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The following article by Neil MacQueen was originally posted in the Rotation Articles forum here at Rotation.org. It has since been updated and moved here in our "Small Sunday School" forum. Neil was one of the founders of the Model and this site, and he has created, led, and taught in both small and large Workshop Rotation Sunday Schools.

Hear Neil and several others who have led a small Rotation Sunday School discuss the Challenges and Benefits, Tips and Tricks for Running a Small Sunday School.



The Workshop Rotation Model in a Small Sunday School

by short article by Neil MacQueen

This post also concludes with ways to increase attendance.

The Rotation Model originally took root in mid-to-large size churches but it didn't stay there for long!  Thousands of smaller churches also embraced and proved the scalability of Rotation Model concepts and practices. The Workshop Rotation Model can easily be adapted in small churches that have few students, or few classes, or little space. In fact, it might even be easier to use the Rotation Model in a smaller Sunday School than a big one!

If you're unfamiliar with the Workshop Rotation Model is, view these short animated presentations.

I've done Rotation in churches with 75 regular attenders, 35, and just 8. I've done it in wealthy churches and those counting their nickels. I've set up Rotation in churches that embraced it and initially resisted it. What I learned in all those situations was that the Rotation Model can work great in any size program because it is inherently FLEXIBLE both in terms of which workshops and rooms you choose to use, but also in the activities you can choose from to suit your needs.

The Rotation Model works essentially the same way in a small Sunday School as it does in a larger program.

1) A group or groups of kids rotate each week to a new "workshop" classroom or learning experience (art, video, etc).  Each workshop can have its own assigned room, or as is usually the case in small Sunday Schools, one room might convert each week to a different workshop with commensurate changes in the classroom decor and arrangement.

2) The same story is taught to the group(s) four or five weeks in a row so that everyone is learning the same story no matter whether they are in the younger or older group (or in the single group). Only the teaching medium and lesson plan changes.

3) In a larger program, the teachers usually stay put in the workshop of their choice --teaching it to a new group each week. In a small Sunday School, it is often the SAME TEACHER each week, or a tag-team of two teachers.

4) The Model and its emphasis on creativity don't change much because KIDS are the SAME whether there are two of them or twenty. What does change in a small program with a broadly graded group(s) is the style of the activities. In a larger program you can more narrowly define the lesson plan for a certain age group. With broadly-graded groups you need to have lesson activities that all ages can relate to and accomplish. (Rotation.org's Writing Team lesson plans are specifically designed with such broadly graded and adaptive activities.)

The level of creativity doesn't change!  Just who you do it with, and what room you might do it in.

What CAN change, however, is the schedule of your workshops. Because smaller programs are more susceptible to attendance fluctuations (like 3 of your 6 active students not being there for some reason one Sunday), in addition to the activities needing to be adapted for small attendance, you may want to make changes to which workshop you want to teach.

"Small" and "few," of course, are relative terms.

My own definition of a "small" Sunday School is between 3 and 10 elementary-age children in attendance on any given Sunday.

For many small Sunday Schools six to ten grade-schoolers means you can support two groups during certain times of the year, and only ONE group during some low attendance times. Typically these two groups are split 1st-3rd and 4th-6th, or K-2nd and 3rd-5th. I'm not including the Preschool count, though they certainly do count when you're planning on future grade groupings!

How and when you group or divide your kids usually depends on:

  1. how many kids you have enrolled
  2. how "regularly" attend
  3. how many kids are in each grade (more about  "uneven distribution" in a moment).
  4. and what time of year it is (lower or higher attendance times of the year)

If you only have one or two elementary-age students on any given Sunday, then you have some special circumstances, needs, and opportunities that this article may not fully address.

Let's hear it for "broadly graded" !

It takes an adaptable lesson plan and special teacher to handle a class spanning many grades, but a successful broadly graded class can produce something that "graded" programs often only talk about. Traditionally, we've been led to believe that kids need to be separated from other kids and their parents. That's a funny idea for a program and message that values "family," isn't it? So while broadly-graded classes can be an option for any size program, and a necessity for small Sunday Schools, they can also be a blessing in disguise for a program that wants to create a family atmosphere, grow relationships, caregivers, and leaders.

See Neil's tips for teaching a broadly graded class.

Scheduling Workshops in a Small Rotation Sunday School

Scheduling your Workshops in a Small Rotation Model Sunday School can be an exercise in creative freedom and on-the-go adaptation to the circumstances at hand.

The following assumes you know a little about the Rotation Model... that we teach the same story every week for about four weeks in a row to all our grades.  That puts all the kids and teachers on the same story. And when you have "low" Sundays, it also means that story you taught to only 2 or 3 kids won't be the only time that story gets taught!  Instead, you'll teach it again next week and the next. (That's a key reason many Sunday Schools "go Rotation," so that irregular attenders get exposed to the major stories of the Bible, rather than missing 3 out of 4 different stories because they missed 3 out of 4 Sundays.)

Here's a Small Sunday School Workshop Rotation schedule similar to the one I often used in my "smallest" church. The only change for us was that we did computer instead of drama.. We had two rooms available, which mean halfway through the schedule we had to convert each of the two Workshop rooms into a different Workshop (our video became the Art workshop, our Computer room became the Game workshop. We used the church kitchen for our Cooking Workshop when we chose to use that workshop in a rotation for a particular story. We often combined our two groups for the Game Workshop --but had to make sure the games weren't too hard for the younger kids.

2Groups-5Shops-5Wks

The optimal class size for the average Sunday School teacher is arguably about five children of similar age. If you have times of the year when you need to add an additional class or expand your class sizes, it's pretty easy to do in the Rotation Model. You just add help, or more materials, or you add another Workshop with a lesson plan and teacher for the time of increased attendance you need to cover. For example, during Advent and Lent you can add help or another Workshop, then contract again after Easter. This kind of flexibility is a godsend to small programs where a 20% increase in attendance can affect you greatly.

If you routinely have just 3 or 4 kids, and most of them younger, then you may want to EXCLUDE using certain workshops, The Grama and Game workshops, for example, typically regularly need four or five kids to pull off without much adaptation. Whereas, workshops like Art, Cooking, Computers, and LEGOS work well with younger and fewer kids.

One way to deal with fluctuations is to PREDICT THEM and schedule accordingly. Talk to your parents and ask them to alert you to the Sundays they know they won't be there.  Even if they text you an hour before class is can give you the time to adjust. See some of the tips below for how to go with that flow!

There's another way to schedule your workshops in a small Sunday School where Sunday-to-Sunday attendance can be unpredictable. I call it the "Split/Combine" option.

RotationSchedule2021-b

See a video clip that explains this "split and combine" approach
when attendance is small and unpredictable.

The assumption here is that "splitting" into two different age groups is always better for the kids when you have enough kids to create two functional classes.

What's a functional minimum? That depends on your activities and the ages of the kids who are there THAT Sunday. TWO kids per workshop is a good minimum. That means if you have three kids in attendance, you should probably group them together.

  • If you have four, five, or six kids of similar age, keep them together.

  • If you have four or more kids in attendance, but some are very young, and some are very old, then you'll probably want to split them.


The key strategy in the "Split or Combine" Schedule is to have two teachers plan for two identical but age-grouped workshops. Then on each Sunday "at 8:59 am" you see who is in attendance and split or combine accordingly.

If you combine all the kids, the teachers combine too. Depending on the workshop activity and level of age-adapting you need to do, you can have the older kids do a "break out" or separate study within the combined class --something that's much easier to pull off when one of the teachers has already prepared for the "older" lesson anyway!

Art usually doesn't require many students. Games often do --depending on the game. Software is easy just with one student if that's all you have!  But the student may feel "by themselves" if you're watching a video.  This is why the decision to split or combine isn't always based on numbers.

The reason you plan and teach two identical workshops in this "Split or Combine" scheduling trick is so that regular attenders get a new type of workshop each week no matter whether they were combined or split the week before. (If you try and hold two different workshops on the first week, like art and drama, but on the second week combine everyone into art, your regular attenders will say "I already did that." Place two identical but age-adapted workshops each week makes sure regular attenders get a new workshop each week.)

See a video clip that explains this "split and combine" approach
when attendance is small and unpredictable.



"Workshop" rooms/spaces in the Small Sunday School

Some small Sunday Schools have a lot of empty space and classrooms because their church was once much larger. Many have limited space.

In "the classic Rotation Model," each workshop had its own room. An Art room, a room dedicated to Video or Games. But in small Sunday Schools with limited space, rooms have to pull double or triple duty. One week your classroom is your Art Workshop, the next it's the Video Workshop, the next its the Game Workshop. In fact, many small Rotation Model Sunday Schools have become very creative at quick conversions of their rooms from one purpose to another each week.

For example, instead of those "theater seats" or a room full of beanbag chairs for your Video or Theater Workshop, a small Rotation Sunday School needs moveable or stackable fun chairs, like folding director's chairs or those stackable plastic adirondack-style chairs kids love to lounge in.

Instead of those big older tables that are too heavy to move out of the way or set up, the small Rotation Sunday School invests in the more modern plastic tables with folding legs like the ones they sell at Costco.

Got a room that's too small to store various supplies? Instead of a giant cabinet of art supplies, get one of those wheeled carts so you can move your supplies in and out of your small room.

Small Rotation Sunday Schools have turned supply closets into computer labs, knocked out walls between two small rooms, and moved their Cooking Workshop to the church kitchen!

In the "classic Rotation Model" setup, you have a different teacher for each workshop. In a small Rotation Sunday School, you likely have just one or two teachers teaching all the workshops or dividing up the teaching schedule. In my two small Rotation Sunday Schools, I recruited people to teach with me, and substitute for me from time to time (I really love to teach in person!)



How to find increase attendance almost immediately!

One of the best ways to improve attendance almost immediately is by improving the regularity of those students who are attending less than once a month. Often this requires understanding their family situation, helping them make friends within the church, and simple things like discovering they need a ride to church. It can also be as simple as recruiting their parent to help you or inviting their older teenager brother or sister to help you teach (and bring their younger sibling).

Don't lose who you have. Make sure your regular attenders have a regularly great experience.

Yes, invite the kids' friends and neighbors, but do so for special occasions where you are ready for them and have your best programming ready to go.

Family Ministry! Okay...so maybe this isn't as immediate as you want, but when parents get to know each other better, they tend to support each other by having their child attend the class that they know a fellow parent is teaching. A nice late summer get-together can do more to increase fall attendance than a blizzard of postcards and emails.

Here are a couple more things you can do to find and keep more students:

Of course, invest in a fun, engaging way to teach and design your classroom. Rotation Model done right does that!

Recruit a teenager to help you teach and pay special attention to your older students. Double your good fortune by recruiting a teenager of a younger student you want to get coming more regularly!

Give older kids responsibilities, including asking them to help you teach and lead activities. They want to be treated like older kids, so recognize and feed that need.

Invite families to "teach a Workshop lesson together." These can be families of your children or families of a teen or young adult in the congregation.

Plan special workshops and activities as a time to INVITE the friends of your children to attend. For example, encourage the younger kids to have a friend sleepover the night before and bring them to a special Breakfast Cooking Workshop or Seder Meal.

Promote, promote, promote. Text them updates on upcoming and past lessons. Post to your group's Facebook page. And get the families to text you back when they can't make it. (Encourage a sense of accountability).

Create some special events that will attract irregular attenders. Often these types of events include their parents, such as, a family VBS, a church picnic, a "rite of passage" for your 3rd graders (giving Bibles), etc. A rising tide usually lifts all boats, including your Sunday School boat.

Make sure your hallways and classrooms/workshops are bright, colorful, inviting, and even whimsical. They are kids after all.

Stop doing things that make your older kids feel like they're being "treated like babies." Sometimes this problem is caused by the teacher themself --they prefer younger kids and don't know how to relate as well to a 5th grader.

According to Barna Research's 2021 Survey, 59% of visiting parents who are already committed disciples, choose their church based on its CHILDREN'S MINISTRY.

I hope you've found this brief article helpful. Certainly, it's only the beginning of a discussion and you're welcome to post questions and your own insights.

<>< Neil

Here are some related topics in our Getting Started with the Rotation Model forum:

Last edited by Neil MacQueen
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Workshop Scheduling in a Small Sunday School
That Addresses Unexpected Attendance Fluctuations

Unexpected fluctuations in attendance on any given Sunday can be difficult in any small Sunday Schools. You prepare a lesson for four kids grades 3-5 and unpredictably only 1 shows up.

Fortunately, because the Rotation Model teaches the same story for several weeks in a row, it's a lot easier to combine classes (aka "workshops") and kids on any given Sunday when the need arises --because all your elementary-age kids are working on the SAME Bible story.   

The following animated presentation was made in 2021 to help pandemic-depressed small Sunday Schools deal with attendance fluctuations. It shows a creative way to schedule workshops so that you could combine workshops/grades on a moment's notice.  It's just another example of the flexibility and adaptability of the Rotation Model, and can be used in ANY situation, post-pandemic or not. See more presentations "about" the Rotation Model here.

The issue: Attendance on any given Sunday in a small program often "teeters" between having "just enough" for one younger class, but not enough for a second older class, so they combine all ages. Reason #3 in the presentation shows a creative way to schedule "workshops" so you can react to fluctuations on any given Sunday, or handle seasonal fluctuations.

These scheduling tricks can be used by "traditional" Sunday Schools, if the two grade groups are working on the same Bible story each week, and if the lesson plan has adaptations the teacher can use.

Keep in mind that Workshop Rotation Model lessons are broadly graded to begin with, and each teacher of a Workshop will have to know how to teach their lesson to both age groups, so combining the age groups is a bit easier on Rotation teachers because they expect to work with all your grades, not just one or two.

Commercial: Our Writing Team's Rotation Model Lesson Plans all have age adaptations, and adaptations for small groups, and those with more or less class time.

Below is a screenshot from the presentation that describes how to schedule two of the same workshops each week for two classes --so that you can combine into one class/workshop on a moment's notice if low attendance requires it --and still keep your four-week Rotation of Workshops intact over the four week time period. See the presentation for more explanation.

RotationSchedule-SmallProgram

The schedule above is an unusual way to schedule workshops.

Below is the way many small Sunday Schools would schedule their two rotating groups. You could do just four weeks on the story, or add a fifth week on the story using games (or whatever other medium you wanted to use). Having this kind of scheduling and creative flexibility is a hallmark of the Rotation Model.

2Groups-5Shops-5Wks

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Last edited by Neil MacQueen

"Tips for Small Sunday Schools"

The following ideas were collected from over 20 years of posts here at Rotation.org on the subject of using the Rotation Model in a small Sunday School. You're welcome to add your own by replying.

  1. Some workshops, such as the Bible Games and Drama workshops, can be harder with small numbers unless you are careful about the KINDS of games or dramas you use. Avoid or reformat scripts. Think about how to play as "one team" instead of two or three as the game may call for.

    Whereas, other workshops, like art, computers and cooking are EASY with small numbers, and where attendance varies unpredictably.

  2. Have older kids to the readings. Employ "say after me" strategies for saying texts out loud when non-readers are present.

  3. Some times in a small Workshop you move to another location in the church to do it (like the kitchen). Remember to leave a sign on the door to let parents know where you went!

  4. Definitely use the Rotation.org Writing Team lessons. They have age and group size adaptations!

    Rotation curriculum published by traditional publishers (like Cokesbury) seems to be written for class sizes of 5+ kids.

  5. Don't SKIMP !  You want more kids. Don't oversimplify lessons just because you have fewer kids.  Don't think room decor and fun design isn't important in a small setting. It may be even MORE important!

    Posted by Sandy W:
    Definitely do not get discouraged. When I started rotation, I sometimes had only 3 children there and I do multi-age, so this was all the children there in total, not just in one group. I stuck with it because I believed in it. After one year, we average 15 kids every Sunday. Rotation works, kids will begin to tell friends and it will become contagious. I have kids that set their alarm clocks and wake their parents up because they don't want to miss Sunday School. Hang in there!!!

    Posted by NancyDir:
    Yes we can! We started our rotation out with 3 children. The kid's had a blast then and after 5 years they still coming are along with the 37 children which have joined us since starting rotation!

  6. Note your PEAK attendance times of the year and roll out your "big" Rotations then --the ones that have bigger activities and might new a few more kids. Plan for easier or less-attendance dependent activities during your LOW times of the year.

  7. Because Week to Week Attendance can FLUCTUATE greatly in small churches, recruit an extra helper to show up and "check in" at the beginning of every workshop to see if extra help is needed.

  8. Treat your older students like helpers so they don't feel like they're being treated like one of the "little kids".  Give them special roles and tasks. "Graduate" them to "Guide" status or the like, while they continue to help in the classroom. Give them visible roles.

  9. Here's one of the BIG ADVANTAGES of doing the Rotation Model in smaller churches that have broadly graded classes:  ACTIVE creative approaches AGE ADJUST easier than typical sedentary "worksheet centered" curriculum.   Cooking and Art, for example, tend to age adjust all on their own.

  10. On those Sundays when FEW children attend, pull out something really special to do or snack on. Kids are aware of low attendance and may ask "where is everybody?" so don't reinforce that feeling. Instead, make them glad they were the "only" ones there because they got to do or go some place extra special.

  11. Always have a back-up workshop or lesson plan for those weeks when your attendance is problematic. The computer workshop is our kids favorite "let's play!" workshop (though they are really learning, just don't tell them!).   Some Sundays, we'll ditch the lesson plan and go help set up communion. One Sunday we got a tour of the organ and the kids were allowed to play it. They loved that.  Have a few of these "emergency plan" activities pre-planned and ready so it's no surprise to the organist or pastor.  This also keeps the kids from thinking that the "big game workshop with only 2 of us" was a bust!

Take a look at Theresa Cho's story in her encouraging blog posting Wanted: Sunday School Teachers to see her story about evaluating the Sunday school program's needs at @St. John's Presbyterian. She describes how she evaluated and adjusted their during-worship Sunday school schedule to better allow children to experience and participate in worship. And she describes how she looked at a variety of curriculums and determined that Workshop Rotation Model best met the needs of their small Sunday school.

Last edited by Amy Crane

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