Biblical Principles For Instruction

There are several key principles that must be in place for effective instruction to take place. Many of these principles are critical in raising our children in general, not only in teaching them academic material and spiritual truths. I have provided a brief version here. There is a much more detailed paper on this topic with many more scriptural references at the link "A Biblical Foundation for Effective Instruction."*  May God bring these truths alive in your relationship with your children and students.

1. PRINCIPLE OF ATTENTION

Mark 7:14 says "Hearken unto me, every one of you."

Before you can communicate important information to your students/children you must have their full attention.

How do you make sure you have their attention?

  • Establish eye contact -- especially with very young children. (With autistic children and some children with pervasive developmental disorders, this will not be feasible, but if possible to achieve, it is essential). There are numerous scriptural references in which we are encouraged to "look unto Jesus," and I believe that the eye contact establishes a truly effective connection between parent and child as well.
  • Set up a list of specific guidelines that are stated in a positive manner (rather than "thou shalt not" rules).
  • Post rules in a location that is near the area where you are teaching, so if necessary, you can point directly to the guidelines.
  • Catch your students being good --while they are following the rules you should be generous with your praise (see below).

2. THE PRINCIPLE OF PRAISE

Proverbs 25:11 says "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."

What is the best way to praise a child so they will want to repeat their good behavior?

You need to make certain that you praise them while they are being good or immediately after they have completed their task.

Be specific in what you praise. Avoid gushy language, such as "you are such a good boy!" or "you are so smart." Use language that tells the child exactly what they did that merits your approval. For example: "I really like the way you helped your sister just then." Or "You did a great job of staying on the line this time!"

Make sure that the child understands that IF they are following the guidelines, THEN they will enjoy your approval and receive your praise. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33).

Try to praise the well-behaved students who are following the rules and avoid directly confronting a misbehaving child in a large group. While this seems to go against common sense, there is considerable research that documents the effectiveness of this approach IF the above guidelines for praising are carefully followed.

If praising is not enough to bring about a desire to change the unruly behavior, then it is time to confront the misbehavior. Again, be specific rather than too general -- Avoid saying categorical judgments such as, "You are such a bad girl," or "Why can't you ever do it right?"

State the reason for your disapproval (the broken rule), and allow the child to make changes without crushing his/her self respect wherever possible. It can be very helpful to use the following model for corrections. State the rule that the child has not followed, and ask him/her to repeat that rule.

Ask the child to either state or write answers to the following set of questions. I have found many times that this "exercise" brings not only awareness of the wrong behavior, but also what will be a better choice next time. It also allows the child to think about the possible consequences of misbehavior. All of these, I believe, are consistent with the role of a parent in teaching a child of sin and repentance, followed by reconciliation.  
  • FIRST: Ask the child "What were you doing?"
  • THEN: Ask the child' "What rule did you break?"
  • THEN: Ask the child "Who did it hurt" or "what happened because of what you did?"
  • THEN: Ask the child "What should you have done instead?"
  • FINALLY: Ask the child "What will you do next time?"
This exercise for dealing with misbehavior and rule breaking establishes a less angry interaction with the child, and I believe it models the role of the Holy Spirit as He convicts us of sin. Christian parents would want to follow through on this with a time of specific prayer -- not "Jesus help me be good" -- that is too vague. Teach the child to pray for the specific difficulty – being rebellious, disobedient, or similar sin issues. That easily flows into a time of reconciliation. While all this sounds time consuming, over my many years of classroom teaching as well as raising our children, it is not. I have found these steps to be a strong help in teaching and shaping the minds and hearts of children of any age.

3. THE PRINCIPLE OF ENCOURAGEMENT

Hebrews 10:24 says "Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works."

How can you motivate a child to do his/her best?

You can set up challenges as you go through a lesson. Say something such as "let's see if you can finish these in  X  minutes this time." Sometimes, it can even be fun for the children to compete with the teacher (and the teacher may or may not lose). It gives children a tremendous boost of confidence to "win" sometimes -- but it must not look too easy, nor should it be obviously "rigged." Children are too smart for that!

In situations where you notice a child consistently is getting wrong answers, or is unable to do a task, or "shutting down," quickly change gears to a different task that you are fairly certain will give the child some success. It is seldom a good idea to push and push a child who is "stuck." Not only do you humiliate him or her, but you also create such anxiety that they are very likely to be even more unable to carry out the task.

If you observe that your student is frequently falling behind or struggling on a lesson, it is time to consider whether all the prerequisite skills are mastered. It may be the child's inattention or laziness, but more often than not, a child who cannot do a specific learning task is lacking some necessary skill for making the next step. Back up, re-teach or review material that you sense the child needs to move ahead. Jesus said to his disciples, "I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them right now" (John 16:12). Jesus taught his disciples in incremental steps, and we need to follow His example carefully.

What are some ways to encourage my student or child?

Younger students love tangible rewards, such a "pat" or a "high five" when a job is well done. Some enjoy small stickers, smiley faces, or using rubber stamps on their hands or papers that show them how they have done. I personally discourage using foods because of the potential for giving children a wrong message about the relative value of sweets compared to healthier foods.

Intermediate-aged students are able to enjoy graphing their grades (it is a math objective too!). They like to work with a pre-defined list of criteria (called a "rubric" by many teachers) that lets them check off each part of the list as they finish. Others work hard to earn "play money" that can be saved and traded in for predetermined treats and special privileges. Active young children will frequently work hard for a preset time in order to "earn" time outside or doing an activity they like – and that includes private time with their teacher one-on-one.

A special caution -- if you have promised some special one-on-one time to a student, NEVER break that promise or threaten to break that promise as punishment for later misbehavior. You cannot grasp how significant your promise is to a child -- and if broken, the child is deeply wounded. In addition, the child’s ability to trust in God's Word is a fragile trust that we are duty-bound before God to model for them. Our word is at the heart of a child's system of developing trust, and we must never cause them to stumble by failing to keep our promises. Jesus cautions his disciples strongly against causing a little one to stumble, and as teachers and parents we need to heed His word in this very practical way.

Older special needs students may be the most difficult to motivate, for they are too familiar with failure and frustration. More schoolwork seems yet one more chance to lose confidence. Some students will respond well to "written contracts" in which you work to mutually develop a plan of reinforcement and/or consequences for work to be done. If you make a promise, you must keep it. That can be very challenging with teens, for some days they seem to "dare" you to take back your word.
As loving Christian parents and teachers we must represent to our children/students the integrity of Christ Himself who never broke His word, even when difficult events happened and other consequences had to come to pass.

4. THE PRINCIPLE OF APPROPRIATE INSTRUCTION

1 Corinthians 9:22 says "I became all things to all men, that I might by some means win some." Christ taught in parables because He knew not all men were ready for the fullness of what He had to share with them. We need to be equally careful to use what is best suited for each child.

What should you do if your child always seems lost in a specific subject or text?

Many times, you can "switch gears" simply by going to a more "hands-on" kind of task, such as spelling words with plastic letters, counting out objects or fraction bars, or drawing a personal view of a difficult vocabulary concept. It maintains an appearance for the child of remaining "on task." It is counter-productive when a child expects to be rescued each time he/she faces a tough task. By changing to a different kind of learning challenge, you are preserving his/her peace and keeping the child interested in learning. The Apostle Paul said that he chose to "be all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (I Cor. 9:22). He was able to successfully remain flexible and taught the Gospel in ways uniquely suited to his listeners. This principle can be well adopted by teachers as well. One size or method does not suit all children. Find as many ways as you can to commend and praise good efforts for special education students. Recall Paul's advice about "Whatsoever things are good … think on these things." (Phil. 4:8).

BE CERTAIN that the material you are teaching is at the appropriate level for your child's ability. If you cannot be sure of the difficulty level of the material, nor you child's ability and skill level in a given subject, have them tested. Talk with an educational consultant to learn more. Look in textbook catalogs to learn what difficulty levels each book presents. Textbook writers are notorious for producing reading material that lacks careful control of difficulty levels, even when the contents are consistent with "grade level" goals and objectives. If there is not a good match between the child's ability and skills and the materials being used, there is little likelihood that you are going to see the child prosper and learn effectively without a great struggle for both of you.

The second important factor in searching out why your child may be struggling is to look at whether your child has a firm grasp of all the "pre-requisite skills" essential to go to the next step. This is especially critical in math learning.

If you have searched for information about your child's skills and ability level, and you believe that your child has the necessary skills to begin new material, yet he or she is still not progressing, what should you do then?

Your next step should be a close look at how the textbook presents materials. Does the book provide a logical sequence of skills, and does the book give lots of practice before adding new skills? Does the book provide helpful explanations and examples that your child understands and can apply?

Do you find that too much new material is introduced too quickly? Are the work and the material compatible with your child's special learning style? There are many possible factors that are causing your child to struggle, and many of them are NOT within the child! Look at curriculum before you look at your child to understand why they are struggling!

After you have examined all the concepts above, and your child is still struggling, you should seek to have your child thoroughly evaluated by a certified educational consultant, or a psychologist who works frequently with school-aged children, or sometimes by a psychiatrist. For medical disabilities, your child's physician will be an essential part of the whole picture that will emerge to help you understand the nature of your child's limitations and strengths. From that understanding, you can begin to fashion a workable program for your child and begin to gather the resources you will need to create an appropriate educational plan.

5. PRINCIPLE OF DISCIPLINE WITH LOVE

Hebrews 12:6 says "For whom the Lord loves, he chastens (disciplines)."

Can I keep a good relationship with my special child and still be a good disciplinarian?

It takes your courage and your abiding love for a child to love him/her enough to say "no" and make it stick and to hold the line. For those who teach, it is essential to follow through with good promises as much as it is to carry out negative consequences. You are teaching the wrong lesson about God's love and His expectations for our obedience when you neglect or shy away from firm discipline. In the face of disappointment, tears or anger, it may seem easier to "give in," but it is my belief that when we do, we are giving our children a false image of our Father God. There is abundant scriptural teaching about God's requirements for parents to discipline their children. We are their schoolmasters until they come to a personal saving relationship with Christ.

God never gives in to our tantrums. He is totally just in all His ways, yet paradoxically full of mercy as well. Sometimes, His mercy is to let us fall now to let us learn a lesson that will save us from a far worse injury later. That is difficult, especially for tender-hearted Moms and Dads. I have observed many parents over the years that cannot absorb nor understand where they went wrong. It was in their lack of courage to be the Christ-reflecting adult in the home that explains for me how their child went so far off course. The Lord’s way is not always an easy way to walk, but in my experience and in my heart, I am convinced of His wisdom. My husband and I made mistakes in our early Christian walk, and we thank God for His abundant GRACE that covered our mistakes, to bring forth peaceable fruit of righteousness in the lives of our three children. Apart from our love and trust in God alone as our Guide and Standard, it would have been impossible to make those choices that were so critical in raising children for the Lord. Apart from His wisdom, I am convinced it would be impossible to rightly teach the children in our care. But with the Lord it can be done!

Consistent application of these principles will produce an environment for learning that is both safe for the child's mind and heart, and it will produce spiritual growth as well. The use of God's principles to guide our instruction will lead to excellence both academically and spiritually in the lives of our children.