I began my position as the director of faith formation at my parish with dreams of renewing my students’ and their families’ relationships with Christ. I imagined how I was going to be the best catechist to my students. I would create engaging lesson plans, I would lead reflective retreats, and I would assist at Masses that inspired people’s faith. What I didn’t imagine were other important—but not as romantic—elements of a faith formation program for which I would also be responsible, such as the safety curriculum. This part of the program both intimidated and terrified me.
I work in the Archdiocese of Boston, where it is required (as it is in many other dioceses across the country) that students are taught safety topics ranging from bike safety to sexual abuse prevention. I had some experience teaching the safety curriculum as a catechist in another diocese, but I was at a loss for where to start when it came to implementing these important lessons into my faith formation program. My first weeks in the office were filled with semi-panicked phone calls to other local directors who graciously allowed me to pick their brains about their own safety programs. I quickly realized that no two parishes seemed to handle the safety program the same way.
Evaluating a Safety Program: Two Things to Consider
The Archdiocese of Boston has vetted certain programs for parishes to use with different age groups. Two of the programs are very popular and used at most of the parishes around the Archdiocese. These programs are easy to use and include images, talking points, lesson plans, and everything you need for the lesson.
As I evaluated which safety program to use, I found that I had to consider two things: the frequency in which the safety programs were taught and who served as the main presenter of the safety program.
The Archdiocese of Boston recommends that safety lessons be taught three times a year. This reinforces important concepts and allows the safety rules to build on one another. Some parishes present a little bit of the curriculum each week at the start or close of classes. Others strictly follow the guidelines and have three dedicated classes. I found that most parishes only have time to present the material in one packed session.
The greatest variation among the safety programs I reviewed was in who served as the main presenter. In some parishes the DRE takes on the task of teaching the safety lessons to all students in the program. In others the catechists do the leg work. Most parishes seem to use a combination of these two approaches. A small percentage of parishes hire a guest speaker to do all of the teaching, but a fair number will hire a social worker or nurse to assist in teaching certain topics.
Confused? I certainly was. I was so overwhelmed by the options that I hired an amazing Catholic social worker to teach my students. If this isn’t a possibility for you, or if you are a new DRE or catechist who will be teaching the safety program for the first time, I have collected a few tips to help you integrate a safety curriculum into your faith formation program.
Integrating a Safety Curriculum
If you are a director:
- Start at the beginning. Incorporate the safety classes into your calendar from the start of the year. You don’t want them to become an afterthought. Include meetings with your catechists, and introduce them to any materials that they will be responsible for teaching. Also schedule a time for you to meet separately with parents to preview the lessons. Continue to market the program throughout the year, as families are more inclined to have discussions about safety if they are regularly reminded of the importance of the topics.
- Consider your strengths. When determining what kind of program will work best for your parish, consider the strengths and weaknesses of your catechists. Look through the materials and see if you would want your catechists to teach the material or if you would be more comfortable in teaching the material yourself. Ask other parishes or your diocesan leaders if they have suggestions of people you could hire if you are looking to bring in a guest speaker for the program.
- Be open with parents. Make sure parents are aware of the content you will be teaching as part of the safety program. Parents get nervous about other people talking to their children about sensitive topics. They like to know what materials will be covered and how they will be explained to their children. A parent preview of the safety class is a great way to assuage the fears of hesitant parents.
- Empower families. Provide parents with a summary of what was covered in the safety class so they can continue discussions about safety at home. Not only will parents know what was taught, but they will be able to pick up the conversation where it ended in class. Some of the directors I have spoken with send home additional questions or sample scenarios that parents can talk through with their children, which has been popular with families.
- Familiarize yourself. Know the organizations and people who you will need to call if a student discloses something concerning during the safety program presentations. You will hopefully never have to make a phone call to your state’s department that is concerned with child welfare, but you will be grateful that you have the information on hand if you do.
If you are a catechist:
- Set aside your fears. Teaching the safety lesson can be scary, especially if you have never done it before. One local DRE frequently reminds her catechists that children have different fears about safety than adults. Children are very concrete and are usually most interested in learning what the safety rules are and the consequences for breaking them.
- Be comfortable. Know the content of the lesson thoroughly. Plan on setting aside twice as much time as you usually take to plan a class. Arrange to borrow from or visit the faith formation office to familiarize yourself with the pictures, videos, lesson cards, and other materials that you will be using during the class. Be sure to ask the DRE if you have any questions about the lesson.
- Anticipate questions and reactions. Once you are familiar with the content, take some time to anticipate some of the questions or reactions that your students may have. Will you present something that could evoke memories or negative feelings, or touch upon mature content that students may not understand? Planning for these uncomfortable surprises can help diffuse situations before they become problems.
God loves all our students as his own children and wants nothing more than for them to be safe. The safety program may not seem to fall under the auspices of faith formation, but it is vital that we continue to empower our youth to recognize unsafe situations and know how to avoid and escape from them. As catechists, it is our job to help our students know how loved they are, and to recognize when they are not being loved as they should be. I have grown much more appreciative (and less terrified) of the safety curriculum since I started at my parish; I now understand how important it is to our ministry. All students will benefit from your message, and they will grow in understanding of God’s love for them, which is what I pray will happen regardless of the topic we are covering.