For catechists few things are more satisfying than a lively discussion. But how do you get one started? Even grown-ups will oftentimes sit and stare at their feet when their participation in a group is called upon. Children are typically more inhibited than adults when it comes to speaking in groups because of peer pressure and fear of social blunder. While expressing ideas in a group might be intimidating to many, you can improve your group’s discussions by setting the pace and managing group dynamics to encourage the widest possible participation. Here are some principles to consider.
1. Create a safe environment.
Children (and adults) need to know that discussions have their own set of rules. While not bound to the usual question-and-reply format of most classroom dialogue, group discussion is not a free-for-all. Respect for the contributions and opinions of others is essential. Everyone has a unique perspective to share, and no one’s ideas should be disregarded.
2. Start with the children’s own experiences.
Build a bridge between the content you’re presenting and the children’s personal experiences. For example, if the session is about the Eucharist, ask the children to recall their experiences of receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
3. Ask open-ended questions.
Any question that can be answered yes or no is a conversation stopper, as every parent knows. For example, instead of asking “Did you like that movie?” ask instead “What did you like about that movie? What did you dislike?”
4. Accept all answers.
No answers are wrong. Admittedly, some responses that children give may seem way off base. Even so, affirm each child for making an attempt and ask someone else to “help” as you try to get even closer to the answer you’re looking for.
5. Offer several approaches.
All of us have different ways of hearing and perceiving ideas. A direct question will readily appeal to some members of the group. Others will react more enthusiastically to a picture or symbol on the board, a piece of music, or a story starter that they are invited to finish.
6. Make eye contact with everyone in the room.
It’s easy to stay connected to the most engaged and attentive children, but it is important to make a regular visual sweep around the room, interacting especially with silent, shy, and unresponsive children. Because of cultural influences, some children will need a signal from you that it’s okay to speak. A nod or a smile from you may get them to join in.
7. Be a fearless leader.
Some people don’t know when to stop talking. Your responsibility to interrupt such people can be thought of as a kindness rendered. Retire talkers who go on too long by assuring them that the group has heard them and by inviting them to give others a turn.
8. Write things in full view.
Some members of the group may lose the thread of a conversation after a while and need some visual support. When key words or new ideas are introduced in the discussion, write them on a board or easel pad for the reflective members of the group to contemplate.
9. Prepare additional points to pursue.
A discussion of even the best topics may run out of steam after a few minutes. Make sure you have more than one way to begin or sustain the discussion. If you prepare several key ideas, you can offer one at a time when the conversation lags.
10. Affirm and thank the participants.
Make sure that all those who participate in the discussion are verbally affirmed for sharing. One way to do this is to thank or praise them individually. Another is simply to repeat for emphasis the key points they made and to assure that they have been heard. At the end of a lively discussion, thank everyone for doing a good job of exploring the issue.