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Church School Seminar

Special Needs, Small Classrooms, and One-Room Classrooms


Formal Learning


Note: Below, are the main topics I covered in a recent series of church school seminars.  However, it does not include any of my personal stories or any of the question/answer discussions.

History of the Current Sunday School Model

In the 1700’s, England passed a child labor law that stated children were no longer allowed to work on Sundays.  This became a huge problem in the poorer areas of town where children were roaming free in the streets and getting into mischief as they played all day long without parental supervision, since their parents still had to work. Robert Raikes created the commonly known Sunday School of today in order to get these children off the streets, provided them the opportunity to learn the Bible, and also gave them a small meal.  This idea grew in popularity and was eventually brought over to the States.

Since at least the late 1940’s, a great number of Orthodox communities in the United States decided to follow this same approach of providing formal religious classes to our children on Sunday. After World War II, there were a great many Orthodox Christians in the United States who no longer identified themselves chiefly from their family’s country of origin but rather as Americans because they had fought in the wars for this country, spoke English, and identified themselves as part of the American culture. The majority of the parishes during this time did not have services in English and parents became increasingly concerned that their children were not learning their faith because they could not understand the services. Thus, it became quite popular to copy the American model of Sunday School and held it during or after Liturgy on Sunday mornings.

The modern Sunday School model is not the traditional approach to education in the Church’s past. So what is an Orthodox Chrisitan approach to education?

Resources Used:

  • “Experiences in Orthodox Religious Education: The North American Experience” by Dr. Constance Tarasar
  • “The Road to Orthodox Phronema” by Fr. George Nicozisin
  • “The Rise and Progress of Sunday Schools” by John Carroll Power

What is an Orthodox Approach to Education?

An Overview
  • Worship, Formal Learning, Praxis (synergistically together)
  • Modeled within the Little Church and parish community
  • Multi-Sensory: Divine Liturgy as an example
  • First I do, then I learn about what I did
  • Formational, not informational
  • Personal and learned within a community
  • Always pointing to God
  • Lived!

Experience before understanding, participation before explanation, is advocated as the way of catechesis in the Church. – Anton Vrame


For generally the children acquire the character of their parents, are formed in the mold of their parents’ temperament, love the same things their parents love, talk in the same fashion, and work for the same ends. – St. John Chrysostom


…Liturgical catechesis is not just an interesting custom of the ancient Church, but the traditional method of religious education… – Fr. Alexander Schmemann


Thus the first part of our Divine Liturgy is still called “Liturgy of the Catechumens,” and this is not merely because catechumens were allowed to attend it, but primarily because it was and still is a teaching service… – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Teacher Preparation

Adult Education

Quotes from the Presentation Slides:

“The image of the adult Christian is formed in the child’s mind by what he sees and hears adults doing.”  – John Boojamra, Foundations for Christian Education

“You can teach only that which you have made your own, and this means that there is always the danger that your personal mistaken judgment of insufficient knowledge will be reflected in your teaching.” – Sophie Koulomzin, Our Church and Our Children

“We cannot teach what we do not practice ourselves.” – Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Liturgy and Life: Christian Development Through Liturgical Experience

“Returning to her statement “you can teach only that which you have made your own, ” it is worth drawing out the book’s overarching invitation for adults to know their faith so that they may convey it to children.  Contemporary religious educators have intently focused on the fact that without great adult education, there is little hope for the great education of children!”  – Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides, Foreward from Our Church and Our Children



Learning Styles

The Divine Liturgy offers us an example of the teaching method we can incorporate with our students by using our five senses.  During the Liturgy, our entire person is engaged in worship – we hear the hymns, we smell the incense, we see the icons, we touch our forehead, shoulders, and chest as we make the sign of the cross, and we taste the Holy Eucharist.  As we plan and create our lessons and activities, it’s important to remember to engage as many of your children’s senses as possible.  Not only will they retain more this way, but they will also be more attentive.

Lesson Plan Template: Worship, Formal Learning, and Praxis

Worship: attending and participation in the services

Formal Learning:  expanding our knowledge about Christ

Praxis: (from OrthodoxWiki) is the customary use of knowledge or skills, distinct from theoretical knowledge. The term is used in Orthodox theology to refer to the practice of the faith, especially to worship.

I wanted to equip teachers, parents, godparents, grandparents, and clergy with a framework to create their own lessons beyond just the six examples I provided in my presentation.  The model of incorporating worship, formal learning, and praxis comes directly from Dr. Constance Tarasar’s doctoral dissertation, A Process Model for the Design of Curriculum for Orthodox Christian Religious Education.


In our lives, the three places we learn about God are when we go to church (worship), when we attend a class in one form or another (church school, Bible Study, retreats, etc), and in our daily life (praxis).  We cannot compartmentalize being a Christian, therefore, we are called to live our faith every single day wherever we are at.  As we develop our lesson plans, it’s important to help make these connections for our children – that, “Orthodox life is a seamless garment, every aspect is connected to every other aspect.”  (Sister Magdalen)

Special Needs

This presentation is over an hour long and highly worth the time to watch it!  However, if you can only watch a couple of minutes of the video, please fast forward to 1:19:27 for an important message for all of us about special needs children in our parishes.


Belonging and Special Needs:

Everyone has a need to belong. In fact, the psychologist Abraham Maslow included “Belonging and Love” in his list of basic needs.

Dr. John Boojamra stated in his book, “Foundations for Christian Education”, “None of us stands alone before God; we are all part of the body, the Church. The experience of being part of a community belongs to the essence of spiritual growth. The infant or child deprived of the experience of belonging to a close, organized ‘family’ unit is significantly handicapped. Doing something together at home or in the liturgy is extremely important, and all the traditions and celebrations go a long way toward establishing this sense of belonging. Children need a sense of belonging, accomplishment, and acceptance in the process of developing a sense of self-worth as a basis for faith…He (Dr. Saul Levine) suggests that belief and belonging are one step above the physical needs of people, but no less vital for functioning, competence, and adaptation.”

It’s important not only for a special needs child to feel they belong to the parish community but it is also important for the parents of a special needs child. Both the parents and the child can often times feel isolated and alone. Most of the time, it takes minimal effort on our part that will allow a child with special needs to participate along with their peers.

*I only talked about special needs that I, myself, have experience with either through teaching, with friends or family, or my own children.  There are most assuredly more special needs than what I listed below.

Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away… because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But… if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurobehavioral disorder that is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development

Helpful Tips:

  • Provide fidget items: They need to be able to move some part of their body in order to pay attention.  For during church, teach them how to use a prayer rope.  For during class, provide a kneaded artist eraser they can pull apart and roll back into a ball.
  • Timeline of events: Attention span is minimal and they need to know, in their mind, that this lesson will not take forever.  They will also will be able to pay attention longer if they know what comes next.  This can be written on the chalkboard, a poster board, index cards taped to the wall, or any other number of ways.
  • All the child to stand at their seat or stand behind other students as long as they are not being disruptive

Disorder involving brain development which is characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulty in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors

Helpful Tips:



Central Auditory Processing Disorder

difficulty comprehending the words they hear or who have problems with listening

Helpful Tips:

  • Repeat directions, if necessary
  • Provide both written and oral directions
  • Ask them to repeat directions back to you for clarification, when needed

It is often thought of as a reading disorder but it’s more of a different way of thinking.  People who are labeled with dyslexia think better in pictures rather than in written word.

Helpful Tips:

  • Provide many visuals, regardless of age
  • An excellent, excellent book on the topic is “The Gift of Dyslexia” by Ronald Davis
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

is a medical diagnosis for a set of physical and cognitive (learning and other behavioral) symptoms for prenatal exposure to alcohol during pregnancy

Helpful Tips:

  • Repeat directions, if necessary
  • Provide both written and oral directions
  • Provide written reminders if you’ve asked them to bring something for next Sunday (also email or text the parents because it might not make it to them)
  • Ask them to repeat directions back to you for clarification, when needed
  • Remind them of previous lessons if the next lesson builds upon it (memory retention is extremely difficult for them as well as being able to make connections between situations)
  • Do not use reward systems
  • An excellent book on the topic is “Trying Differently Rather Than Harder: Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders” by Diane Malbin
Food Sensitivities & Allergies

Sharing a meal together is an integral way of showing belonging and community.  Whenever possible, provide a snack or meal of equal substance for the child with food sensitivities or allergies.

For example, Don’t: Invite all the kids in the youth group for a pizza party and provide fruit as the allergy friendly alternative.  Do: Talk to the parents and verify what foods the child cannot have.  Most grocery stores will have allergy friendly frozen pizzas that you can heat up for the child.

Most people with food allergies are used to bringing their own food with them but nothing says “you belong to us” or “you’re important to us” like providing something they can eat too so they can be a part of the group.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

It is a disorder caused by a lack of attachment to any specific caregiver at an early age, and results in an inability for the child to form normal, loving relationships with others

Helpful Tips:

  • If a child was recently placed in the home of a family at your parish, either from foster care or through adoption, allow the parents time for bonding with their new child.
  • If their child has RADS due to their life before their current home, then the child will likely start parent shopping after the honeymoon period has worn off with their current family, regardless if this is their forever family.  It’s their way of coping with losing their birth parents – they don’t attach in order to protect themselves from losing another parent – thus they look for a person that is never going to tell them no.  Once the parents start consistently not letting them have everything they want, well then…it’s time to find someone who will say yes then.  If the child asks you for a drink, food, or to take them to the bathroom, please guide them to their parents.  This child needs to learn that they need to go to their parents for their basic needs instead of a stranger, teacher, friend, or anyone else – because they WILL go to strangers and ask them.
  • Be willing to talk to the caregiver/parent privately about any non-acceptable behavior in class.  Ask them for ideas on how to deal with it.
  • An excellent book on the topic is “Parenting Other People’s Children: Understanding and Repairing Reactive Attachment Disorder” by John Stoller
Sensory Processing Disorder

refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavior responses

Helpful Tips:

  • Unique to each child, talk to their parents to learn more specifics (Is the child’s hearing, sight, sense of touch, etc more sensitive than normal?  How so?)
  • A child with extra sensitive hearing would benefit from noise canceling headphones
  • When a child is overwhelmed by too much stimulus, prepare a plan ahead of time with the parent as to how the child can take a break before the situation becomes overwhelming
  • Weighted animals for lap, vests, etc.

Small Classrooms

Early Elementary: Censer

The lesson plan outline and instructions for the censer craft are available here, in a previous post.


Upper Elementary/Middle School: Saints of North America (St. Herman)

Coming Soon!

High School: Book Discussions (The Magician's Nephew & The Hunger Games)

During the presentation, I offered a compare and contrast of The Magician’s Nephew and The Hunger Games for a potential series of lessons with high school students.  In The Magician’s Nephew, you have a world where God is central to it’s existence and creation whereas in The Hunger Games, the society is devoid of God and the ramifications of such a choice.

*Talk to your parish priest first about having specific book discussions with your students especially with intense topics such as those in The Hunger Games.  The goal with these discussions is to discuss the story from an Orthodox viewpoint and equip them with the tools to discuss these pop culture books with their peers when the occasion arises.

One-Room Classrooms

Name Day Study: Icon Timeline

The lesson and additional activities are available here, in a previous post.


Our Parish Study: Church and Community

This can be done with any size church school program, whether it is one single class of children or multiple.  The point of these activities is to learn more about the children’s home parish and their community.

My Home Parish:

  • Who is my parish priest?  Why did he decide to go to seminary in order to be ordained a priest?  (There’s probably an interesting story behind his decision.  Why not ask and see what he says?)
  • What are the different parts of our church called? (narthex, nave, altar)  Let’s learn more about them.
  • What icons do we have in our parish?  (Learn about the specific icons in your parish and how to read them.)
  • Create a Liturgy book for children by taking photos of your parish priest, altar boys, chanters, and choir during the service and explain what is happening during the different parts of the Divine Liturgy

My Community:

  • Learn to make prosphora from the masters at our parish
  • Learn to make kollyva from the masters at our parish
  • Talk to the elders in the community and learn about their stories of why they (or their parents/grandparents) came to the United States from their country of origin.  Many times there are fascinating stories behind why they moved here.

“Orthodox life is a seamless garment, every aspect is connected to every other aspect.”

– Sister Magdalen