No two kids are the same. We all know that. And just because a group of kids are all in the same grade doesn’t mean they all have the same gifts, interests, and abilities. Thus, even though you might be teaching a certain grade-level class, there will naturally be a wide variation of skill and knowledge within that group. Some students may have special needs that affect their learning. But what if you have a class that doesn’t even have kids from all the same grade level? These types of situations happen all the time in Sunday School.
I’ve often said that it’s important to remember that Sunday School doesn’t have to operate just like Day School. We don’t have to give grades or tests. Much of what is typical for school isn't required for Sunday School, but one idea seems to remain consistent. We continue to group students by grade and age and this makes sense. I am certainly not advocating against this. But what happens when your Sunday School is on the small side? Say you only have one first grader, two third graders, and one fourth grader. Do you still have one teacher per grade or per two grades? Probably not. Sometimes you may have to make a class with students who are in first through fourth grade or kindergarten through third or fourth through eighth. You might even have all your Sunday School students in just one or two classes. The variations are endless. Which means that your variations on teaching will need to match up with the variations of children in your classroom. Here are some tips for teaching varying abilities in your Sunday School class.
Reading: Always ask for volunteers. There’s no rule that says that everyone has to read out loud. Never put anyone on the spot to read. You’ve been reading longer than any of them. They might enjoy you reading to them!
Writing: Just as there might be a wide variation in reading skills in your class, there might also be a wide variation in writing skills. Don’t expect that everyone can spell or write without assistance. Never give students a hard time for spelling things wrong or making letters backwards. It doesn’t matter in Sunday School. Put words on the board or on an index card for copying. Be the scribe for students who struggle in this area. Write letters in yellow highlighter and let students trace over the top of your lines with their marker, crayon, or pencil.
Craft Projects: Have some pieces prepared prior to class for kids who struggle with fine motor skills like cutting. You be the master of the glue bottle and put the glue where the student directs. Show a complete sample and a sample in various stages for students to follow. It’s no big deal if they don’t do it perfectly or finish it.
Attention: Switch activities after short intervals. Younger students aren't able to sit as long as their older classmates.
Work in Pairs or Groups: Think about it as the family approach to learning. Older ones can help the younger ones. Everyone works together to help one another, share answers, and teach each other. One big happy family.
Active Learning: Get everyone moving. It doesn't matter what age your students are---if they can move it or do it, they are more likely to learn it.
Skip It: It’s okay to skip things as you see fit. Not the Bible story and not the Gospel, of course---we would never want to skip the Good News of Jesus! But sometimes there might be a puzzle with letters and codes or something that will cause unnecessary anxiety for some students; just skip it. Let students choose another way to show their understanding. They could draw a picture, retell the story, act out different parts, or use letter tiles to make words instead of writing them.
Add Things: Maybe you have a poster, picture, or an object to show that helps you tell this lesson, but it’s not in the teacher’s guide. Add it for extra flavor! Do you have a game from a previous lesson that worked well? Add it to this lesson.
Music: Sing a song or two or three. You don’t have to use new songs every week. In fact, it’s important to sing songs over and over for children to really learn them. Songs make for good transitions between activities too. Move when you sing songs (that always makes it more fun), even if your students are older.
Pray: Pray as you prepare. Pray for your students during the week. Pray with your students at the beginning of class and at the end of class. Pray.
We learn together with people of differing ages, abilities, and skills all the time in our families, our neighborhoods, and in our jobs. Sunday School is part of our church family, and adjusting to meet the needs of everyone in your class is just like managing a big family. You figure out what each one needs and pray the Holy Spirit helps you find the best way to share the love of Jesus with all of them.