Advice from Master Catechists: When a new student is slowing down the progress of the class

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Question: 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

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 the 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.

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.


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

Kate Ristow, now retired, was a Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, and a 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.


This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, February 2010.

Image Credit: New Africa on Shutterstock

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