Teaching the Doctrine and Covenants to eight-year-olds

Valiant 8 child: Can I have my shoe back?

Sister J: That depends. What are you going to do with your shoe?

Valiant 8: …

Sister J: What would Jesus want you to do with your shoe?

Valiant 8: … Wear it?

Sister J: Go and do thou likewise.


The other day I was talking to my sister on the phone and she mentioned something about teaching Relief Society. “How is that going?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s going all right,” she said. “I guess. I enjoy it, but I don’t think I’m very good at it. Does it make sense that you can enjoy something you’re not any good at?”

I said it made perfect sense to me because I love being a Primary teacher, and I’m terrible at it. It isn’t just because I’m bad with kids (although I am). I’m equally bad at teaching adults (although one might say I’m equally inept with adults in general–and don’t even get me started with teenagers). The difference between teaching adults badly and teaching kids badly is that when adults get bored, they will fall asleep or daydream or get out their phones or some other quiet activity, whereas kids will talk amongst themselves or start wrestling with each other or stack up the chairs and see who can touch the light fixture and who can jump the farthest without breaking their head. None of those activities is silent. Well, I don’t know. The wrestling comes close, depending on whether or not one has his opponent in a headlock. Still, it can be disruptive.

I teach the eight-year-olds-turning-nine. I have five kids in my class, and I like all of them, even the one who’s kind of a jerk. I know how to teach kids. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I have many years of experience with children, not only in Primary but also living with them in my own home. I know you can’t just get up there and lecture at them. You have to be all visual and interactive and play games and crap. At least that’s how it works with modern children. Once upon a time you could get up and lecture at kids and they’d just sit there and take it, but that was back in the days when you could also beat them, and those days are over. Now you have to engage them somehow. Unless you’d rather have them practicing their martial arts while you’re teaching. (Or should that be “teaching”? If no one’s learning, is the teacher still teaching? I’ll leave that to the philosophers.) Then I guess it doesn’t really matter.

The first thing we do in my class after the prayer is let everyone have a turn talking about what they did during the week. Theoretically, this is my non-musical equivalent of the “wiggle” song they do in sharing time, and it works about as well. When Brother J and I taught the ten-year-olds, those kids could go on and on and on about their weeks; we had to start enforcing a time limit. My eight-year-olds will usually have only one or two things to say, if anything. During this time that I am explicitly giving them permission to talk, that is. When I start talking, they immediately have all kinds of things to say. I’m not sure if I’ve ever uttered a complete sentence in front of these kids without being talked over. Not a sentence with a subordinate clause, anyway. Anyway.

Usually I have only a short lesson prepared, and I tell them that if we get through the lesson, there will be time afterward to go outside, weather permitting, or play Hangman. For some reason, kids love Hangman. People still watch Wheel of Fortune, too, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Although I can’t say that it holds every kid’s attention for the remainder of the class time. Eventually the boys will get tired of guessing letters and start moving on to more physical activities. For the most part, though, this has been an effective strategy for me. The other week I was having a hard time getting one of the kids to settle down and someone said, “Be quiet! You’re cutting into our Hangman time!” And then someone else said, “Yeah! You’re cutting into our karate time!”

Do I actually let the kids play karate in class? It’s not like I’m going to tell you.

About fifteen years ago I attended a Primary in-service class where the teacher said that all the preparation in the world wouldn’t be enough if you didn’t have the Spirit with you when you taught. I thought, “Oh, so that’s what my problem is. I don’t have the Spirit.” And then I just stopped stressing about it because really, if my success as a teacher is dependent on something as capricious as the Spirit, I don’t think I should feel too bad about failure. (What are they going to do, fire me?) So yeah, there’s that business with the Spirit, and then I can’t imagine it helps that I have no enthusiasm for the subject matter. Last year we taught the Book of Mormon. I like the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is good times–Nephi fighting with his brothers, Ammon chopping off arms left and right (literally!)–what’s not interesting about that? Even the war chapters, which I find so tedious to read, are fun to teach to children. This year we’re teaching church history and Doctrine and Covenants, and, oh, sure, there are interesting things about church history, but most of them aren’t appropriate to share with young children. Not that the Primary manual is good for children or other living things. I can barely keep myself engaged long enough to prepare a lesson–any kind of lesson, let alone something that would engage children. Check out this schedule from a couple months ago:

Lesson 4: Joseph Smith Prepares to Receive the Gold Plates

Lesson 5: Joseph Smith Receives the Gold Plates

Lesson 6: Joseph Smith Begins to Translate the Gold Plates

Lesson 7: Joseph Smith Translates the Gold Plates

Lesson 8: Joseph Smith Ponders the Stigma of Self-Publishing

Fascinating, to be sure, but for some reason the kids don’t find this stuff as rip-snorting a time you folks might. Probably because there isn’t enough violence. Every week the kids ask me, “Is this the lesson where Joseph Smith gets killed?” No, honey, that’s a few months away yet. This week Emma makes a collection of sacred hymns! (Yee-freaking-haw.)

Not that we don’t have our moments. The week the Book of Mormon got published, I was in the middle of telling the kids about the printer, Egbert B. Grandin, when one of the girls came in late and distributed Easter eggs to all the other kids. Could I have planned it better? No, I could not. Of course, they all immediately started throwing the eggs around and the one that survived the trauma was christened Egbert. The kids don’t remember anything else from that lesson, but they remember the Book of Mormon was published by some dude named Egbert. Or they remember that some dude named Egbert had something to do with the Book of Mormon, somehow. And now whenever they see an Easter egg, they will remember “Egbert” and experience some vaguely religious deja vu (in addition to the usual, conscious thoughts about Jesus rising from the dead).

Then there was the lesson about Parley P. Pratt, which they all thought was just about the most hilarious name they’d ever heard, mainly because it has “pee” in it. I confess I sometimes look for excuses to include him in class discussions just to break up the monotony.

The good news is that as squirrely as my kids are in class, they must get it out of their systems during the second hour, because they are all angels during sharing time. Which is convenient because not only does it give the illusion that I have my class under control, but it also allows me to zone out in case things get dull. Not that they ever would. (There’s no Doctrine and Covenants in sharing time.)

Also, one of them gave me this picture the other day.

aosome teacher


Adults almost never draw pictures for their teachers.


  1. I teach Valiant 9, and I have 5 kids. Four of them have been in the church their entire lives, and one is a child of reactivating parents. It’s a hoot some days. I just hope to get through some kind of lesson before it degenerates into total chaos. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. These kids have become some of my favorite people in the world, and I look forward to seeing them every Sunday.

  2. Nice, honest post.

    (If hangman gets boring, I had some luck with crossword puzzles when I taught 10-year olds. There are online engines that will create them easily for you, though I’m too lazy to link to one. Or, since I was often running late, I got some graph paper and was usually able to juggle my own kids and create a crossword before the end of sacrament meeting….)

  3. Rebecca, That can’t be a picture of you. That teacher is smiling….

    My wife does the same class age as you. You are both in my prayers….

  4. J. Stapley says:

    RJ is one of my favorite Mormons. Seriously.

  5. Kristine says:

    I always figure I have as many minutes for the lesson as they are years old. For the rest of the time, it’s my job to make sure they have happy memories associated with church–Egbert is a perfect example.

  6. Loved reading this–teaching primary would honestly be one of the callings that would scare me the most. You’re definitely on to something simply by understanding the importance of engagement.

    PS: You also have a knack for engaging me through your writing.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    For the rest of the time, it’s my job to make sure they have happy memories associated with church

    There is a lot of wisdom in this sentence. Nicely done.

  8. Chris Coleman says:

    I had a similar experience with contemplating a full hour of recess after I saw the line up of lessons in the manual. Specifically remember having a tough time controlling the class when Emma gathers sacred hymns…I mean woop dee doo, right?

  9. MDearest says:

    “…oh, sure, there are interesting things about church history, but most of them aren’t appropriate to share with young children.”
    Brilliantly written. Why doesn’t the Ensign “hire” you?

    I had it easy when I taught Primary to the 11-12 year olds. (Deacons and “prospective Deacons”) I only had to teach the New Testament before I got fired.

  10. melodynew says:

    If all I have to say is “Amen, sister!” And especially amen to the “happy memories associated with church.” Keep up the good work and thanks for this post. I teach 12-year-old girls in Sunday School. Their two favorite things: sitting on a blanket outside when the weather is good; and playing sunday school jeopardy. I worked Justin Bieber into one of the categories.

  11. Jeannine L. says:

    Years ago when my husband taught this age group, we called it the Violent 9 Class. You know, instead of the Valiant 9? It fit.

  12. k anderson says:

    I actually really needed this post, thank you! On sunday I had my 7/8 year olds wrap bandanas around their heads, write on tin foil wrapped cardboard, and then split them into Team Moroni and Team Joseph. One team hid them outside while the other team found them. Then we watched lds videos and colored, cut, and glued ((all of which, I know promptly goes in the trash)). But if I don’t have something for them to >DO< it's insanity.

    I especially liked the comment of letting them have good memories of being at church. I need to play more hangman, apparently :-)

  13. I need to play hangman with my seminary students this week…

  14. @mdearest
    How did you get fired? Any tips?

  15. I once asked the kids, same age group, if they had an Gospel questions. Now THAT was interesting. They asking about whether ghosts are real, and one kid thought that Clash of the Titans was real and part of the Gospel, and other things. It got me to see what was really going on with those kids more than anything else.

  16. Nora Ray says:

    Just got called to the Primary Presidency and I am TERRIFIED! I don’t have a Primary Voice, I expect rational behavior from everyone including children and it’s for sure I can’t sing. Oh those poor, poor kids!

  17. So great. Even with 17-18 year-olds, talking about the week (this week was prom)–goes a long way at the beginning of class.

  18. Valentine says:

    I teach eight 8-year-olds and it is hard.
    We usually pass around the church comic-book-style picture book and have the kids take turns reading out loud from the chapter that goes with the lesson. Last Sunday we also did the Emma Smith lesson and my teaching partner had us read the pictures book and then each child got to pick a song out of the primary songbook and we sang until our time was up. It was awesome.

  19. Corrina says:

    RebeccaJ, you crack me up! I appreciated what you had to say about teaching w/ the Spirit, and kinda just letting that go. Sometimes I get so worried about doing it “right” that I lose the organic feel of what I do best (though, I’m not sure what that really is….).

    I teach the 14-15 year olds, and I just started doing a “Mormon History Factoid” at the end of my lesson. It’s been awesome and has made for some great discussion. For example, we’ve talked about the multiple versions of Joseph Smith’s first vision accounts, and also his translation of the BoM w/ the seer stone and hat. Last week one of the girls said, “Why don’t they teach us this stuff?!” Really, they have had no problems hearing new things and have given such mature insight into our discussions in this part of the lesson.

  20. when i teach children i have the “me-news” time, too, but i add the “tell me 3 things about sacrament meeting” time. they can’t repeat what someone else already said. they learn to pay attention in sacrament meeting and i have much less time to fill with lesson.

  21. I love all your primary posts! Thank you. I teach the 8-year olds too and some days I spend the whole hour mediating martial arts and trying to get the kids to stop calling each other inappropriate names. We have 10 kids in the smallest room ever built which doesn’t help.
    But every once in a while a lesson breaks through like your Egbert lesson and I just hope that’s good enough.
    I love reading other people’s ideas, very helpful. Our most successful game was name that tune for the hymn book lesson and they loved it. Everyone participated despite not getting a single hymn right (not even come come ye saints). I guess I should have stuck to primary songs.

  22. I love the Egbert story! Also, I’m glad to hear other teachers also do the “tell me about your week” thing. I was afraid I was being subversive by doing it.

    And Kristine, I really like your point about trying to just give them good memories of church.

  23. Markie says:

    I always do the ‘tell me about your week’ thing when I teach youth (I never thought of doing it with primary kids, but I can’t imagine why not). I call it sweet and sour and we pass the candy bowl around while they each share the best thing that happened in the past week (sweet) and the worst thing (sour). Always seems to get the ‘participating’ juices flowing and I learn so much about their lives. And hangman is always a winner (you just need to invent the game that combines hangman and karate – maybe you get to demonstrate an awesome move every time you guess a letter and an extra move if it’s actually in the word)

  24. Daloislane says:

    As a Primary President, who has also,taught 8-yr-olds, let me just say thank you to all you primary teachers out there.

  25. Love Love Love! I am teaching 9 turning 10 and the lessons are overkill! I said the same thing about the lessons. My kids even ask me, Sister SonSo? Didn’t we learn this last week? No. Joseph was only preparing. Now he is actually Doing. BIG difference. But they don’t see it. Funny…. neither do I.

  26. Sharee Hughes says:

    I am an old lady who never had children and I hope they never call me to teach Primary. How can it be so different from when I was a child? My family was baptized when I was 8, along with another family and a few other individuals. We WERE our branch, our very small branch. I think there was just one family in our town that were already members. I remember as we approached our baptism date being taught very carefully about what that meant. It was serious stuff, not fun and games–no karate or hangman. Our teacher was one of the ones being baptized at the same time, so as she taught us, she was also learning. When we were baptized, we were truly prepared and knew what it was all about. Now I’m not saying we were perfect kids all the time. Later on, we used to pride ourselves on how quickly we could go through teachers, But we still learned the Gospel.

    I remember that way back then in order to graduate from Primary, you had to recite ALL of the articles of faith. I think now they just have to do one. At least a few years ago, that was it. I remember a young friend a few years back asking me to help her learn the Articles of Faith before going on her mission. I said, “Didn’t you have to know them in Primary?” She told me, no, they just had to learn one. Maybe we need to bring back learning all of them.

    Anyway, today’s Primary teachers should be nominated for sainthood. Surely they have more than one miracle each that would qualify them. I’ve heard a lot of missionaries in their farewell talks give credit to their Primary teachers. What more miracle do you need than that? I’m guessing that in between the talking and karate and game-playing, there’s still plenty of learning going on.

    And Rebecca, you’re right. Adults never draw pictures for their teachers.

  27. I co-teach the Valiant 9, 10, and 11 classes, which have a total of 8 kids (soon to be 10, and I hope to split the class at that point). I also teach fourth graders AND I am the Webelos den leader, so my life is completely consumed with spending time with 9-11-year-olds six days a week. I’ve found my kids respond well to a “token economy” in which they can earn points and cash them in for small prizes or pieces of candy. I’ve also started using an app called Class Dojo that lets me keep track of what the kids are doing, and they LOVE seeing how many “positives” they’ve earned!

    All that being said, your post reminded me of what my class is like pretty much every week. So even though I have some tricks that help, the kids are still kids. I just remind myself that teaching children is the art of planting seeds. Train up a child when he is young and all that.

    Also, my favourite Sunday School teacher was the woman who taught my class when I was 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, and 17. She loved us and we knew it :)

  28. Actually, the Emma Smith lesson was a big hit in my class a few weeks back, but I have a class of all girls (11 year olds) so it was nice to feel like Church history was throwing us gals a frickin’ bone once every four years. ;) I think that teaching Church history depends a lot on the age. I’ve had some really good discussions with my girls but I think that’s because we use the Church history as a nugget (really we usually only spend 5 minutes or so on it) and then the rest of the class block is just a casual discussion about doctrine. I’ve got a really small class, I don’t even expect them to raise their hands and as soon as the weather is nice we will be going outside. I’m always surprised at how much the kids at this age are willing to *think* about what I am presenting and come back with some really good observations.

    I don’t think that ‘teaching with the Spirit’ is capricious at all. If you prepare your lesson (and I mean using your lesson manual, not _Mormon Doctrine_ and/or Sugardoodle) and prepare yourself with prayer, you _will_ teach with the Spirit.

  29. Hangman! if you think about it should we really be teaching kids the joys of wrapping a noose around a poor guy’s neck? I guess it adds that violent touch that engages to wee ones. The greatest teaching tool invented and so uplifting too.

  30. Naismith says:

    I love the insight on how well they behave in sharing time:) So true.

    I agree that stretch of lessons was somewhat repetitive, but I am glad that the manual included Mary Whitmer in the witnesses of the gold plates. And since we had stake conference in there, it was not so repetitive as review, for us. I love the DVD collection that the church made available this year–we’ve had a video about every week.

    I’ve been teaching 9s for years, and this is really a strange year because there is less actual scriptures, more storytelling. In the past years, we would spend a solid 20 minutes reading the scriptures, which isn’t working this year.

    As far as reading scriptures, one of the things that has worked for my groups is to ask a question, have them read the verse silently, and raise their hand when they have the answer. Even kids with learning disabilities who couldn’t read the entire verse aloud can often read the verse for meaning and identify the answer, if you have chosen the verse and question carefully.

    I try to have all the weekly reports and life discussion before the opening prayer. The class president (we rotate monthly) assigns prayers. I start with 2-3 vocabulary words. Kids that age don’t use words like “hearken” or “guile” in everyday life. I figure I am helping them score better on the SAT.

    We start reading scriptures, and then we take a storytelling break. I just read verbatim that long stretch of story from church history. During this they are allowing to sit or lie wherever they want as long as (1) they can hold the position during the entire story (no standing on head), (2) they aren’t touching or bothering anyone else, (3) they can get out of the position by themselves afterward (yeah, that was added after someone got pretzeled into a chair). I give them to the count of 10 to assume their position–most lie down on the floor. But they do seem to be listening.

    Then we go back to reading scriptures, and I make them say some of the key points in today’s language, using the meaning of the vocabulary words. Then we have a short video and finish with a game of some sort. This year one of the kids is allergic to crossword puzzles, so that is out. They love mazes, and at least once a month I print out a scripture in large type, cut out phrases, and have them reassemble the verse.

    And then we play hangman….

    And yes, they can be mean–one week, my chalk kept disappearing and I kept having to get out a new one. At the end of class, the three pieces reappeared.

  31. I teach this age and love love love it. It’s true they have lots of energy, but I’m sometimes amazed at how much they pick up, even when I think they weren’t listening. One of their favorite activities is acting out the stories we tell. For whatever reason, my class loves that. For instance, they all love Oliver Cowdery and totally respect his contribution as a scribe now that they have each tried transcribing verses from the Book of Mormon while someone else reads a word at a time from behind a sheet. They also respond really well to concrete object lessons about principles. For example, this past week they loved the one about how a bundle of sticks is much harder to break than a single stick. (They are young, and so that one hadn’t yet become trite for them.)

    As far as classroom management goes, most of my success comes from principles learned in an Education program (not super helpful for everyone, I know!). My program was secondary ed, but the same principles apply. I think the thing that has had the most effect was when we spent 15 minutes one week establishing class rules (just 3-5 like Don’t talk when someone else is talking and Raise your hand if you have something to say). They came up with the rules themselves after a discussion about what rules they think make for good classes and why it’s important to have class rules. When problems pop up, we remind them about the rules, and every week at the end of class we also review how we are doing at keeping our rules. When they completely fill 10-week chart of good behavior, they earn a special class treat. (If they fail at something one week, they can do extra good on it the next. We are pretty generous when we can see they are trying and improving.) It may sound silly, but this has worked great with both 5-year olds and 8-year olds.

    I don’t feel bad spending the time it takes to work on behavior rather than just covering “doctrine” solely. At this age, self-discipline and good social interactions are some of the skills they are developing. And in any case, once the behavioral pieces have been worked out (at either school or church) there is always the result of much more good instruction taking place.

  32. B. Oilzadub says:

    I think it would be entertaining to talk about Christ in one of these history lessons. I mean, whodathunkit?

  33. leisurelyviking says:

    I still remember acting out The Good Samaritan in Primary as a kid. The boys all wanted to be the thieves, and they stabbed their victim with pens. When I was in Young Women, we took over teaching Primary on Mother’s Day, and I brought some Legos from home to act out Book of Mormon stories. It was a hit.