it was a very tough class.  Between an extremely ADHD boy, a child with autism, and general child behavior, the class was a challenge.  But with engaging lessons, we all had a good time together and the class was reasonably well behaved.

But sometimes the behavior of Primary children can be very disruptive and seem to take over the mood of the class.  As teachers, trying to get all the kids in their seats is like playing “Whack-a-Mole”.  If one child isn’t popping up, then two others are.  Such a class is very distressing for the teacher and detrimental to the children.  As a teacher, you need to do something to make it better.  I will tell you how to transform your class, but first a few essential basics to lay the foundation.
Part 1.  Effective Teaching in Primary.
There are a few simple principles that primary teachers need to incorporate in their teaching to effectively touch the lives of these precious little ones.

  1. Prayerfully study and prepare effective, engaging lessons with appropriate activities.  This should include learning any story well enough to tell it while looking into the eyes of the children.  Reading should be limited to quotes and scriptures.  Teach the children in your words.  Talk and interact with the children.  It should also include a variety of age appropriate activities.  (See “Teaching No Greater Call” for help with teaching skills.)
  2. Interact with your children in warm and loving ways.  Treat them as the Savior would treat them.  Your children will feel Heavenly Father’s and the Savior’s love through your love for them.
  3. Focus on the positive.  Tell the children what to do rather than what to not do.  For example, instead of saying, “Quit running around,” say, “Come sit in your chair.”  Instead of reprimanding the one child who is out of his seat, address your lesson to the children who are in their seats.
  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  The children do not need to get every point of the lesson.  They may not need to get any points of a particular lesson.  What they need is to have a teacher whose countenance will smile on them.  A countenance that will warm their hearts and lift their spirits.
  5. For repeating behavior problems, make a plan to address it.

Part 2.  Dealing with Problem Behavior in Primary

Bro. and Sis. Bartlett are a retired couple who love children and love teaching primary.  Last year they loved teaching one of the CTR-4 classes.  They gladly moved up with their class.  Because they were such good teachers, a few of the more difficult children were switched to their class.  Now, 4 months into a new year with the CTR-5 class, they were dreading Sundays because of the behavior of the children.  When asked a question, one child would make a funny face (tilting his head to the side, opening his mouth, letting his tong hang out, and hold that position).  The other kids laughed and said, “He’s thinking.”  Another child, when asked to pray, came to the front of the class.  Helping him, Bro. Bartlett whispered in his ear, “Dear Heavenly Father” but the child said, “Blah blah blah blah blah.”  Generally, the children seemed more interested in what each other were doing than in the well-prepared lessons of Bro. and Sis. Bartlett.
Such behavior is very discouraging to teachers who want to interact in a loving and positive way.  Some teachers, like the Bartletts, said they’d had enough.  Other teachers may try to provide structure and get strict with the children (which generally makes Primary an unpleasant place that the children want to avoid – which is not a good thing.)  Well, in this case, just 1 month later, Bro. and Sis. Bartlett were enjoying their class of well-behaved CTR-5 children.  What made this drastic change?  Read on and see.
A few child behavior principles:

  1. Work for Payoffs:  Children behave because of what happens afterwards (the payoff).  In the case of our CTR-5 kids, the inappropriate behaviors earned lots of positive attention from the other children.
  2. Positive vs. Negative Payoff: Children are more likely to behave for some positive result rather than avoiding something bad.  In other words, the positive response of the other children has greater influence than a “Shush, stop that, sit down, or do you want me to go get your parent?”  Therefore, the children keep misbehaving.
  3. Adult Attention: Attention from adults is almost always increases the behavior it is focused on. (And it does not matter whether it is positive or negative attention.)  This means, that if a teacher focuses on the inappropriate behavior, they get more inappropriate behavior.  If the teacher focuses on appropriate behavior, they get more appropriate behavior.  So in addition to getting attention from each other for their inappropriate behavior, the CTR-5 children were getting attention from their teachers for the inappropriate behavior.
  4. Immediate vs. Delayed Payoffs: Immediate payoffs are more powerful than delayed payoffs.  The children are influenced far more by what happens in the class than what will happen after the class (or weeks away).
  5. Specific Positive Incentives (payoffs): To get a change in behavior, it generally takes a specific positive incentive.  The incentive is a short-term positive motivator that entices good behavior.  When the good behavior occurs, it is possible to have positive social interactions.  In the long-term, it is the positive social interaction for appropriate behavior that has the most powerful effect on child behavior.  Also, appropriate behavior builds self-esteem, even if it is motivated by an incentive.  Children feel good when they behave well, and feel bad about themselves when they behave poorly.
  6. Contingent Payoffs: Rewards, such as treats, parties, stickers, or whatever will only improve child behavior if the child must earn the reward with appropriate behavior.  Giving away such rewards at the end of class saying, “Well, you have been pretty good today.” does not improve child behavior.

What changed Bro. and Sis. Bartlett’s class?  They set up frequent, immediate, positive, contingent rewards for appropriate behavior, and the children’s behavior quickly changed.

  1. Explain Expectation for Behavior: They told the class what was expected in positive language.
  2. Child Repeats Expectation: They had the children repeat back what was expected. Saying what is expected has a large, positive effect. This step is very important.  The reward can be mentioned specifically or generally.  Because some children will not get the reward (if they are behaving poorly), it is good to mention this in advance.
  3. Frequent, Immediate, Positive, Contingent Rewards: They set a timer for a few minutes, and when it went “ding” they gave a very small treat to each child who was meeting the expectation and simply passed over any child who was behaving poorly. (Note that this put attention on desire behavior and reduced attention on poor behavior.)  At first, this was repeated 10-20 times per class, so if a child didn’t earn the treat one time, he could get a treat the next time.  Within a few weeks, the rate of rewards was reduced to by half.  A month or 2 more and it was reduce by half again.
  4. Appreciation and Social Interaction: They were positive and warm with the children, appreciated the children’s good behavior, and presented engaging lessons and activities that the children enjoyed.

The power of immediate, positive, contingent rewards is amazing.  I was asked to substitute in a class of three 11-year-old boys, that were known for being very disruptive.  I started the class by having them tell me how they were supposed to behave in class.  I had set a timer for 1 minute, and while they were telling me how they were supposed to behave, it went off.  All three were appropriately engaged.  I reached into my pocket, and gave them each an M&M and said, “Thank you.”  I think they each got 4 or 5 M&Ms that day and were well behaved the entire time.
REMEMBER, this is just a “trick” to get good behavior going.  It should not be an every Sunday event, and it does not need to be an every Sunday event.  Good behavior in Primary has lots of positive payoffs.  It allows the child to enjoy an engaging lesson.  It enables positive interaction with the teacher.  It allows the child to feel competent.  It allows the child to feel the Spirit. It allows the child to develop warm, loving bonds with their teacher.  It allows the child to feel the love of Heavenly Father and the Savior.  These are very meaningful payoffs that will help sustain the good behavior once it is established.
If you are faced with a behavior problem in your Primary class or in Sharing Time, I recommend you do something about it.  Teach the children what you expect of them (or have them tell you) and use immediate, positive, contingent rewards.  The effect is amazing.  THEN, fade out the immediate rewards.  This can change the course of a child for life.  Remember, “That by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” (Alma 37:6.)