Another Plea for Help

Working Together Teamwork Puzzle ConceptOK, friends, another colleague of ours has sent out a plea for help! This one comes from a catechetical leader named Steve. Please offer your advice, thoughts, comments, and questions in the box below under Leave a Reply and thanks in advance for so generously sharing your wisdom.


Last year I had several problems with some middle school kids who were unable to change behavior on their own.  In several instances I had a parent come in and sit in on the class but once they weren’t there the behavior continued.  I also used behavior contracts with a minimal amount of success.  I am not sure where to go from here.  I know that homeschooling will never be followed through with by the parent and am hesitant to suspend or kick those students out.
I am writing to see if you have any suggestions/thoughts/resources for dealing with these kids.  Deep down they are good and I want to accentuate that but I am going to lose catechists over it and it ends up compromising the learning for the rest of the class.
Any thoughts/insight/ suggestions you might have would be most welcome. 
Summer blessings,
About Joe Paprocki 2228 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at

46 Comments on Another Plea for Help

  1. I well remember the childhood frustration of trying to learn while the teacher tolerated disruption. I won’t stand for it at all. I give 6th graders about 1.5 chances to not be disruptive. Then they are out of class to either sit in the DRE office, or sit in another class. They dislike both, and are no trouble when they come back. I will forego the possible catechizing of the disrupter in order to catechize everyone else. I won’t leave the 99 to chase that lost one; but in 8 years, every lost one has returned on his or her own.

  2. I have employed a three step discipline policy over the years: first step is correction in the classroom; second is a visit to the DRE, which usually ends with a handwritten letter of apology to the catechist including ‘what I did, why I know it disturbs the class/ hurts someone’s feelings and why I won’t do it again’ ; if ‘again’ happens, step three, in which the parent must accompany the student to class. For most (and I’ve only needed this a handful of times) the humiliation besides the parent’s backup, has meant acceptable behavior In short order. However, I did have one kid whose mom sat through all of sixth grade. He was fine in 7th and 8th, but it took a year for him to get the message.

    • Dear Christian,
      I am not sure that style will work when the catechist is young adult and female but it sound like a style that works for you. I would not advise my catechists to leave forego the ninety nine when I believe the bulk of the students want to learn and whose parents expect an environmennt that is conducivd for that learning. Students are occasionally sent down to my office where we have a heart to heart.

    • Dear Cathy,
      That has typically been my approach as well but in a few of these cases once the parent is no longernpresentnthe behavior issues re- emerge. That’s where I am getting stuck.
      Thank you,

  3. Dear Steve….you are truly blessed to have these children in your program…20 years in Catechetics…my findings….love them thru it Steve….they are so hungry…they need a firm look in the eye…a short sweet knock it off response to bad behavior …and then… give them a busy work task….bring em in early to set up the tables chairs….give them a lead position at prayer time…. dont worry you are not rewarding bad behavior…. you are feeding a great need that these youngsters have….and greet them with a handshake ..a hug….a “hey what’s up” smile….noone else loves these kids….but Jesus does….we are Catechists….we are Christ to them….my Sergio, Maria, Brandon…and others are my witnesses to loving them thru this….God Bless…and i wish you the best…..keep the Faith….practice the methods….s.

    • Dear Shirley,
      I resonate completely with your pastoral sensitivity however it is not the style of the catechists encountering the problems. I believe in some ways we are only as good as our weakest, yet well meaning, catechists. I will try to encourage them to place these particular students in positions to demonstrate more positive behavior. I am anxious to affirm positive behavior when and where exhibited.
      Thank you,

  4. You may have already tried these suggestions but I’ll put them out there in case you haven’t. Try contacting the parents, phone first and explain the situation to see if they have any ideas on how to deal with their child. Next ask the parent/parents if they’d be willing to come and meet with you and their child after a class so all of you can have a conversation on how the child’s behavior is affecting your class. Maybe this student is looking for attention or has some need he has to address. I’ve had disruption in my class and found this to be helpful. In fact after my initial call to the parent the child’s behavior was much improved, good luck.

    • Dear Fran,
      Yes I have called home and discussed the issues with parents
      And in a couple of cases it has worked for awhile, but has eventually returned.

  5. Dear Steve: I can hear the commitment to these kids in your message. without knowing the precise behaviors, it’s hard to say, but if the challenging children are not ADHD kids (and if they are, maybe the solution is related to their parents adjusting their meds) what has worked for us is to have (assuming you have one) your assistant catechist (or teen teaching aide, again if you have one) do one-on-one teaching in any class period where the problem gets out of hand. Our experience is there is usually one chief catalyst and isolating him or her for one-on-one instruction allows them to save face, and those who are in the main actor’s thrall to save face also. Your DRE will probably have some ideas too; maybe there is a group of students that needs to be “broken up” and have one or more transfer to another class (again, assuming you have multiple classes for your grade). We will pray for you (we pray for all catechists and their students and parents) and ask that you pray for us, too.

    • Dear Sam,
      That is the option I am discussing currently with the DRE. The difficulty lies in the fact that we offer three different time slots on both Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the issues with kids spans different time slots over the two days. Finding the right persons willing to work with the students might be our only option albeit a difficult one.
      Than you,

  6. Hi Steve… middle school boys!!! Soundslike you received some great advice in other posts. Are you able to make two classes and separate them?

    I support the three try approach… First I’d talk to the boys individually and ask if they are OK and you are wondering if they realize they are interfering with other kids’ learning? Chances are pretty good they aren’t thinking about how their behavior affects others and possibly bringing it to awareness will make a tiny step forward. On the second reminder, I ask catechists to send the kids to the office to visit with me. Catechists are intitally reluctant to do send the kids to the office, they want to handle the issues within the class. In catechist training I really encourage them to utilize my persuasive powers!!! I can’t have frustrated catechists or learners! I check in with the kids, explain how the catechists are volunteers who love God and his kids and have the young person identify what behavior was inappropriate. We discuss together what the options are for their continued learning… almost 100% of the time they ask if they can please return to class… which in itself offers a teachable moment about forgivenss. The third time involves talking to their parents and asking them to be part of the solution to create a meaningful learning environment for the class.

    Two years ago one of our 9th grade classes was really tough… individually the teens were awesome… but they mostly all knew each other from school and felt like they needed to keep up their school persona in religion class. As a group they were obnoxious. It took the catechist until March to agree to split the class up; I talked with the teens I was moving about their behavior and why they were being moved and they all agreed, reluctantly… In the short time that was left in the catechetical year… it was a good move for all involved.

    God’s blessings as you love these boys into God’s love. I agree with Shirley… they’ll probably grow up and return as catechists!

    • Dear Shirley,
      Thank you and I agree that with your strategy and approach. I agree that catechists generally are reluctant to send their students out of class because of the focus it puts on them and the student.
      I have found it helpful to speak with a parent and get them on board as an ally. In my more minor cases that has been succsessful. In the cases I refer too from last year the parents are not involved in the faith formation and are quick to point out that it is all they can do to just get them to attend.

  7. Many good suggestions above. One thing I can’t recommend enough is defining the lines they are not permitted to cross _before_ they cross them, and firmly enforcing them from the first cross. Disruptions due to inoffensive calling out, active participation should be forgivable – especially if you play games and do group exercises as I do. I make a list of rules (some of my device, some suggested by my class) on flipchart paper on the first night each year and rehang them every class; then when they break a rule, I just quietly walk over and point, and I’ve found classes pretty self-enforcing, of the rules after that.

    Speaking of quiet, if you have a disruptive element in class, simply growing silent and waiting for the room to come to silence with you is often useful – it promotes classroom self-policing and it takes all of the power away from the disruptor. When the room comes to silence try delivering a message like “I can’t make you listen to God’s word, but I won’t tolerate you preventing others hearing it from me.” Remember, it’s probably a rare case to have a genuinely aggressive child at this age, and they’re don’t want to impose themselves on each other, just to establish some control over their environment.

    Good luck!

    • …I love this one…yep, that definitely works….silence from the instructor can be louder than anything the kids can do…grabs their attention real quick! great responses here!

    • Dear David,
      I have a couple of catechists who use silence to effectively manage the classroom however I the case of a few classes the catechist is not a strong enough presence to manage that way. They are generally the parents of kids in the program who are well meaning but usually trying to stay one step ahead of the kids. I plan to bring up your strategy at our first in-service though.
      Thank you,

  8. This has worked for me at times. It’s worth a try, if you haven’t done so already. Keep the student(s) actively involved in the class. Try giving them small tasks during class, and praise them when they complete it. If more than one student, let them take turns, collecting papers, giving out the assignment etc. Will be praying for you. God Bless. Barbara M.

  9. My thought was that if having a parent in the room works, then continue to use that technique. One of my catechists had a class that had several students who were disruptive so I asked each parent of a student in that class to take a turn sitting in on the class. It did help. I love the ideas already given, especially giving these young people some leadership roles and asking them for help. Prayer, patience and perseverance. Good luck and God Bless,

    • Dear Mary,
      Not giving up searching for creative solutions to the problems. Part of the problem is that we off nothing for adult formation for parents, most of whom don’t even attend mass. I think if there were more formation/education for mom and dad, there would be a little more investment in the formation of their kids.

  10. Maureen writes:

    Steve, this is a problem we all encounter one time or another. Dealing with preteens/teens when they do not want to be there is a huge problem. I too have invited the parents in and the behavior seems to end; but like you, when they were not there the problem started again. A couple of ideas: Take the class yourself to see if it is a personality conflict with the catechist or is this the normal behavior of the teen. If it continues, I would ask to see the parents with the teen to determine is there a problem happening at home, and if that is not the cause, if there is a problem at school. This shows the teen you are concerned about him/her and that you only want what is best for him/her. If the school is also having an issue, then find out what the school is doing for behavior modification, and if possible follow suit. Another solution might be to see if you can have another adult in with the teens, as a behavior modifier. If the problem continues to exist, I would suggest that these teens be removed from the session and tutored one on one. Leaving them in the session will only frustrate the catechist and the other teens-making everyone’s life miserable. Good luck! Maureen

    Maureen Brennan

    St. John the Baptist Parish

    0S233 Church Street

    Winfield, IL 60190

    630-682-4400 X 612

  11. Bernardine writes:

    What specific behavior problems are they displaying? Perhaps they are only ‘looking for attention”. Is the behavior something that can be ignored? If not, it may be helpful to have the students who are misbehaving work on a special project. Then when the project is complete they will receive the attention (praise for a job well done, etc.) they want. Have several projects to work on available and let them choose the one they would like to do.


    • Dear Maureen,
      Your insights on right on target and reflects our overall strategy as well I believe. We have spoken with school counselors as well who have given us insight into the disruptive home lives of some of the kids in question. In one case the parent did not want to ‘dose’ their son again before class because he would have trouble sleeping at night. One of the biggest problem our parish faces is space to offer a separate classroom setting or add adults into the small rooms we use. The rooms can hold a Max of 12 students and adding another adult assistant has proven to problematic since we do not have traditional classrooms but smaller too s with sliding dividers.

    • Dear Bernadine,
      It is attention getting behavior and showing off that they are displaying..and in a couple of cases I have removed them to work on other things but I don’t believe it is a strategy that will work week in and week out. Ideally I want them to be a part of a small faith community that works together and grows together. In addition, trying to work up weeklynprojects just to accommodate these boys is extremely time consuming and teaching them that their behavior will get them special consideration.

  12. Kathleen writes:

    One suggestion is to try giving each student an opportunity to teach the others.
    For example, give a student a particular page or two, send it home, and give them 10 minutes during the next classtime, to get the point across. They can use the board, lecture, call on others to read, lead a discussion, etc. If they prepare, it’s surprising how upset they get when others don’t listen! Assign two or three for each time you meet.
    Also, offer a project where they are making a Video about a subject, to show
    their parents. Give them a time limit and they have to plan it all. Step back
    and give them advice only when asked. Tell them exactly when you will begin
    filming – whether they are ready or not – how do they want their parents to see
    them~ prepared or not prepared?
    Or, ask them to read the chapter, and then put together a simple Lesson plan for a 4th Grade Class and share it. Insist that everyone has an active roll that
    they will assign.
    God Bless!

  13. Charlene writes:

    Are there more than one of them?
    Is there one that is the ring leader?
    If so, it sounds like you may have a child that has special needs either physically or emotionally.
    Would it be possible for you to do a separate class for the child with the problem?
    Maybe individual one on one class would allow him/her to focus on what is troubling them?
    After a while of special focused attention maybe they would be willing to rejoin the class?

    • Dear Charlene,
      The problem students are in three different class periods and each one is able to influence at least one other to join in the variety of disruptions. Mostly they are talking out of turn and interrupting or one one case defiance
      Given the size of our program (650-700) and the limited classroom size and the continuous need for catechists, then to find separate catechists for them is a bit unrealistic for us. I appreciate your feedback,
      Thank you,

  14. Bev writes:

    Joe and Steve, I understand your situation. Sometimes about all we can do is try to re-direct those kids’ attention to the subject – over and over and over… But, I have found that most of the disruptive kids need something more tactile in my lesson so they can be “doing” as they are listening. I’ve given them doodle sheets to make prayer doodles (beginning with one word you’d like to emphasize during that session written in the middle of the paper). They add their own scribbles, colors, cartoon characters, other (appropriate) words, etc. Maybe these are the students who would enjoy setting up your prayer table or decorating the large table for your session. I use battery operated candles for safety so they can do lots of lights. Maybe you can find some acceptable games that will work inside and allow them to move a bit. A beach ball with questions, words from the Bible, etc that relate to multiple lesson plans can be safe and fun inside. The person who catches the ball has to answer the question closest to his thumb……
    Patience is a difficult thing to hang onto when your classroom is chaotic but pray a lot and many blessings to you for trying so hard! Bev

    • Dear Bev,
      Thank you for the input. The youth I am experiencing the trouble with are disinterested and disengaged regardless of where they are whether it is school or church and from what I am hearing from other classmates, they are no different in school. I wonder at some point if the pastor or associate needs to step in.

  15. Steve,
    How well I remember theses (small) problems. I the beginning of the year I have a form that is fillked out by the student and the parent. Ofcourse discipline is on it and how to act in class. Also Bible study, and the gospel readings, how we should carry out the gospel during the week, ect.
    They receive two copies, one to stay at home in plain sight and one that comes back to me and is filed. Now both the student and the parent has made a commintment for the year. And I do bring it out when the occation arrises. But I talk to them first and formost about the commint that they are making. That it is their choice to made. I can not force them to make that and once they do I expect them to keep it for the time that they are in my class.

    • Dear Sandy,
      I like the idea of a contract at the beginning of the year with students and parent. At least there is somethingntangible to fall back on that both have agreed to and both signed of on.
      Thank you very much.

  16. Is the problem boredom ADD hyperactivity, medication, a divorce in the household ???I had a child in first grade with huge hyperactive problems and coughed all through class with a little probing I found out from the mom that the child had taken cough medicine before each class and it was making him very hyper, and he used to get in trouble . He stopped taking the cough medicine & used cough drops before class, he was a totally different child . I got to use my pharmacy and speech pathology and background and the holy spirit. there are so many reasons. sometimes things are not black and white is my point. More training in this area is needed to trouble shoot behaviors. These kids are faced with so many problems, We need to speak their language and keep things respectful.In the fall and summer if its nice out Play a 10 min baseball game kickball get connected with them get there energy out!, Keep them focused interested engaged and ask them what kind of things they would be interested in and how to integrate Jesus Scriptures into the 21st century everday problems of these kids, (drugs, alcohol, sex, bullying divorce). bottom line we need to speak in a language they understand to bridge faith into their life. Jesus came down on this earth on our level as a child and spoke our language we need to do the same for our youth or find professional faith speakers to reach them.
    God Bless,

    • Dear Grace,
      I appreciate the need for some diversity within the lesson and the need on occasion to do something less formal but fun and engaging. I will encourage my teachers to consider that option.
      Many thanks,

  17. Try first to handle it within the classroom by searching for the reason behind the negative disruption: attention seeking, anger, hurt, need for control or power, boredom, ADD. There is a website www/ that might give suggestions. When the group gets restless or off track I have used a chime to gain their attention. I use group activities focused on the materials rather than on a teacher focused approach. The dynamic of each group of young people is different. Careful preparation and reflection after lesson presentation can determine what works with your particular group. True catechesis is not about the academic part or covering a certain part of the lesson. Remember that Jesus is in the room with you, has called you to this ministry, and will provide the grace that you need. It is good to establish rules based on the teachings of Jesus especially those that call for respect for others.

    • Dear Jan,
      I believe the problem in at least one of the classes is ADHD related along with a general apathy that is allowed to influence other students. Thank you for the website suggestion I will check it out and steer my teachers toward it.

  18. Hi Steve,

    A way that I find can help is to give these kids some leadership roles in the class. Perhaps have the catechist pull them aside and tell them he/she would like them to be a part of a team of leaders for the class. Ask them to help develop some ground rules for the class and then give them some tasks to do that will help the class run more smoothly – attendance taking; passing out books and materials, etc., leading prayer, etc. They may have some ideas as well.

    Using all the discipline strategies above plus tapping into their leadership and ideas may help the whole class to have a better time and learn more.

  19. Derlene writes:


    I do not know if this is possible or not…. mostly because of space issues we face as a PSR program.

    Our 8th grade meets in meeting rooms instead of classrooms. They all sit around a table ~ more like a discussion atmosphere. They still work on projects, etc. I had no discipline problems last year with my 8th grade. The catechists liked it and parents appreciate that I am promoting a more mature discussion atmosphere for our soon-to-be adult members.

    As far as the rest of the grades, I go into every class at the beginning of the year and explain that respect is expected on both the part of the student as well as the catechist. If they are asked to leave the classroom, the student comes and “visits” me..sometimes it is just what they need – someone to offer some love as well as someone who is (one-on-one) sincerely concerned about them and their relationship with the community and Church. If they “visit” me again, parents are contacted and a plan of action is put into place before they can come back into the classroom. It has worked really well. My personality is very joyful; however, when I speak to the students as a diciplinarian they hear the firm “I am serious about this” in my voice.

    Hope it helps!

    • Derline,
      I appreciate your pastoral style and resolute approach especially with the parent over the phone when the student is present. The respect talk is a must for our program too however if the catechist’s teaching style is a less engaging one it lends itself to potential acting out. I one case I believe it is the weakness of the catechist to insist upon the respect.
      Thank you,

  20. Patricia writes:

    I had the same problem with a particular fifth grade, while the prior three years I did not have that much problem.

    The children come in as a social group from public school. I tell them that I expect them to be mature fifth graders, because I always teach fifth graders.

    Apparently, they thought that they were cool fun, but the suggestion that they were falling short of their age group got their attention.

    The child who saw himself as the leader, came down with a stomach virus at the end of the school. After that he was uniquely excellant in his behaviour, only to come down with bronchitis for the last class. With much prayer and psychological management, I worked to communicate the importance of their relationship with God. Every year, the parish priests give the Sacrament of Penance to the children during Lent, which helped a great deal.

    I used books with pictures of the Holy Land so as to make Scripture and the life of Jesus take on reality for the children. I usually pulled the books out to get their attention.

    I wish you blessings in your tending of God’s vineyard.

    Patricia Russo

    • Patricia,
      Thank you. I think seizing the moment as a prayerful opportunity works to connect to what was happening in the life of the student.

  21. Truly Unique Chart for Discipline

    10 to 1 Conduct Chart. It works for all grades.
    Your chart looks like an attendance sheet with the dates of your classes across the top and down the side the names of your students.

    Each week every student begins with a “10”. Every week the Catechist either writes on the board or gives a verbal reminder that the 10 to 1 chart is in effect.

    The “10” for each student is put on the sheet in PENCIL. As the class is being taught and a student is disrespectful or disruptive the Catechist says, “_____________ (student’s name) because you just _______________ (name misbehavior) you have now dropped to a “9”. The “10” for that student is erased and a “9” is written in.

    If the disrespect continues, again the Catechist names the student and the misbehavior and says, “You now have an “8”. The Catechist changes the “9” to an “8”. If a student reaches a “7” the parents are called or emailed.

    As the following week comes around, every student begins again with a “10”.
    The great part about this is that we now have an objective way to give a Conduct grade.

    The number of times a reduction occurs can be adjusted by the Catechist depending upon the grade.

    Parents are emailed How the 10 to 1 Conduct Chart works. The students are explained How it works on the first days of class.

    This ONLY WORKS if the Catechist is consistent with it.

    • Dear Donna,
      Thank you for the input and sharing of the steps. My only concern is a catechist keeping accurate track during the class without compromizing the flow of the lesson plan. Have you found that to be a problem?

  22. Steve,
    As I’m reading all of the wonderful suggestions and ideas, I am wondering how your catechists feel about the kids that are giving them a run for their money. My volunteers invariably have difficulties with some of the kids, but the factor that helps invariably is the relationship the catechist has with the kid. We are all called into His service, and we are blessed to have volunteers who have answered His call. However, we all have our own idea of what “bad behavior” looks like, and our own hot buttons for what gets on our nerves. The kids aren’t going to listen to the catechist if they don’t feel that the reason the catechist came into the classroom is to minister TO THEM. Building trust and a true loving relationship is so hard when the person we’re trying to care for gets on our last nerves! I suggest that you sit down with the catechists first and pray with them! Ask them about how they feel called to the ministry, and how perhaps they could put a spin on their perception of the kids. It won’t change the behavior overnight, but by changing the relationship, you have a much better chance that the kids understand that even with their flaws, they are loved! Isn’t that what we are teaching, anyway? Sorry it’s not the bandaid, but it’s definitely the antibiotic:)
    In His grip,

  23. Steve, you’ve received many great suggestions. In skimming them, and your responses, I’m not sure if someone’s mentioned this: Move the kids to a class with a stronger, more experienced catechist. It will probably mean moving them up or down a grade (or more — if down, have the student be an “assistant” or “mentor”), or re-organizing so that you have two mixed-grade classes rather than two classes at separate grades. But you’ve got to put the kids in a class with a catechist who has the experience and skills to deal with the challenge.

    You mention several issues (medication, family life, etc.) that suggest these are just going to be difficult situations for the catechist to work with. It may be that when you find a catechist who clicks with a particular troubled student, that it’s worth keeping the pair together over several years, by building some flexibility into scheduling and course requirements. Ultimately a good mentoring relationship may be more beneficial for these students than sticking to any particular curriculum checklist.


  24. Patricia writes:

    I had the same problem with a particular fifth grade, while the prior three years I did not have that much problem.
    The children come in as a social group from public school. I tell them that I expect them to be mature fifth graders, because I always teach fifth graders.

    Apparently, they thought that they were cool fun, but the suggestion that they were falling short of their age group got their attention.
    The child who saw himself as the leader, came down with a stomach virus at the end of the school. After that he was uniquely excellant in his behaviour, only to come down with bronchitis for the last class. With much prayer and psychological management, I worked to communicate the importance of their relationship with God. Every year, the parish priests give the Sacrament of Penance to the children during Lent, which helped a great deal.
    I used books with pictures of the Holy Land so as to make Scripture and the life of Jesus take on reality for the children. I usually pulled the books out to get their attention.
    I wish you blessings in your tending of God’s vineyard.
    Patricia Russo

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