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Advice from Master Catechists - March 2010
by Sr. Janet Schaeffler, OP, Kate Ristow, Chris Weber, Dan Thomas
What can I do about a student who is behind the rest of the class? What can I say to a catechist who uses a lot of personal finances in her ministry?
Q: Two weeks ago, our class welcomed Kaitlin; she and her family just moved here. In these past two weeks, it’s become clear that Kaitlin does not know nearly as much about the faith as the rest of my learners (third-graders). The DRE and Kaitlin’s parents don’t want to place her in the second-grade class because those learners are preparing to receive First Communion—and Kaitlin already received First Communion. What Kaitlin does not know slows down the progress of the rest of the class. Do I have to develop separate lessons and material for Kaitlin? What are my options?
—Kelly, St. Louis, MO

Sister Janet Schaeffler’s Answer
A: One of the contributions of the Church to the early American culture—to the immigrant Catholics of the time—was the Catholic school system. It might be said that, at that time in the history of catechetics/faith formation in our country, there was one element that, in hindsight, might have been detrimental. We rigidly put faith development into grade levels along with academic subjects.

Just as we presumed that all children were ready for the first reading primer or to learn addition of fractions on the same day, we presumed that all children were at the same point in their faith growth. We presumed that all children of a certain age were ready to celebrate a Sacrament. (Do we expect all youngsters to cut their first tooth at the same age? Walk at the same age?)

Today we realize that, in the faith community, each person is ready for different experiences at different times. Perhaps Kaitlin is at a different point, “knowledge-wise,” than most of the other learners. But it’s likely that all of your third-graders are at different places in learning right now—although they may be mostly alike. We always want to remember that learners are at their own places along their journeys of faith.

You ask about developing separate lessons and materials. You shouldn’t have to do this. Publishers today have already done that for you. There are wonderful supplementary materials designed to help in circumstances such as this. Pick the ones that accompany what you are doing and complement what Kaitlin knows and where she is in her faith growth.

Your options? Use one or more of these: Invite parents (the entire family) to engage in a faith journey of prayer, study, faith-sharing, and service, using materials you provide. The family can check in with you periodically regarding questions and to share with you their enthusiasm and joy in their new experiences.

Often there are members of a parish who are eager to walk with others but do not feel called to work with a whole group. Locate these people in your parish and ask one of them to be a catechist/mentor for Kaitlin. 

Invite an active family from your parish to “adopt” Kaitlin and her family. The two families could create a circle of learning, prayer, and reaching out to others.

After many years in parish and diocesan catechetical ministry, Janet Schaeffler, OP, is currently involved in catechetical/adult faith formation consultation, writing, workshops, days of reflection/retreats, and teaching Her website is

Kate Ristow’s Answer
No, Kelly, you definitely do not need to prepare separate lessons for Kaitlin.

My first thought is that you need to carefully read the forms her mom or dad filled out when Kaitlin was registered in the program. Most programs have a basic information form parents are required to complete. In addition to contact numbers and the like, parents are usually asked to be specific about any special needs the child might have—a learning disability or a food allergy, for example.

There are some parents who simply will not list learning challenges on a religious education form—especially for a primary child. Their rationale is that if there is anywhere a child should be completely accepted, it’s in religion class. I understand that feeling. Other parents whose kids are in special academic classes want their child mainstreamed in religious education. Their desire—perfectly understandable—is that they want their children to have at least one “normative” learning experience each week with peers. I agree with that, too.

However, the DRE and the catechist both need to know if there is some type of learning disability so the child’s needs can be accommodated as much as possible. For example, a catechist would never ask a child who cannot read to read aloud in class. The catechist would find a different or more creative way to engage the learner or increase the learner’s participation.

But if the catechist doesn’t know that there’s a problem, well...that’s a problem! So, check the forms to see if there’s something you should know that you don’t.

Second, you might ask your DRE to visit your class to observe the child informally. We really do not expect third-graders to know all that much. If Kaitlin is so far behind what the other kids know (and have been able to retain!), there may be something else going on. If the DRE agrees with your assessment, talk to the parents.

You and your DRE should ask for a face-to-face meeting with the parents. Tell them what you’ve observed. I am assuming that by this point, Kaitlin has caught on to the fact that she’s doesn’t have the same level of knowledge as her peers. If so, she’s probably participating less and less in class discussions.

Gently ask the parents if Kaitlin has a learning challenge you should be aware of or if they have any suggestions to help Kaitlin feel more confident. If there are no learning problems, a quick fix is to give the parents last year’s text and ask them to cover it at home. They can have fun checking Kaitlin’s learning progress by using your publisher’s website after each chapter and completing the online chapter review. All primary kids enjoy showing what they know!

If Kaitlin has a serious learning problem, she may do best in a smaller tutorial setting—one catechist working with a very small group. The parents may resist this initially. Hopefully, however, they will recognize in time that Kaitlin may get more positive feedback in this situation and have a much better experience. 

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to
CATECHIST, is National Catechetical Consultant for RCL Benziger. She has been involved in children’s religious education for over 25 years as a Catholic-school teacher and parish catechist.

Q: Many of the catechists in our program use their own financial resources to purchase things for their classrooms and students. One catechist in particular who is “comfortably off” buys special things for her students for all the holidays. She also buys special classroom supplies and creates fabulous craft activities with fancy supplies. She’s so enthusiastic about teaching, and it’s clear that her students learn a lot and like her class a lot. But some students not in her class—and a few catechists—are expressing resentment. How can I help this catechist find a middle ground without being critical?
—Donna, DRE in Kansas

Chris Weber’s Answer
I certainly can understand why you would be anxious about sending anything less than an encouraging message to such a charitable and enthusiastic catechist. However, I also echo your concern for how this untrammeled generosity could deflate morale among your catechists! I would hate to ask your catechist to tone down or stop what she is doing.

Where possible, it is always better to grow your program than to deplete it. Perhaps you can use your catechist’s creativity and stewardship as an inspiration to bolster the quality of all of your sessions.

How does this sound to you? “(Name of catechist), I love all of the fun and creative projects you do with your class. And many of your students tell me that they love it, too. You make learning about faith fun, and you give so generously of your time, talent, and treasure to your young people. This is terrific!

“As much as I love it, it has created a big problem: Kids in other classes are pretty envious of what your kids are doing, and other catechists are, too. I don’t want to see you stifled in what you are doing. It’s great! But I wonder if you could brainstorm with me some ways we could enhance what other classes do to make their experience more fun and dynamic.”

As you talk about the situation, you may well come up with some creative ways to ease it. Here are a few strategies you might consider before your conversation with the catechist:

1. Invite her to be a team leader or craft resource person. Are the people who are complaining teaching similar grade levels as your catechist? If so, ask her if she would be willing to occasionally design a craft or holiday project for her entire grade level or unit. Make sure that she knows the parish will cover the cost of the other classes—and inform her that this is a condition of the request. You may need to set a cap for the expense, but you could also justify the cost as a return for all the money the parish has saved over the years because of her generosity. Get other catechists to assist with the purchase of supplies and set up so that they have ownership in the project. Encourage them to work on the project as a team. This strategy would ease the tension and enhance the experience for everyone.

2. Find some extra money to bring some of the same types of perks and special crafts to other parts of your program. If you don’t have it in your budget, there is often a group like the Knights of Columbus or other service groups that are eager to support quality catechetical experiences for children. This could take some preparation, as you may need to devise and spell out a very concrete plan to get the support. If you think of this as a private “grant,” then do many of the things that grant writers do: document the plan, take photos of the special project or craft, write up a report on how it went—along with participant testimonials—and be sure to send a big thank you to the grantor.

If you implement either of these strategies, you can thank this faithful and bighearted catechist for the inspiration!

Chris Weber has worked in the field of catechesis for over 20 years: as a catechist, a parish catechetical leader, and a diocesan staff member. He is currently Director of the Mount Summer Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Dan Thomas’s Answer
This is one of those “sticky” issues that are often part of the challenge of being a catechetical leader.

First, express to the catechist how wonderful it is for those children to be in a class with a catechist who is excited about the ministry and wants to make learning about the faith exciting and meaningful. Her creativity and personal investment are great gifts to the program. This is something to celebrate!

Second, consider the impact of her generosity on the other catechists. One element of a response is to recognize that each catechist has different gifts and talents that need to be used and recognized for the contribution that they are. The catechists need to do well what they can do well and not compare themselves with one another. Help them to celebrate what they do well. One of the difficulties in any group is the impact of people on one another. The challenge here is to create a community of people that respect diversity and recognize one another’s gifts.

Another issue that is raised here is the budget for the program. In my experience, parish catechetical programs are often run on a shoestring. Is there a way that gifts can be budgeted for all students? At our parish, every volunteer is given a box of premium cocoas each Christmas and they seem to enjoy this simple gift. Is there a similar type of gift that could be given to the children in the program?

Also, it may be valuable to talk with the catechists as a group about gift-giving in general: How do you feel about giving gifts to your students? How necessary is it? How does giving gifts to one another and our students influence our program? Do the children have expectations about receiving gifts from their catechists? The group might come up with a way of giving gifts to everyone, or a way in which the true meaning of gift-giving might be celebrated.

To sum up, what happens in each classroom must be based on the gifts and creativity of each catechist. We need to create an atmosphere of genuine community that allows for the unique gifts of each. But we also need to create a community among the learners that can “gift” them equally for the persons they are. This is a difficult balancing act not easily achieved but well worth working toward.

Dan Thomas has been a DRE for 28 years and is involved in the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL). He and his wife, Eileen, are the parents of two college-age sons.

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