Starr Cliff has been a pastor’s wife for 12 of the 18 years she’s been with Jonathan Cliff, the Next Generations Ministry Pastor at Trinity Church. She started leading her small group of boys when they were in first grade and promoted with them for the last 4 years. Here, she shares what she’s learned about leading a great elementary small group.
For about 25 minutes every Sunday, I hang out with 3rd grade boys. My job description is to build relationships with them, and have discussions about whatever they’ve just learned at Trinity Kidsplace that morning to help “make it real” in their lives.
Let’s not kid each other: IT’S HARD WORK. It’s rewarding and fun and I look forward to it every week, but it’s also VERY HARD. There are 12 to 15 of them, and only one me. They are rowdy. They are loud. They talk over each other. They talk over me. They make fun of each other (and sometimes me). They can be rude to each other. They can also be amazingly kind and shockingly spiritually-minded, if given an environment in which to do so. It’s my job to give them that safe, fun, and [somewhat] controlled environment.
So, in no particular order, here are my top 10 tips to Elementary Small Group Leaders to help you create the best environment:

  1. Use “props” to control your small group. You should ALWAYS (I say ALWAYS!) have a nerf ball, a bean bag, or a stuffed animal in your small group area. If I have a nerf football that I’m casually tossing in the air during discussion time, and the boys know that I’m going to throw that ball at someone who will then get to answer the question, they are MUCH more apt to pay attention to me. Me in front of a room with a small group manual VS. Me in front of a room with a Nerf football. What’s going to hold their attention more? (And yes, I take stuffed animals to my 3rd grade boys small group room. They think it’s hilarious when I chunk a purple stuffed turtle at their head. We’ve had years that we’ve named the stuffed animal and it’s become our mascot.)
  2. Order creates order. Try this simple social experiment: Let your small group sit wherever they want to in the room VS. Make them sit in a circle. Just that simple change will bring some order to the chaos. Not to mention that you can see each face, you can “go around the circle” when it’s time for participation to make sure you don’t miss anyone, and it’s much less likely someone can sneak out of the circle and out the door and out of the church. (Yes. It happens.) If their activity level is so high that even sitting in a circle is chaos, then ask everyone to put their “back on the wall and their behind on the floor, in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!!!” I don’t know why kids scramble when they hear a countdown, but they do.
  3. Learn their names. Just do it – you can if you make it a priority. Make them hold up a sign with their name on it and take a picture with your phone if you have to. Just learn their names.
  4. Learn what they love. Ask how they spend their weekends or time after school and it will give you a pretty good idea. Some of them will love nothing more than TV. So start there. Talk about TV with them if you have to. If that’s who they are, then love them there. If you only talk to the kids who play football and baseball and love serving at the homeless shelter with their family, you’ll miss out on connecting with the other half of the class who simply love TV and video games.
  5. Make a game out of getting to know them. This Sunday, I had each of the boys tell me the name of their school and their favorite food. Then I went around the circle and repeated the information back about each boy as fast as I could. Be loud, fast, and exaggerated during these games! To keep each kid interested and listening, I made it a “challenge” and challenged anyone to try and do it faster and more accurately.
  6. Have fun. If you’re bored, then they are bored x 10. It’s okay to go “off book” once in a while and tell a funny story or talk about a hilarious YouTube video you saw this week of a farting hippo. Make it fun.
  7. It’s not always fair. You want the kids to likewise be able to share a funny story occasionally, but if you let all 15 kids share then you won’t have time for the discussion you’re really there to have. Kids are quick to say “That’s not fair! He got to tell his story!” Quickly and confidently assure the class that there was only time for Johnny to tell a story this week, it might be them next time, then move on. You will have to politely cut kids off sometimes – it’s not rude when it’s for the benefit of the 15 that you silence the 1.
  8. Create routine. My examples: 1). They have to come in the door with a smile or high five, and I (playfully) send them back out to try again if they forget. 2). They tell me if they had a great week or an awful week and the reason why. Those are two things I do every week with my boys, and they know to expect it. It sets a good tone and some connection from the time they come in the room, and as they trust me more I learn a lot about them from the “good week/bad week” quick conversation.
  9. If you have to discipline (and you shouldn’t have to often) do it consistently and with love. The more fun and ordered your classroom is, the less behavior problems you’ll have. If you find yourself constantly redirecting and having problems with the kids, then ask for a mentor or your children’s pastor to come observe your class and give you some ideas. There are, however, times that you will have a child who is a major distraction and problem. It’s not fair to your class to let one child dominate your time. So make sure you’ve spoken with your children’s pastor and know the discipline policy, then follow thru with consistency and love. Don’t threaten, just do it. (Our policy is that the child has to leave the small group area and sit quietly with an adult outside the room. My small group is fun and they want to join back in quickly, so I rarely have repeat offenders!)
  10. No matter what, control your room at dismissal! As a parent, I really hate to pick up my kid from church and see a room full of chaotic kids, and a teacher that looks frazzled. My routine for my small group boys (that we’re still working to firmly establish this year) is that you MUST be sitting down until I call your name to leave. You do not stand up until I call your name, even if your parent is standing at the door. In front of parents I will light-heartedly say “Oh, I’m sorry you can’t have Adam until he sits back down and I call his name. He has to be sitting before I can let him go.” This lets parents know that Adam has broken your rule, and lets Adam know you’re serious about sitting down at dismissal time. At dismissal, I also make a point to tell parents something great about each kid. The kids will start to learn that you do this, and they’ll want to be quiet to they can listen to what you tell parents! A few examples: “He was a great listener in large group time today.” “He set an awesome example during worship – he really gave his best.” “He helped me pick up all the art supplies.” “He sat by a visitor and was a good friend.” “He gave a thoughtful answer during discussion.” “He volunteered to pray out loud and did a great job.” “He had an awesome idea about how to get coats for our coat drive.” Find ways to praise kids! You can only take time to do this if the kids aren’t running wild behind you. So have control of your room at this important time. Praise loudly and openly in front of the other kids and parents, and if you have to rebuke, do it quietly and in private.

So there you have it! I didn’t include tips about making sure you know your lesson, or that you’ve prayed for the kids, or that you arrive on time and ready, because I assume you already know that stuff! Those are just the basics! Commit to building real relationships and taking your small group to that next level – you’ll be amazed what those kids can teach you.