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RE for Small Congregations


A sample teacher's manual for a small UU congregation or group

Developed for First Church, Unitarian, in Athol, Mass. (2 children in RE program)

Manual for Sunday school teachers and other adults doing ministry with young people


Section One: The basics

A. Unitarian Universalist Principles in Simplified Language

Unitarian Universalists believe:

1. that each and every person is important;
2. that all people should be treated equally;
3. that our churches are places where everyone is accepted, and where we keep on learning together;
4. that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life;
5. that everyone should have a vote about things that concern them;
6. in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world;
7. in caring for our planet earth.


B. The well-balanced young people's program

What kinds of activities and opportunities might a well-balanced congregationprovide? One model, suggested by the UUA's religious education department, suggests a well-balanced congregation would include five basic components:

1. Worship
2. Building community
3. Leadership development
4.Social action
5. Learning

Applying this model to the Sunday school suggests that Sunday school could have a broader range of acitivities and opportunities than we usually consider. Even though learning would probably remain the most important component, the model suggests that other kinds of activities need to be included. If we reword things slightly, here are five basic components of a well-balanced Sunday school (with specific examples in parentheses):

  • Learning experiences, on religious or spiritual themes (e.g., lesson plan or other structured learning experience);
  • Worship experiences (e.g., opening sharing circle);
  • Opportunities for leadership development (e.g., giving children a say in matters pertaining to them, and/or giving children responsibilities such as serving snack);
  • Opportunities to do social action projects (e.g., collecting money for a project the class decides on);
  • Time for fellowship, a time to build friendships (e.g., a snack time, or time to just talk informally as a group, etc.).

If you look at adult programs, you'll find we adults are careful to plan these five components into our congregational life. Adult RE, Sunday morning worship, committees, social action projects, social events—all are a part of adult congregational life, and all are just as important for young people as for adults.

C. Preparing to teach

Planning ahead

Here's a suggested schedule for planning ahead and lowering stress:

On the preceding Sunday:

  • Begin by gathering any books or the curriculum you will need for next Sunday's session.
  • Determine which lesson or which story you will use. Either read the lesson plan in your curriculum, or review the story for the week. Sketch out a rough plan for what you will do next Sunday.

TheWednesday evening before you teach:

  • Look at the lesson plan you sketched out, and put it into its final form. (A sample lesson plan is included below.) Figure out if you need to obtain any supplies.
  • Make sure you have back-up activities in case your main lesson plan doesn't work out.

On the Sunday you teach:

  • Arrive at least 15 minutes early to organize room and materials.
  • Before the end of the lesson, be sure the children have helped you clean up (remember, they need to learn to take responsibility for their space.)
  • Fill in a weekly evaluation form. It's important to keep track of what activities the children have done each week, both to communicate with other teachers and to keep a record to help with long-term curriculum planning.

Sample lesson plan:

Here's a sample lesson plan format I like to use to plan out the Sunday school sessions I lead:

I/ Opening (5 minutes)

  1. Light chalice.
  2. Opening song or opening words.
  3. Go around the circle, and allow each child to say one good thing and one bad thing that has happened in the past week (it's always OK to pass). If there are newcomers, each child should say his or her name, too.
  4. Always take attendance!

II/ Story (5 minutes)

Read the story for this week

III/ Activity based on the story (10 minutes)

  • An activity that helps the children assimilate the story, such as doing drawings based on the story, acting the story out, etc.
  • If necessary, include time for clean up.

IV/ Snack and discussion (5-10 minutes)

  • Share a simple snack (such as juice and cookies) while prompting the children in a discussion of the story, or of anything else important that comes up in the class. As you'd expect, asking open-ended questions is one of the best ways to prompt the discussion.
  • Clean up after snack.

V/ Second activity (5-10 minutes)

A second activity based on the story.

VI/ Game (remaining time)

I always like to schedule a little time to play a game with the children at the end of a class. The kids look forward to it; it's a chance to get to know them better, and sometimes children will really open up while playing a game with an adult; plus if the worship service runs long, you can extend the game time to allow for that. Age-appropriate board games are lots of fun. "Twister" (TM) is great game for active kids.

VII/ Brief closing (1-2 minutes)

I always try to get everyone to sit together for a few closing words at the very end of class. Once they get in the habit, the children seem to like such a closing.

D. Openers: Immediately engaging the children:

What do you do in those two to five minutes as some of the children tear into your classroom, and others drift in slowly talking to their friends? Those first two to five minutes can set the tone for a wonderful, cooperative class that’s enjoyable for teacher and children alike. It is important to engage the attention of the children at the very beginning of a session. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Greet each child as she or he arrives
-- Welcome!
Have "straggle-in" activities ready to engage interest and energy
-- Something to do!
Have a new picture or pictures on the wall.
-- Something to see!
Play a recording of music or speech.
-- Something to hear!
Begin with a startling statement or question: "How do you think that..." or "What if I told you that..."
Begin with a mystery or a puzzle -- create suspense!
-- Something to figure out!
Have things to pick up and handle: a chalice, a menorah, a prayer rug --
-- Something to touch!
Begin with a game that gives everyone a chance to meet everyone else.
-- Something to play!
Start with a song.
-- Something to sing!

                                                                (adapted from material by Ann Fields)

E. The sharing circle

As a suggestion, each class should begin with a sharing circle (or similar opening circle). Many other UU Sunday schools use some variation on sharing circles. Here are some good reasons to use the opening sharing circle as an important addition to your teaching toolbox:

  • Sharing circles are an excellent way to provide a regular age-appropriate worship experience for children. To have the same worship experience every time they meet can help children to feel some stability in the program. Even though teachers change week by week, even if a child misses a few weeks, he or she will know at least one thing will remain the same.
  • Everyone has an equal chance to be heard in sharing circles. Statistics show that even in the most enlightened classrooms, girls are not given as much time to be heard as are boys. Giving everyone an equal chance to be heard also improves group dynamics by helping children learn to affirm the personal concerns of each other.
  • Sharing circles calm children down after their mad dash to get to the classroom. Calm children tend to be better-behaved children. In addition, important personal concerns brought up in the sharing circle can help group leaders understand weekly changes in behavior. Begin every class with a sharing circle and you will have fewer behaviour problems!

How to lead a sharing circle

Have a the children sit in a circle -- around a table or on rug squares on the floor, depending on their ages and on the room you are in. Light a chilace in the center of the circle. As group leader, you then state the rules for the sharing circle:

  • "As we go around the circle, each person will get a turn to talk.
  • "When it's your turn, start by saying your name. Then you may tell about something good or something bad that happened to you in the past week. You may also choose to pass, which means you only say your name.
  • "The only person who may speak is the one whose turn it is."

You, as the group leader, should begin the sharing. It's best for the group leader to know in advance what she or he will say, because the leader sets the tone for everyone else. When one person is talking, you should make sure no one else talks -- but don't fall into the common trap of responding yourself to what someone has said. Be sure you bind yourself to the rules as well!

 Class offerings should be gathered right after the sharing circle.

If you wish, after the sharing circle you can repeat the simple Sunday school affirmation below ("We are Unitarian Universalists").  Because of the hand motions, this works especially well with younger children, although most pre-adolescent children enjoy it.

If you wish, in classes of older children each child may light a candle from the lighted chalice when it is their turn to speak. If you do this, go over basic fire safety rules, and remind the children that you tip the unlit candle into the flame of the lit candle (not the other way around).


F. Closing circles

Why a closing circle?

Children, and adults, need a sense of closure. They need to know when Sunday school is over. In terms of group dynamics, each class needs to come together as a group one last time before they go off to whatever they are going to do next.

Like a sharing circle, a closing circle can be a good way to keep the religion in religious education. However, sharing circles deal mostly with group dynamics and building community. Closing circles deal much more with content. In a closing circle, you and the children take another look at what you have learned together. As such, they may vary from age group to age group, and maybe even within age groups from week to week.

Some ideas for different types of closing circles follow:

Closing sharing circle

You can have your closing circle be a simple sharing circle:

Everyone sits in a circle. Everyone has a chance to share, though anyone may pass and choose not to share. Only one person shares at a time, and everyone else should remain silent while that person is sharing. The group leader ends the circle (and the class) with some sort of closing words, or the group sings a familiar song together.     

Ways children can share:

  • Each child shows something that he or she has made in class that morning. They might pin a picture on a bulletin board, or hold a mask or a sculpture up and tell the group about it.
  • If you have done movement or acting or role-playing in class, each child might act out a character from a story they have heard that day. Have them say which character they have chosen first. They can stand up and do a speaking role, or just sit and make the kind of face they think that character would have.

Closing words

You can close with a poem or other reading, which may or may not be different each week. A suggestion for closing words from the hymnal:

Hold on to what is good
even if it is
a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here.
Hold on to my hand even when
I have gone away from you.

You can find other appropriate closing words in the hymnal. Some of the curricula include closing words appropriate to the various lessons -- these tend to work quite well.

Also, you can use the "We are Unitarian Universalists..." affirmation that appears above.

Closing songs

Good closing songs from the hymnal include numbers 389, 188, or 362.

Other songs from the hymnal are also useful, and a list of songs from the hymnal suitable for use with children is included in the appendix to this manual. If you need help learning the songs or leading the songs, we have resource people who can assist you.

G. Taking care of yourself

People who do religious education with children need to remember to take care of themselves. We are role models to the children in our classes, and one of the best things we can do is show them that living your faith is a matter of joy, not of drudgery and burden.

So have fun in your classes! One thing many teachers mention when asked why they teach is that they want to get to know the kids at church. Make that one of your goals: play games together, talk together, have fun together, spend time just getting to know each other.

Seek out joy. While curriculum and content are important, it’s more important that you and your class live your faith rather than talk about your faith. If it's a gorgeous day, it may make sense to take the class outdoors -- it may mess up the lesson plan, but you will all get more joy from being outside on a beautiful day. (Having said that, if you do go outside, for safety reasons it's crucial that you let someone know exactly where you are going to go.)

Ask for help. Get another teacher to substitute if you need to. Get help with classroom discipline, or lesson planning, or whatever before it becomes a problem. If your personal life gets overwhelming, arrange a meeting with one of the ministers or with the RE Committee -- if you need to bow out gracefully, ask for help to make it happen.

Find support. Teaching can be intense at times. Talk with your fellow teachers about your common endeavor. Talk with other people in the church about what you do. Sometimes after a particularly intense class, you just need to talk — grab a fellow teacher and talk!

Meditate or sing or engage in social action: do whatever it is you do for regular spiritual practice. When you do religion yourself, it comes through to the children, for you will be calmer and close to your spiritual center. Plus you can talk about your regular spiritual practice with them—children need to know that adults actually do things like prayer, or yoga, or reading scriptures of one of the great world religions.

Above all, take care of yourself!


Section two: Safety and behavior issues

A. "Right Action": Behavior and discipline

Like the Buddhists, our philosophy on discipline includes the virtue of “right action.” Right action assumes that everyone has a role in preserving harmony.

To lower the chance of discipline problems, teachers can do the following:

  • Come prepared in advance for each session, and have back-up plans ready in case your main plan does not work. Experienced teachers find that you can greatly cut down on the number of behavior problems simply by being organized and flexible.
  • Create a comfortable, inviting environment. Children are greatly affected by their surroundings, and pleasant surroundings can help foster pleasant behavior.
  • Since every child has different abilities and a different learning style, you may find that frustration with or inability to do a project can lead to behavior problems. In an ideal world, it's best to have alternate lesson plans, or at least to have independent projects or books available.
  • Teachers should feel comfortable setting good, firm limits. You need to make clear what your expectations for behavior are, and what the consequences are if children do not live up to your expectations. (Standard guidelines for behavior are set out below, in "Setting limits.")

As for children, they should help to develop and should agree upon a set of expectations and consequences. Ideally, the expectations will be written on a big piece of paper. Everyone (teachers and children) will sign at the bottom, and it will be posted in the classroom.

Children can be taught how to help one another to engage in "right action," by reminding one another which actions are acceptable and which are not.

Setting limits

Children should have a hand in setting rules for the classroom. You may develop a group consensus over time without a formal procedure. You may find that you need to spend an entire class with the children developing behavior guidelines, perhaps even inviting other teachers or a minister to sit in and assist.

There are some non-negotiable rules for everyone in any religious education program. You should make these rules clear to the children in age-appropriate ways:

  • No interpersonal violence.
  • Children must ask the teacher before leaving the room, for reasons of safety.
  • Supplies and property must be respected and not wasted or destroyed.
  • Everyone waits their turn to speak.
  • Everyone cleans up their own messes.
  • Disparaging comments, put-downs, and the like are not appropriate to a religious education setting. (UU teenagers sometimes say "No harshing on anyone's mellows.")

If these expectations are not met, and if all else fails, you, the teacher, should use one of the following techniques. They are listed in approximate order of severity:

  • Remove the disruptive child from the group for a while. Explain to them why you are removing them from the group. Have them work on a quiet independent project, or read a book quietly.
  • Give the child a "time out" in a quiet corner of the room.
  • Have the child sit outside the room (but with the door open so that you maintain visual contact).
  • Get a minister or the RE Committee involved.
  • Meet with the child, the child's parents, and a minister to work out a mutually acceptable behavior contract or other solution.

If you run into behavior problems and discipline problems, be sure to tell your co-teachers exactly what happened and what steps you took so that we can keep a consistent approach (you can write these on the weekly evaluation form). At the same time, remember that children, like adults, have bad days and grouchy days, and that as they grow their whole attitude can change very quickly.

Finally, remember this: if you expect children to be troublemakers, eventually they will turn into troublemakers. If you expect them to become better behaved, they will become better behaved!

B. Child and youth protection policy

Preliminary remarks

The interrelated issues of child protection, child abuse, and domestic violence can be intimidating and scary. Remember that you do religious education because you care about children, because you want them to grow up safe and happy. Protecting our children from physical violence and sexual abuse is one of the most fundamental things you can do towards that end.

You need to know that ministers and Directors of Religious Education are mandated by the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to report any suspected abuse of minors to the Department of Social Services (DSS). If you report serious suspicions of child abuse to a minister or DRE, he or she must report those suspicions to DSS, even if you have no firm evidence. Note that mandated reporters are protected from prosecution for reporting suspected child abuse. Also note that if you are a mandated reporter on the job (e.g., if you are teacher or social worker), you are a mandated reporter at Sunday school, too.

Above all, the purpose of any child and youth protection policy is to protect children. But remember too that beyond this main purpose, a good child and youth protection policy can help to protect adults from untrue accusations.

Child and youth protection policy

(as developed by the Unitarian Unviersalist Association)

The role of adult leaders

Adults working with children and youth in the context of our Unitarian Universalist faith have a crucial role and a privileged one, one which may carry with it a great deal of power and influence. Whether acting as youth advisor, chaperone, child-care worker, teacher, minister, registrant at a youth-adult conference, or in any other role, the adult has a special opportunity to interact with our young people in ways which are affirming and inspiring to the young people and to the adult. Adults can be mentors to, role models for, and trusted friends of children and youth. They can be teachers, counselors, and ministers. Helping our children grow up to be caring and responsible adults can be a meaningful and joyful experience for the adult and a lifetime benefit to the young person.

While it is important that adults be capable of maintaining meaningful friendships with the young people they work with, adults must exercise good judgement and mature wisdom in wielding their influence with children and youth. They must especially refrain from using young people to fulfill their own needs. Young people are in a vulnerable position when dealing with adults and may find it difficult to speak out about inappropriate behavior by adults.

Adult leaders need to possess a special dedication to working with our young people in ways which affirm the UUA principles. Good communication skills, self awareness and understanding of others, sensitivity, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and a positive attitude are all important attributes. Additionally, adult leaders should 1) have a social network outside of their religious education responsibility in which to meet their own needs for friendship, affirmation, and self-esteem, and 2) are willing and able to seek assistance from colleagues and religious professionals when they become aware of a situation requiring expert help or intervention.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the entire church, not just those in leadership positions, to create and maintain a climate which supports the growth and welfare of children and youth.

Code of Ethics

Adults who are in leadership roles are in positions of stewardship and play a key role in fostering the spiritual development of both individuals and the community. It is, therefore, especially important that those in leadership positions be well qualified to provide the special nurture, care, and support that will enable children and youth to develop a positive sense of self and a spirit of independence and responsibility. The relationship between young people and their leaders must be one of mutual respect if the positive potential of their connection is to be realized.

There are no more important areas of growth than those of self-worth and the development of a healthy identity as a sexual being. Adults play a key role in assisting children and youth in these areas of growth. Wisdom dictates that children, youth, and adults suffer damaging effects when leaders become sexually involved with young persons in their care; therefore, leaders will refrain from engaging in sexual, seductive, or erotic behavior with children and youth. Neither shall they sexually harass or engage in behavior with children or youth which constitutes verbal, emotional, or physical abuse.

Leaders shall be informed of the Code of Ethics and agree to it before assuming their role. In cases of violation of this Code, appropriate action will be taken.

            -- adapted from materials published by the UUA, 1986, 1992.



C. Further safety concerns

Two diseases

There are two serious, basically incurable diseases which are spread by mixing of bodily fluids: AIDS and hepatitis B. Every class supply crate comes with a first aid kit which contains a supply of latex gloves. For any activity which will bring you into contact with another person’s bodily fluids (child or adult)—changing diapers, putting on a band-aid, etc.—use those gloves. It may seem cold-blooded to wait to put on rubber gloves before you comfort a child who has cut him or herself, but you can learn to comfort children with words first, hands later. Daycare centers and preschools, and some other schools, have been using this policy for years, so you should find that children are quite accustomed to it.

Emergency evacuations

Review the evacuation plans posted in your classroom so you know which door to leave from in case of emergency.

After an emergency evacuation, all religious education groups will assemble on the lawn in front of the church, where we will do a head count and take attendance. Remember, we want to be out of the way of emergency vehicles, so gather around the signs at the front of the lawn.

Now you know why you must do a head count and take attendance during the opening sharing circle of your class. You must bring your attendance record with that information on it during emergency evacuations.

Parents will be informed of the assembly point for children during evacuations.

In case of a medical emergency

In case of a medical emergency, you should fill out an "Ouch Report". If you or another adult have to administer any form of first aid, including just putting a band-aid on a child, you must fill out one of these forms. One copy of the form then goes to the parent or guardian of the child, and a second copy should get filed at church by the RE Committee. In our increasingly litigious society, we really need to do this.


Section Three: Miscellaneous

A. What our children need...

What do our children need on a Sunday morning?

They need to light a candle, and have a quiet moment to enjoy its mystery.

They need to sing a hear their own voice and other voices joined together, and to feel the feelings that are stirred by music.

They need to hear a story and have a chance to share their own...remembering that we are each different and also very alike.

They need to create something. Expressing themselves, whether using words or materials , helps to bind the different parts of ourselves and life together. That's what religion is.

They need to be with an adult who is interested in the world and who feels the privilege and responsibility of their who is glad to be with them, and regards them positively.

Into this safe and encouraging context, we may weave the content of our religious traditions. The history and common threads of our identity are important to be sure, but without this essential loving embrace the education will not be religious.

-- Lowell Brook

B. Some people say...

Some people have said that children remember:

  • 20% of what they hear

  • 30% of what they see

  • 50% of what they hear and see

  • 70% of what they say

  • 90% of what they do

That's why we believe in  LEARNING BY DOING.

Or, as Confucius said, "Isn't it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied?"


Material on this page compiled by Daniel Harper. Not protected by copyright, except the UUA child and youth protection policy.

All materials copyright © 2008-2018 by Helen Zidowecki unless otherwise noted. - -

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