Last fall, Joe Paprocki provided 20 tips for catechists. The ninth tip stuck with me: as catechists, we are not teaching a subject, but we are facilitating an encounter with Jesus. All of us encounter Jesus in different ways on any given day, and our students are no different. Offering a variety of prayer experiences for children can open up new ways for Christ to work in their lives.
When I’m praying with my first-grade students, I know that their attention span will be limited, so I like to vary the way we pray each week. Some weeks we pray for particular intentions; other weeks we pray a litany of saints or a decade of the Rosary. Some weeks we sing, and some weeks we don’t even speak. The following tips have helped me pray with children.
Consistency is helpful with younger children. Cues like moving to a prayer corner, dimming the lights, or playing soft music signal that something important is happening. I use the same words each week, telling my students it’s time to “be still and silent.” Another catechist has her students pat their laps three times as a reminder to keep their hands in their laps.
When we pray, my class sits in a circle on a carpet, and it’s tempting to lie down. I remind the children we want to have our “prayer posture”—another cue that helps students know that something important is about to happen. We sit upright and are attentive. I want the children to understand that this is also how they should behave during Mass. (I also let them know that sometimes it’s okay to lie down and pray, such as at bedtime; this encourages them to pray before they go to sleep.) I also let them know how we’ll be praying that day—whether we’ll be praying for intentions or a decade of the Rosary, for example—because there are some students who may need a minute or two to process.
Change the tone.
Our class is fairly active, so once we’re in the prayer circle, the tone changes. My voice is softer. Sometimes I just sit and say nothing until the children all follow suit (which they always do). I used to ask them to breathe in and out, but they’re first-graders, and there always seem to be those few who make it a joke. So I changed it to a breath prayer. I ask them to breathe in and silently pray, “Here I am, Lord.” I change it up depending on the season. During Advent, it was, “Oh, Lord Jesus, come.”
Involve their hands.
Sitting still for prayer might not work for everyone on every day. I change it up with prayer activities that use their hands, such as praying Pope Francis’s “Five Finger Prayer”: the thumb reminds us to pray for the ones we love, the forefinger reminds us to pray for our teachers, the middle finger reminds us to pray for our leaders, the ring finger reminds us to pray for the sick and vulnerable, and the pinky reminds us to pray for ourselves. I also teach my students easy words in sign language when we learn about the Holy Family so they can sign their thanks for family members. It’s always novel to have a prayer circle that’s completely silent. Using Loyola Press’ Jesus the Teacher Plush Figure keeps everyone’s attention, since they know they’ll have a turn holding it.
The best way to teach prayer to our students is to pray with our students. When we pray with them, we facilitate an encounter with Jesus, helping them recognize how he is at work in their lives.
How do you pray with your students? How do you facilitate their encounters with Jesus?
Another way I like to pray with my first grade class is to have them write or draw their prayers. This works well with things they are thankful for, people they want to pray for, or even just a picture to go with a Bible story. I also try and take them over to the Church to pray sometimes (especially because I know a lot of them don’t actually go to Mass).
Thank you so much for this article and ideas! I’ve tried a couple different approaches, and I couldn’t seem to get my first-graders to settle down and focus on praying. And as a retired teacher, it’s been frustrating! But I plan to try the tips in this article. I really want my littles to learn a bit about praying, and to guide them into (hopefully!) being a bit more involved in class.