Science in Christian Perspective



Behavioral Psychology in the Sunday School Classroom
Donald Ratcliff
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Sociology
Toccoa Falls College
Toccoa Falls, Georgia 30598

From: JASA 34 (December 1982): 241-243.
For a number of years behavioral psychology has been an important influence upon teaching in many public school classrooms. Educators have made use primarily of operant conditioning procedures in applying behavioral theory. Examples include reinforcement systems as motivation for academic achievement (such as token economies), the use of behavioral objectives, curriculum design based upon task analysis and programmed lessons, and-perhaps the most common application-discipline procedures.

More recently, serious objections have been raised to some of these interventions. Token economics, for example, have been criticized for their temporary effect on motivation; when the tokens no longer exist (such as when a class is promoted), teachers complain that students' motivation to achieve declines and complaints about the lack of reinforcers surface from students. Perhaps even more crucial, some research suggests that external reinforcement can counteract intrinsic interest in a task (Greene and Lepper, 1974). Of course, strict behaviorists point out flaws in many educational designs that fail. In spite of some implementation problems, there are still many teachers who feel some behavioral interventions, carefully applied, can be an asset to teaching-particularly in discipline management.

The question might well be raised, can or even should such interventions be used in the Sunday school classroom? While some have objected to the behavioristic philosophy behind behavioral interventions, others have stated that Christians can make use of behavioral techniques without adopting the philosophy (Bolin and Goldberg, 1979).

Learning objectives have probably received the most attention from Christian educators (Heck and Shelley, 1979 are but one of many examples that could be cited). Dobson (1970) suggested a decade ago that behavioral discipline could help Sunday schools, as has Beechick (1981), though the latter is strongly against other behavioral influences upon church education. Rodger Bufford (1981) not only prescribes behavioral techniques for instructional technology and concept learning in church, but even gives a biblical basis for doing so.

In this paper, behavioral objectives, church related skills, and emotions related to Sunday school are considered as important contributions behavioral psychology can make to church education. The role of discipline in the church has been discussed previously (See Ratcliff, in press).

Behavioral Objectives

Objectives have received increasing attention from Christian educators, with several Sunday school publishers including objectives in their literature. The importance of adequately defined goals has thus been underscored.

Too often teachers are unsure of their goals in church education: "growing in Christ" or "receiving a blessing" are obscure and nearly impossible to evaluate. Objectives are more definitive of desired outcomes, thereby becoming the focus of instruction. As the Scripture states, "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way" (Prov. 19:2, NIV). By carefully stating objectives of teaching, the desired results are more likely to result.

An objective requires at least three elements (Mager, 1961): a terminal behavior that is observable or measurable, the conditions under which the behavior occurs, and the criteria for the level of acceptable behavior. These characteristics lend themselves to a behavioral interpretation of one's goals for a class, although it is conceivable that these could also describe cognitive or affective outcomes also. A complete objective, in other words, tells precisely what is to occur, when and where it will occur, and finally how much, how often, or to what extent it will occur.

Writing such objectives is a time-consuming and difficult process. Indeed, a survey of church publishers who include objectives reveals that few meet all three characteristics. Yet without such precision, ambiguity is likely and it is possible that even a wellmeaning teacher will achieve little in the Sunday School hour. Writers such as Engel (1977) have come to realize that objectives are an integral part of every area of ministry in the church. Using objectives, spiritual progress is less likely to be an accident rather than a planned outcome of instruction.

Some Christian educators (e.g. Beechick, 1981, and Kauffmann, 1977) have objected to the widespread use of behavioral objectives in Sunday school. It is suggested that the most important goals of church are spiritual, hence not always behaviorally definable. The radical empiricism of behaviorism, it is claimed, ignores the more important but less tangible spiritual development of the individual.

It may be that some of the criticism of objectives is due to differing interpretations of what "behavior" means. Most concede t at there should be some means of measuring most of the outcomes of Sunday School, yet behavior is sometimes suggestive of prescribed actions that will result. Attitudes and "internalized tendencies , ' (Wolterstorff, 1980) learned in Sunday School may not allow for precise predictions in terms of daily applications.

Technically, the behavior most teachers prefer to see in teaching attitudes and "internalized tendencies" is actually verbal behavior in class, with applications being variable to the individual's own lifestyle. Evaluation then consists of restating these verbalizations, as well as giving potential applications in one's own life. In other words, the student is expected to generalize a concept that will have a number of possible applications.

In such cases, the verbalizing of concepts and applications are the most immediate concern for the teacher. Self-report of applications in life may also be given time in class, although self-reports are notoriously skewed toward expectations rather than accuracy. Thus, the measurement of cognitive, affective, and even spiritual objectives is likely to be verbal behavior, but verbal behavior lends itself to precise measurement.

For example, the story of Joseph and his brothers could produce objectives related to retelling the story, abstracting principles, and finally individualized applications in the student's life. The first two are behaviorally definable in advance, while the third is less predictable in a behavioral manner. All three are worthy goals for a class, but the focus is necessarily upon the first two since they can be immediately evaluated.

The average Sunday school teacher may not be greatly concerned with measuring verbal behavior precisely, but the point of behavioral objectives is that unless some means of measurement is used, no one can be sure that anything is accomplished. The measurement need not be precise to be helpful-even questions asked by the instructor at the end of class is better than no assessment at all. Objectives lend themselves to such measurement. Planning that includes objectives is a responsible means of achieving desired goals in Christian education.

Church-Related Skills

In contrast to verbal behaviors, skill learning is a bit closer to observable actions mentioned previously. Behavioral objectives are particularly helpful in teaching skills (Beechick, 1980). Skill learning may take only a limited amount of class time in any given quarter, but it is an important outcome that can be profitably taught in church.

For example, locating books of the Bible and the use of Bible study aids (e.g. concordances, Bible encyclopedias, Greek lexicons) are skills that can be taught in class, but are usually learned accidentally, if learned at all (Heck & Shelley, 1979).

Other skills may at least in part be behaviorally defined and taught as a part of church education. For children, this includes aspects of the worship service or fellowship meeting, such as taking turns in sharing, non-interruption, note-taking, and responsive reading. Adults are more likely to learn Bible study methods, evangelism procedures (see Ratcliff, 1978), and self-modification in small groups. These skills are an important part of living out one's faith, but are too often neglected in church training.

Management of contingencies is inherent in a behaviorally based education. Behavior modification has been criticized for its extensive reliance upon external reinforcement. While mislabeling reinforcement as "bribery" is obviously a misnomer (Bufford, 1981), the dependence upon extrinsic contingencies is a matter of concern. Behaviorism has often received a bad press due to excessive dependence upon candy bars and suckers.

Ideally, intrinsic reinforcement is preferred to extrinsic reinforcement. However, few children are sufficiently motivated intrinsically to the point that all external contingencies can be overlooked. Ignoring contingencies does not result in their ceasing to exist. However, non-material reinforcers such as privileges should be explored for potential use by the classroom teacher, while aversive contingencies should be minimized. Once implemented, extrinsic reinforcement should be systematically eliminated through an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, a procedure often overlooked by novice behavior modifiers, contributing to the reverting to former behavior when contingencies are suddenly removed (as at promotion to a new class).

Behavioral influences pervade every classroom, wanted or not, Christian or not. Contingencies such as praise, scolding, and ignoring are unavoidable in any social context, as are other covert reinforcers. The goal of Christian educators should be to use these behavioral contingencies for the maximum beneift of their students.

Most Sunday School educators intuitively realize that a positive, accepting environment is more conducive to learning. Unpleasant experiences in Christian education have an aversive effect, making learning less likely. These considerations are not always obvious to the teacher who concentrates upon the material to be learned, but contingencies still influence student motivation. Praised children are more likely to participate, particularly when pfaise follows quickly, sincerely, and appropriately, the desired response. Peer approval of older children and adults is likewise effective in stimulating effort and progress.

Learni ng Emotions in Church

While Bible skills and content can be taught directly, affective responses are learned in a more complex manner. Perhaps it is accurate to say that affective responses are "caught more than taught;" emotional responses are learned in a somewhat different manner than cognitive skills. How can children be encouraged to love the Bible, the church, and God?

Affective responses are not mystical or even spiritual (although emotional reactions often accompany spiritual experience). Respondent conditioning aids in a more complete understanding of emotions, particularly the emotion of fear.

Fear responses have been experimentally conditioned with neutral objects, illustrated by psychologist Watson's experiment with Albert and the rat. Emotional reactions, commonly described as fear, can be associated with nearly any object, person, or situation, and these latter circumstances may become conditioned stimuli for avoidance reactions.

Vivid, repeated descriptions of Hell, or abandonment by adults in the Rapture, can produce intense fear reactions in children. Disruption resulting from taxing a limited attention span is punished in many churches, producing fear or aggression. Even being left in the nursery or Sunday School can produce consequences of fear. Embarrassment may produce similar reactions.

Since this fear reaction occurs in church, it can become a conditioned response to the church building. Christians in the church, and even God, may become conditioned stimuli for fear reactions. The earliest associations most people have with church is fear (Dobbins, 1975), which later can result in avoidance or at least disinterest. As Dobbins suggests, perhaps this accounts for the tragic drop-out rate of young people from church.

In contrast is the church that. purposefully develops positive associations. While not avoiding scriptural eschatology, the child is more often exposed to a pleasant, accepting atmosphere for learning. Security, warmth, and affection are continually associated with the Bible, church, and God. Enthusiastic Christians and interesting activities arc more likely to result in desirable affective responses. (Technically the latter is an example of operant rather than respondent conditioning. However, positive feelings are more likely to be generated in this context through modeling, intrinsic reinforcement, and social reinforcement.) Boredom and frustration are minimized in such a context.

Positive associations with Christianity should begin as early as possible in a child's life, preferably with the parents taking the initiative. A parent affectionately holding a child while reading Bible stories or talking about God is likely to develop positive associations for the child. Occurring frequently, such experiences can build a positive orientation toward the content presented.

The Sunday School teacher should use every practical means to make the learning experience a positive one for the child or adult. Bible and curriculum should be appropriate in format, conceptual level, and vocabulary for students. Feelings of affection for "God's people" easily generalize to similar feelings for God, especially with younger children. Exciting experiences in the study of the Bible are a form of positive respondent as well as operant conditioning.

Parents and teachers that force compliance to rigid and arbitrary rules too often produce rebellious offspring who avoid church as teenagers and adults. Permissive parents and teachers who fail to develop warm, controlled (non-fear producing) associations are also likely to have children who dislike church, the Bible, and God.

Fear-producing experiences should be infrequent in church. Should other interventions not be effective, punishment may need to be used as a last resort. Threat of Hell may result in seeking salvation, although too often the response of seekers is temporary. Perhaps Hell may more profitably be used to motivate Christians to evangelize the lost, as appears to be the case in the Bible.


Behavioral theory and technology can be a great asset to the church in Christian education, when used with care and expertise. Other areas of Christian education could be explored for the potential use of behavioral methodology, such as the Christian education of the slow learner or mentally retarded. Behavioral psychology has proved to be helpful in remedial work with such individuals, and the church may find progress likely with the help of behavioral methods when traditional procedures fail to succeed.

Behavioral techniques can be an asset to the Sunday School for both adults and children. The principles of desired contingencies, including verbal, social and even spiritual reinforcement, are important motivators at all ages. In this broad sense, every healthy church is, to some extent, behaviorally based. Exercising due care, more churches may make use of these important principles in furthering Christian education.


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