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Sunday school teacher manual

Section One: Goals and Visions
Section Two: Teaching
Section Three: Safety and Behavior Concerns
Section Four: Games and Inspiration

I originally published this manual on the Web for First Church, Unitarian, Athol, Massachusetts, in 2002. Since then I have revised it several times, and I continue to revise it at least annually. Your suggestions for revisions will be gratefully received via email: danrharper AT aol DOT com.

The material on this page only includes material adapted from a Sunday school manual collected by Rev. Emily Leite dating from 1993 (and probably containing materials going back to Linda Landau Moss), and it includes material gotten from many other religious educators in Mass Bay District and elsewhere from 1994-2003. However, I wrote the majority of the material while working at Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, First Parish in Lexington, Mass., First Church Unitarian in Athol, Mass., and First Parish of Watertown, Mass.

You should consider material on this page to be in the public domain, and you should feel free to modify it to suit your congregation. If you would like to give attribution, you could say, "Adapted from public domain material by Dan Harper and Mass. Bay religious educators from 1975-2003."

Section One: Goals and Visions

Who we are at First Unitarian

At First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, we value our differences of age, gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology. We have come together to transform our lives, and together we promote practical goodness in the world; we are bound together, not by some creed or dogma, but by our implicit covenant to seek together after truth and goodness. All those who feel themselves in harmony with this search are welcome in our congregation.

Goals and objectives for our Sunday school

Our educational goals (these are goals we hold which may be hard to measure):

Our educational objectives (objectives are the things we can measure each year):

Excerpts from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association

ARTICLE II Principles and Purposes

Section C-2.1. Principles. We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination. The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

The vision of a well-balanced young people's program

What kinds of activities and opportunities might a well-balanced congregation provide? One model, suggested by the UUA's religious education department, suggests a well-balanced congregation would include five basic components:

Applying this model to the Sunday school suggests that Sunday school could have a broader range of activities and opportunities than we usually consider. Even though learning would probably remain the most important component, the model suggests that other kinds of activities need to be included. If we reword things slightly, here are five basic components of a well-balanced Sunday school (with specific examples in parentheses):

If you look at adult programs, you'll find we adults are careful to plan these five components into our congregational life. Adult RE, Sunday morning worship, committees, social action projects, social events -- all are a part of adult congregational life, and all are just as important for young people as for adults.

Section Two: Teaching

Preparing to teach

Here's a suggested schedule for planning ahead and lowering stress:

On the preceding Sunday:

The Wednesday evening before you teach:

On the Sunday you teach:

Back-up activities:

Sometimes even the most experienced teachers find that the session they had planned just doesn't work out. No one knows why this happens -- maybe it's something in the water supply, or Mars is retrograde, or all the children had two servings of Honey-Dipped Chocolate Sugar Bombs for breakfast -- whatever the cause, even the best teachers find have session plans that don't work out. But the best teachers always have a back-up activity ready to go in case the main session fails. Here are some suggestions for back-up activities:

Sample session plan

Here's a sample session plan I might use when I teach a Sunday school class. This sample session plan can serve as an example if you need to adapt an existing session plan, or when you wish to create a session on a topic not included in the printed curriculum. My session plans almost always center around a story, with activities added to reinforce that story in the children's memories.

Here's a blank session plan form for you to use.

Zero/ Setting the stage

Have something to immediately engage the children's attention as soon as they walk into the room. Ideas on how to do this.

I/ Opening (5 minutes)

(a) Sharing circle. Suggestions on how to run an opening sharing circle.
(b) Always take attendance!

II/ Story (5 minutes)

Read the story for this week.

III/ Activity based on the story (10+ minutes)

An activity in the middle of the session plan, that helps the children assimilate the story. Here are some examples of good activities:

More on "the middle" activities available here. Always include time for clean up.

IV/ Snack and discussion (5-10 minutes)

Share snack, while prompting the children in a discussion of the story (or of anything else important that comes up in the session). As you'd expect, asking open-ended questions is one of the best ways to prompt the discussion.

Clean up after snack.

V/ Second activity (5-10+ minutes)

A second activity based on the story.

VI/ Game (remaining time)

I always like to schedule time to play a game with the children at the end of a class. The kids look forward to it; it's a chance to get to know them better, and sometimes children will really open up while playing a game with an adult. Age-appropriate board games are lots of fun. A few suggestions for games.

Alternatively, I save the snack for last (this, of course, depends on the group --young children may need a snack earlier in the class).

VII/ Brief closing (1-2 minutes)

Gather the group back together for a closing circle (suggestions on how to lead a closing circle). Once they get in the habit, children like the ritual and regularity of a closing circle!

If parents/guardians come in a little early, invite them to join the closing circle (in fact, I deliberately time the closing circle so parent/guardians will be included in the closing circle!).

Setting the stage: Immediately engaging the children

What do you do in those two to five minutes as some of the children tear into your classroom, and others drift in slowly talking to their friends? Those first two to five minutes can set the tone for a wonderful, cooperative class that’s enjoyable for teacher and children alike. By engaging the attention of the children at the very beginning of a session, you will dramatically reduce behavior problems.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Adapted from material by Ann Fields.

The opening circle

As a suggestion, each class should begin with a sharing circle (or similar opening circle). Here are some good reasons to use the opening sharing circle as an important addition to your teaching toolbox:

How to lead an opening circle

Have a the children sit in a circle -- around a table or on rug squares on the floor, depending on their ages and on the room you are in. Light a candle or chalice in the center of the circle. Begin with the children's affirmation "We Are Unitarian Universalists...."

As group leader, you then state the rules for the sharing circle:

You, as the group leader, should begin the sharing. It's best for the group leader to know in advance what she or he will say, because the leader sets the tone for everyone else. When one person is talking, you should make sure no one else talks (but don't fall into the common trap of responding yourself to what someone has said -- the teacher should follow the rules, too).

If you wish, in classes of older children each child may light a candle from the lighted chalice when it is their turn to speak. If you do this, go over basic fire safety rules, and remind the children that you tip the unlit candle into the flame of the lit candle (not the other way around), and you always keep hair out of the way (hair is very flammable).

"The Middle"

In the middle of the session plan is the activity that helps the children assimilate the story, react to it, and work out its implications. Here are some examples of good "middle" activities:

More ideas on "the middle" here!

For advanced ideas on planning Sunday school, check out the material I wrote on this page.

Closing circles

Why a closing circle?

Children, and adults, need a sense of closure. They need to know when Sunday school is over. In terms of group dynamics, each class needs to come together as a group one last time before they go off to whatever they are going to do next.

Like an opening circle, a closing circle can be a good way to keep the religion in religious education. A closing circle can also be a good teaching tool -- in a closing circle, you and the children take another look at what you have learned together.

Leading a closing sharing circle

Begin with a brief chance to share with each other.

Everyone sits in a circle. Everyone has a chance to share something she or he learned (or something she or he especially liked about the class), though anyone may pass and choose not to share. Only one person shares at a time, and everyone else should remain silent while that person is sharing.

Other ways children can share:

The group leader ends the circle (and the class) with some sort of closing words, or the group sings a familiar song together. A suggestion for closing words from the hymnal:


Hold on to what is good
even if it is
a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here.

Hold on to my hand even when
I have gone away from you.

You can find other appropriate closing words in the hymnal. Some of the curricula include closing words appropriate to the various lessons -- these tend to work quite well. You may choose to use a closing song instead, and good closing songs from the hymnal include numbers 389, 188, or 362.

Taking care of yourself

People who do religious education with children and youth are engaged in an important ministry of this church, and we need to remember to take care of ourselves. We are role models to the children in our classes, and one of the best things we can do is show them that living your faith is a matter of joy, not of drudgery and burden.

So have fun in your classes! One thing many teachers mention when asked why they teach is that they want to get to know the kids at church. Make that one of your goals: play games together, talk together, have fun together, spend time just getting to know each other. The children and youth will remember you as a person more vividly than they will remember most session plans.

Seek out joy. While curriculum and content are important, it's more important that you and your class live your faith rather than talk about your faith. If it's a perfectly gorgeous day, it may make sense to take the class outdoors -- it may mess up the lesson plan, but you will all get more joy from being outside on a beautiful day. (Having said that, if you do go outside, for safety reasons it's crucial that you let someone know exactly where you are going to go.)

Ask for help. Get another teacher to substitute if you need to. Get help with classroom discipline, or lesson planning, or whatever before it becomes a problem. If your personal life gets overwhelming, arrange a meeting with one of the ministers or with a member of the RE Committee -- if you need to bow out gracefully, ask for help to make it happen.

Find support. Teaching can be intense at times. Talk with your fellow teachers about your common endeavor. Talk with other people in the church about what you do. Sometimes after a particularly intense class, you just need to talk -- grab a fellow teacher, or find one of the ministers, and talk!

Meditate or sing or engage in social action: do whatever it is you do for regular spiritual practice. When you do religion yourself, it comes through to the children, for you will be calmer and close to your spiritual center. Plus you can talk about your regular spiritual practice with them -- children need to know that adults actually do things like prayer, or yoga, or reading scriptures of one of the great world religions.

Above all, take care of yourself!

Section Three: Safety and Behavior Concerns

"Right Action": behavior and discipline

Like the Buddhists, our philosophy on discipline includes the virtue of "right action." Right action assumes that everyone has a role in preserving harmony.

To lower the chance of discipline problems, teachers can do the following:

Come prepared in advance for each session, and have back-up plans ready in case your main plan does not work. Experienced teachers find that you can greatly cut down on the number of behavior problems simply by being organized and flexible.

Create a comfortable, inviting environment. Children are greatly affected by their surroundings, and pleasant surroundings can help foster pleasant behavior.

Since every child has different abilities and a different learning style, you may find that frustration with or inability to do a project can lead to behavior problems. In an ideal world, it's best to have alternate lesson plans, or at least to have independent projects or books available.

Teachers should feel comfortable setting good, firm limits. You need to make clear what your expectations for behavior are, and what the consequences are if children do not live up to your expectations. (Standard guidelines for behavior are set out below, in Setting limits.)

As for children, they should help to develop and should agree upon a set of expectations and consequences.

Ideally, the expectations will be written on a big piece of paper. Everyone (teachers and children) will sign at the bottom, and it will be posted in the classroom.

Children can be taught how to help one another to engage in " right action," by reminding one another which actions are acceptable and which are not.

Setting limits

Children should have a hand in setting rules for the classroom. You may develop a group consensus over time without a formal procedure. You may find that you need to spend an entire class with the children developing behavior guidelines, perhaps even inviting other teachers or a minister to sit in and assist.

There are some non-negotiable rules for everyone in any religious education program. You should make these rules clear to the children in age-appropriate ways:

If these expectations are not met, you, the teacher, should use one of the following techniques. They are listed in approximate order of severity:

  1. Remove the disruptive child from the group for a while. Explain to them why you are removing them from the group. Have them work on a quiet independent project, or read a book quietly.
  2. Give the child a "time out" in a quiet corner of the room.
  3. Have the child sit outside the room (but with the door open so that you maintain visual contact).
  4. Get the Director of Religious Education, the Parish Minister, or the RE Committee involved.
  5. Meet with the child, the child's parents, and Director of Religious Education or Parish Minister to work out a mutually acceptable behavior contract or other solution.

If you run into behavior problems and discipline problems, be sure to tell your co-teachers exactly what happened and what steps you took so that we can keep a consistent approach (you can write these on the weekly evaluation form). At the same time, remember that children, like adults, have bad days and grouchy days, and that as they grow their whole attitude can change very quickly.

Finally, remember this: if you expect children to be troublemakers, eventually they will turn into troublemakers. If you expect them to become better behaved, they will become better behaved!

Child and youth protection policy

Preliminary remarks

The interrelated issues of child protection, child abuse, and domestic violence can be intimidating and scary. Remember that you do religious education because you care about children, because you want them to grow up safe and happy. Protecting our children from physical violence and sexual abuse is one of the most fundamental things you can do towards that end.

The purpose of any child and youth protection policy is to protect children. But remember too that beyond this main purpose, a good child and youth protection policy can help to protect adults from untrue accusations.

Adults working with children and youth in the context of our Unitarian Universalist faith have a crucial role and a privileged one, one which may carry with it a great deal of power and influence. Whether acting as youth advisor, chaperone, child-care worker, teacher, minister, registrant at a youth-adult conference, or in any other role, the adult has a special opportunity to interact with our young people in ways which are affirming and inspiring to the young people and to the adult. Adults can be mentors to, role models for, and trusted friends of children and youth. They can be teachers, counselors, and ministers. Helping our children grow up to be caring and responsible adults can be a meaningful and joyful experience for the adult and a lifetime benefit to the young person.

While it is important that adults be capable of maintaining meaningful friendships with the young people they work with, adults must exercise good judgment and mature wisdom in wielding their influence with children and youth. They must especially refrain from using young people to fulfill their own needs. Young people are in a vulnerable position when dealing with adults and may find it difficult to speak out about inappropriate behavior by adults.

Adult leaders need to possess a special dedication to working with our young people in ways which affirm the UUA principles. Good communication skills, self awareness and understanding of others, sensitivity, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and a positive attitude are all important attributes. Additionally, adult leaders should 1) have a social network outside of their religious education responsibility in which to meet their own needs for friendship, affirmation, and self-esteem, and 2) are willing and able to seek assistance from colleagues and religious professionals when they become aware of a situation requiring expert help or intervention.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the entire church, not just those in leadership positions, to create and maintain a climate which supports the growth and welfare of children and youth.

Code of Ethics

Adults who are in leadership roles are in positions of stewardship and play a key role in fostering the spiritual development of both individuals and the community. It is, therefore, especially important that those in leadership positions be well qualified to provide the special nurture, care, and support that will enable children and youth to develop a positive sense of self and a spirit of independence and responsibility. The relationship between young people and their leaders must be one of mutual respect if the positive potential of their connection is to be realized.

There are no more important areas of growth than those of self-worth and the development of a healthy identity as a sexual being. Adults play a key role in assisting children and youth in these areas of growth. Wisdom dictates that children, youth, and adults suffer damaging effects when leaders become sexually involved with young persons in their care; therefore, leaders will refrain from engaging in sexual, seductive, or erotic behavior with children and youth. Neither shall they sexually harass or engage in behavior with children or youth which constitutes verbal, emotional, or physical abuse.

Leaders shall be informed of the Code of Ethics and agree to it before assuming their role. In cases of violation of this Code, appropriate action will be taken.

-- adapted from materials published by the UUA, 1986, 1992.

Signed: _______________________________

Dated: _______________________________

Please print name : _______________________________

Three additional safety concerns

Two diseases

There are two serious, basically incurable diseases which are spread by mixing of bodily fluids: AIDS and hepatitis B. Every classroom should have a first aid kit with a supply of latex gloves (if your first aid kit is missing, leave a note for the assistant minister of religious education). For any activity which will bring you into contact with another person's bodily fluids (child or adult) -- changing diapers, putting on a band-aid, etc. -- use those gloves.

It may seem cold-hearted to wait to put on rubber gloves before you comfort a child who has cut him- or herself, but you can learn to comfort children with words first, hands later. Daycare centers and preschools, and some other schools, have been using this policy for years, and you will find that children are quite accustomed to it.

Emergency evacuations

Review the evacuation plans posted in your classroom so you know which door to leave from in case of emergency. During an emergency evacuation, all religious education groups will assemble on the grassy area near the parking lot and small play area (see evacuation plan). We will assemble there to be out of the way of emergency vehicles such as fire trucks.

Now you know why you must take attendance at the beginning of every Sunday school session. Bring your attendance record during emergency evacuations.

Parents will be informed of the assembly point for children during evacuations.

In case of a medical emergency

In case of a medical emergency, you should fill out an "Ouch Report." If you or another adult have to administer any form of first aid, including just putting a band-aid on a child, you must fill out one of these forms. One copy of the form then goes to the parent or guardian of the child, and a second copy should get filed at church by the RE Committee. In our increasingly litigious society, we really need to do this.

Section Four: Appendices

A. Games to play

1. Good board games:

-- "Chutes and Ladders" is a good game to play with younger children. (If you find the old Sunday school curriculum "Why Do Bad Things Happen?", it has a version of "Chutes and Ladders" designed to teach children the concept of karma, and this can be a fun game to play with older children.)

-- "Apples to Apples Junior" is a great card game to play with older children.

2. Good games that get you to move around:

-- "Duck, Duck, Goose": Good for all ages from 3 up; can also be played in mixed age groups.

Everyone sits in a circle on the ground, facing inwards. One person is the "ducker." She goes clockwise around the circle gently touching each person on the head, saying "Duck!" each time she does so -- until finally she taps one person on the head and says "Goose!" whereupon he must immediately try to catch her by chasing her clockwise around the circle.

If the "ducker" gets all the way around the circle before the "chaser" catches her, and sits down in his place in the circle, then the chaser becomes the next "ducker," and he immediately begins walking clockwise around the circle touching people on the head and saying "Duck!" each time.

If, however, the "chaser" tags the "ducker," then she goes into the middle of the circle, which is called the "stew pot," while he becomes the next "ducker." She will sit there in the stew pot until the next time the "ducker" is tagged by the "chaser," at which time she gets out and sits back down somewhere in the circle while the new person sits in the "stew pot."

3. Sources for more good games:

Here are the games book I refer to constantly. While many of these books are out-of-print, they are widely available in church libraries and public libraries, or through onlines use booksellers.

B. What our children need on Sunday mornings

What do our children need on a Sunday morning?

Into this safe and encouraging context, we may weave the content of our religious traditions. The history and common threads of our identity are important to be sure, but without this essential loving embrace the education will not be religious.

—Lowell Brook