Expectations of Children

December 12th, 2011

Frustration was written all over the face of the new teacher of two-year-olds at our church. Although she had taught other ages of children for several years, I could see as I entered her classroom that her hopes of being a successful first-time teacher of preschoolers had disintegrated after only one Sunday.

"It's hopeless" she confided. "They won't sit still long enough to listen. I never had this problem with third graders."

No doubt this woman was questioning her ability as a teacher and her commitment to spend a year in a classroom of children who seemed beyond her control. But her single comment not only summed up the problem she faced but also pointed to a workable solution. Her well-intentioned expectations of two-year-olds were based on her experience with third graders. As she quickly learned, teachers' expectations of children must take into account the children's ages and stages of development.

Unrealistic expectations of children is one of the most common difficulties facing new teachers in any classroom. Each child grows and develops at an individual pace, but each stage of development offers some similar characteristics in physical, social, and cognitive abilities. Here are some characteristics upon which to base expectations.

Toddlers and Twos

Teachers of toddlers and two-year-olds may spend a great deal of time helping children feel happy away from their parents. One of the most significant learnings a very young child can grasp is that church is a happy and safe place to be with teachers who will love and take care of them.

These children are just beginning to learn self-control. They are still self-centered and engage better in parallel (side by side) play than in interactive or cooperative games. Large-muscle coordination is developing rapidly in young children, so teachers can expect greater participation in activities that call for lots of whole-body movement than in manipulative activities that require hand-eye coordination that has not yet developed.

Probably the most important thing for a teacher of toddlers and twos to understand is that their attention spans are very short. For these children, sitting still for any length of time is impossible, so teachers will be well served to plan fast-paced lessons that mix quiet activities with more active ones.

Young children love music. Music can be used effectively with these children both to offer a calm, soothing atmosphere and also to encourage active movement and joyful singing.

Most of what two-year-olds understand about God comes from their relationships with others. Children of this age can begin to experience prayer and may begin to associate the name Jesus with specific pictures and stories from the Bible. Older twos may begin to realize that the Bible is a special book that tells about God and Jesus and may recognize that it is used in church and by parents at home.


Three-year-olds, four-year-olds, and five-year-olds are becoming more active but continue to have relatively short attention spans. Children of this age have great imaginations and enjoy interactive stories that involve physical movement. These children appreciate routines and like to know what to expect in their classroom each week.

While fine-motor skills such as writing and cutting are still being developed, many skills that require coordination, such as skipping and hopping, have been mastered. During ages three to five children progress markedly in their desire and ability to learn cognitive skills such as reading and counting.

Threes, fours, and fives are capable of learning simple words in other languages, although they have little understanding of cultural or historical differences. They develop a strong sense of belonging to a group and can learn acceptance of those who are different.

These children begin to experience worship in their own way and are capable of repeating Bible verses. They are growing in their understanding that God loves each person, and they enjoy hearing short stories about persons who tried to live as God wanted. As with younger children, music is a most effective teaching tool. Preschoolers enjoy singing, moving to music, and playing rhythm instruments.

First and Second Graders

As children enter the first and second grades, they become more aware of what they can and cannot do. These children are still concrete thinkers and will continue to be such until around age eleven. They may have great difficulty with concepts that do not have tangible examples.

Most first and second graders are eager to share their developing reading and writing skills but become anxious and frustrated when attempting things beyond their abilities. Children of this age work well in learning centers and find great satisfaction in completing a task.

First and second graders are accepting of almost everything they are told about God and Jesus and may begin asking how and why questions. Children at this age are capable of spontaneous prayer but may find comfort in familiar memorized versions. Although they cannot think logically about God or express their feelings in words, they can experience appreciation in relationships and growth and can relate these to God as creator.

Third and Fourth Graders

Third and fourth graders are expanding their knowledge of the world around them. They grow in their understanding of geography and history and can begin to explore how God has worked throughout the Bible and how God's work is accomplished today in other countries. These children are greatly affected by peers and are seeking answers to questions that help them determine right and wrong.

Third and fourth graders have cognitive skills that make study of the Bible easier. Indeed, many churches give Bibles to children at this age. These children are growing in their understanding of the relationship between the Bible message and the God they know. They can learn to locate Bible references and can become acquainted with different sections of the Bible. Questions about the nature of God become deeper, and religious ideals are directly related to their decision making.

Children of this age are competitive. They enjoy the challenge of individual and group games.

Fifth and Sixth Graders

Fifth and sixth graders are beginning to develop some abstract thinking skills. Greatly increased attention spans allow teaching activities or discussions that may last a long while.

Children of this age are becoming increasingly independent and are willing to challenge authority. Justice and fairness are primary characteristics of these students, who strive to make their own decisions while still accepting the values of their peers.

Fifth and sixth graders are able to express religious thoughts in words and begin to identify with the broader religious community. They begin to comprehend church history and events that have brought them to their place in time. They grow in their ability to use the Bible as a personal-growth tool and may begin to determine their own moral behavior in terms of God's will and the teachings of Jesus.

Children of this age are beginning to explore their commitment to God and what it means for each one individually to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. As they seek their place in the church, they grow in their understanding of and appreciation for outreach and mission projects. Hands-on projects are effective with this age group.

Common Characteristics

From the active two-year-old to the pondering sixth grader, all children have some characteristics in common. Children at every age respond to personal and group affirmation. They want to feel that they contribute to their class, that they are loved and respected by their teachers, and most of all that each is a unique and special child of God. By better understanding the characteristics of children, a caring teacher can provide more-age-appropriate activities for those in his or her classroom. The result is happy children and a much happier teacher.

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