“Why? What did I do wrong?” asked James as I, a frustrated new catechist, banished him to the hall for bad behavior.
As a novice catechist, I was unsure how to respond to the behavior issues that occasionally arose during faith formation sessions. My standard approach was to react—often in anger—to anything that disrupted my carefully prepared lesson plans.
I shared my frustrations with a few veteran catechists who pointed out the importance of being proactive and creating a positive learning environment from day one. Learning from their wisdom, I vowed to begin the next catechetical year differently.
After serving as a catechist for a few years, I realized that each group of children is different and has its own “personality.” I also realized that there are a few basic principles that can be used for every group. When I follow these six principles, there are fewer instances of unacceptable behavior.
1. Establish Clear Expectations
During the first session of the year, after welcoming children and spending time on introductions, I work with children to create a set of clear, easy-to-follow expectations for acceptable behavior. As the catechist, I guide the process and include a few non-negotiable items, which now often include expectations about cell phones and MP3 players.
Allowing children to participate in this process increases their sense of ownership in the expectations that we establish together.
2. Model Behavior
Throughout the year I do my best to model the behavior I expect. The young adolescents I work with are sensitive to hypocritical behavior and so realize that I am not perfect. When I fail to live up to the agreed-upon expectations, I apologize for my behavior and share how I might have acted better as a follower of Jesus.
3. Use Teaching Moments
When children engage in behaviors that violate our group expectations, I ask them to reflect on their behavior. Depending on the age of the children and the seriousness of the behavior, you may wish to have children write a short reflection that answers the following questions. How did I behave? Why was I engaging in this behavior? How might I choose to respond differently in the future?
This reflection gives children an opportunity to examine their consciences and it might give you insight into extraordinary circumstances that are influencing the children’s behavior. When Marco wrote that he was sad about the recent death of a family pet, I responded differently than I would have had he written that he was bored.
4. Create a Learning Environment
As much as I can in the shared space I work in, I try to create a particular environment for my faith formation sessions. Before each session, I arrange the desks in a way that best serves the evening’s topic. Sometimes this is a large circle and other times it is a cluster of desks for group work. One year, the children were all especially tall for their age group so I asked my catechetical leader if our group could move to another room where the desks were a better fit for the children.
I also set up a prayer space each week to help emphasize that I am not teaching a content area such as history or math. Doing this helps convey that there is something unique and special about our faith formation sessions. Sometimes items in the prayer space are used as visuals to reinforce concepts during the lesson, such as the Advent wreath during Advent or holy water during a session on Baptism.
5. Take an Interactive Approach
Even during my first year as a catechist, I realized that children who are engaged and actively participating in a session are less likely to misbehave. I also quickly learned that most children have a short attention span.
To help children remain engaged in the session, I switch activities about every seven minutes. I might move from prayer to reading to small group work to large group discussion to skits to prayer to small group work to reading to a guided meditation—all in the span of an hour.
I occasionally stretch myself and engage children by using (appropriate) aspects of popular culture. I might use a current song to reinforce a session or use a blockbuster movie to begin a discussion on moral decision making. By doing this I can engage children where they are, as well as help them realize that when we connect our faith with our daily experience, God can be found all around us.
Every day I pray for the children I currently have the opportunity to teach, those I have taught in the past, and those I might teach in the future. Before each faith formation session, I pray for the virtues of patience, prudence, and charity.
I also ask the Holy Spirit to help me be a witness to our faith. After each session, I pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the privilege of being a catechist who has the awesome honor of sharing with others the wonders of the Catholic faith.
Daniel Abben has experience as a catechist and director of faith formation. Currently, he works in catechetical publishing and is a graduate student in Chicago.
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, August 2010.
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