Chapter 6: The Church School’s Contribution to Mental Health

The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 6: The Church School’s Contribution to Mental Health

You can use your classroom program, your curriculum, yourself and your relationships to give empty youngsters massive doses -- big servings, tremendous helpings -- of whatever they are seeking: love . . . achievement . . . belonging . . . praise . . . acceptance independence. The specific medicine these children need is something you have: "A good life.'' (Behavior and Misbehavior (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1955), p. 5.)

-- J. L. Hymes

Every eight seconds a baby is born in the United States. This amounts to more than four million per year -- four million new opportunities for the transmission of the best in our heritage. The primary responsibility for transmitting the religious and ethical dimension of this heritage rests with the parents of these children and with the education programs of churches and synagogues. Some forty-four million children, youth, and adults currently participate in 287,642 Sunday schools and other religious education programs. Over three and one-half million individuals, most of them volunteers, teach in these programs.

The church school (I am using the term "church school" to mean the entire formal educational ministry of the church involving a wide spectrum of age and interest groups at various times during the week.) should be a powerful influence for mental health. During a child's most impressionable years, his "church" is actually the Sunday school classes to which he belongs. If they are dull, then his earliest and deepest feelings about the church will be those of dullness. If these classes open windows of adventure, then his first associations will be ones of lift and excitement.

From its very birth, the Christian church has been a teaching-learning community. Jesus was often called "teacher" by his hearers. He gathered around him a group of learners (disciples) . He then appointed them to teach others. (Luke 9:1-6.) The early church put increasing emphasis on teaching the Christian message. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke grew out of the teaching activities of these early communities of believers.( See Foundations of Christian Teaching in Methodist Churches (The Board of Education of The Methodist Church, 1960), pp. 13-15. This teaching learning tradition has continued through Christian history. Stimulated by new insights from the fields of education and group dynamics, it is acquiring fresh vitality in the contemporary church.

In a real sense, of course, Christian education is the church. There should be educational dimensions and goals in everything it does.( See Wesner Fallaws Christian Education for Tomorrow (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). The focus o£ this chapter will be on the church school -- the instrument by which the church carries on its formal educational ministry. The key question is this -- How can the church school maximize its contribution to personal growth and spiritual health?

The Goals of Religious Education

In no area of the life of the churches on a national level have mental hygiene insight and principles made a greater contribution than in the field of religious education. For the past quarter of a century, leaders in religious education have been applying these dynamic resources to their field. Harrison S. Elliott, a pioneer in the modern approach to religious education, once commented that "mental hygiene contributes to religious education both a point of view and a methodology." (Mental Hygiene and Religious Education," Pastoral Psychology, Vol. III, no. 27. October, 1952, p. 16.) Mental hygiene gives a view of the nature of persons, how they learn, and the kinds of experiences which help them grow. It also guides the choice of educational methods, emphasizing those which provide growth-stimulating experiences.

In the final analysis, the choice of the goals of religious education is dependent on one's views of the nature of man and of religious truth. One of the most salutary developments in religious education circles in recent years is widespread participation in the growing rapprochement between theology and psychodynamic theory. As one religious educator points out, "If we take our tradition seriously, we discover that much that mental hygiene has dramatized for us is inherently within the Judaic-Christian tradition." (A communication from Paul Irwin, professor of Christian Education, School of Theology at Claremont, California.) Increasingly the goals of religious education are being formulated as a result of the dialogue between the behavioral sciences and the biblical-theological disciplines.

Here is a succinct formulation of the basic purpose of Christian education which I see as consistent with mental health principles:

Through Christian education the fellowship of believers (the church) seeks to help persons become aware of God's seeking love as shown especially in Jesus Christ and to respond in faith and love to the end that they may develop self-understanding, sell-acceptance, and self-fulfillment under God; increasingly identify themselves as sons of God and members of the Christian community; live as Christian disciples in all relations in human society; and abide in the Christian hope. (Foundations of Christian Teaching," p. 31.)

The following are some of the specific goals of Christian education which serve to implement this basic purpose and thereby to enhance personality health:

(1) Mastery of the salient facts and concepts of one's religious heritage. Knowledge about the Bible, the history of Christianity, and contemporary expressions of the faith serve as both raw materials and tools with which the individual can develop his personal faith-for-living. Until he has some understanding of his tradition, he is unable to appropriate those particular aspects of the religious environment into which he was born which satisfy his individual religious needs. From a mental health standpoint, it strengthens one's sense of personal and family identity to know where one stands religiously -- that is, to have a secure grounding in one's tradition.

In emphasizing mastery of facts and ideas, I am not advocating a return to the sterile procedures of rote memorization of extensive creedal or biblical material. Rather, I am siding with the post-WorldWar II thrust in Christian education which holds that there is a faith to be communicated as well as encountered in experience.( Martin Buber's use of the figures of the funnel and the pump in his discussion of education is relevant at this point. See Between Man and Man (London: Regan Paul 1947), p. 89) Such communication by a teacher who has a deep feeling for a religious tradition often leads students to an encounter with the meanings which speak to human needs from that tradition.

If one is to have a degree of objectivity concerning his own tradition, he must be cognizant and appreciative of the other great religious heritages. This has become what, in the light of the demands of our shrinking globe, Norman Cousins calls "survival knowledge." Experiences which give our children an awareness of the values in other religions are no longer "elective" items in sound religious education. All of us should enrich our spiritual lives by appropriating insights from various streams of religious discovery.

(2) The acquisition of religious values and attitudes toward oneself, others, God, and existence. Commenting on Richard Niebuhr's view of revelation, Ross Snyder declares: "Christian revelation is revelation to you to the degree that it enables you to penetrate more deeply into the events and issues of life. That is, it actually enables you to see things differently than you would without it, and unless it does, it has not really been 'learning.' " ("The Developmental View of Life and Christian Teaching:" Writers' Conference, November 15-22, 1957, p.7.) The transmission of concepts in religious education is a means to the end that a person will acquire religious attitudes and values which will guide his living. The Christian ideas of God as loving father and the oneness of all men under him have an effect on one's life only if they become essential ingredients in one's convictions, at the nucleus of one's being, about the meaning of existence. When life-attitudes are molded by such religious values they make a constructive difference in one's response to the purchase of a home by a family of color in one's previously all-white block.

There is growing agreement within the mental health field on the importance of possessing a viable philosophy of life. Helping individuals develop such a personal philosophy is, of course, a central concern of the church school. Teaching in the area of values should draw on the best in the Hebrew-Christian tradition -- tested, undergirded, illuminated, and implemented by the insights of the psychological sciences. The church should welcome the attempt of persons such as Erich Fromm to move beyond relativism, to base ethical norms on those qualities in persons and relationships which allow men to grow toward fulfillment of their God-given potentialities. If God made men in his image, then an ethical approach founded on man's inherent growth-qualities cannot but be a valid form of revelation.( See, for example, Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1947).

(3) Experiencing interpersonal relationships in which God and the good life come alive for the individual. Creative church schools work hard to make everything that occurs in the classroom (worship, problems in interpersonal relationships, teaching-learning, and so forth), laboratories in which religious truths can be brought to life and experienced. The emotional climate of the classroom is all-important in the achievement of this goal. Ross Snyder maintains that "the major matter learned in any class is 'belonging.' Not the ideas (significant as they are) but the rooted feeling, 'There is something going on in the world that I am a part of. I have a place in some circle of acceptance and in some enterprise of history-making.' " (''The Developmental View of Life and Christian Teaching," p. 4.) Grace that is seen and felt in relationships makes a decisive difference in the lives of persons.

(4) Experiencing the struggle and challenge of working out one's own salvation. Creative religious education aims not at the inculcation of a rigid system of ideas but at the acquisition by the learner of a searching, experimental approach toward religious truth. The challenge should be an invitation to embark on a lifelong journey toward an increasingly meaningful spiritual life. This involves avoiding closure in one's thinking about religious meanings. It requires the willingness to tolerate the anxiety of living with question marks. It means experiencing the agony of relinquishing cherished "certainties" when, in the light of larger experiences, they prove to be partial or inaccurate views. It may be that many of our present interpretations of "Christian truths" will prove to be inadequate to understand what scientist Loren Eiseley calls "those multitudinous universes that inhabit the minds of men.( ''The Developmental View of Life and Christian Teaching," p. 4.) Our interpretations may prove to need radical revisions in order to be relevant in coping with the unforeseeable world of our grandchildren.

The challenge of this kind of learning is a challenge to wrestle and struggle with truths as they apply to one's life. The model is not one of gentle, placid growing but of crisis -- leaps and falls, perhaps of struggling up a precipitous mountain face. This, in fact, is the way that growth occurs. Here is Ross Snyder's forceful statement of the matter: "Development is the emergence of new centers out of which hot energies pour, new qualities, a new level of organization and control. And, therefore, it is not 'more of the same' even though it cannot occur apart from all that already is." (''The Developmental View of Life and Christian Teaching," p. 4.) Learning in this framework is filled with surprises. It makes for a life of invitation and excitement.

This kind of learning, however, has a great lot of agony in it. The Christian doctrine that suffering is a part of creativity is taken seriously. Things are not always clear or orderly at the beginning. The realities of life come right into the class; we do not conduct a nice, soft, safe discussion where everybody knows what the answers are going to be before we start.( Ibid., p. 2.)

Jacques Barzun, Dean of Faculties at Columbia University, has suggested that the test of a man's education is whether he finds pleasure in the exercise of his mind. In this vein, one of the major goals of religious education is helping persons to find zest and lift in the religious life. It is through the struggle of grappling with baffling problems, of confronting complex truth and mind-stretching mysteries that one finds deep satisfactions from his religious life.

The total number of hours of formal religious education is limited. Therefore, the emphasis should be on the motivation to learn and on learning how to learn. The writer who has most influenced my thinking about teaching-learning is Nathaniel Cantor. In his penetrating volume, Dynamics of Learning, he makes this point convincingly: "The student must be helped to want to learn, to learn how to learn, and to want to learn as long as he lives." (Nathanel Cantor, Dynamics of Learning, (3rd ed. Buffalo, N. Y.: Henry Stewart, 1956), p. xii.) If religious education achieves this goal with children, it has given them a priceless asset for living.

Religious growth, the raison d'etre of the church school, has several dimensions: moving toward maturity in one's understanding of religious concepts, in one's life-attitudes, and in the quality of one's relatedness to other persons and to God. Religious maturity commensurate with one's chronological age is an essential aspect of positive mental health. The most difficult blocks to such maturing result from the transfer of negative feelings derived from childhood experiences with adults to one's relationship with God. Such experiences can constitute formidable logjams in the river of one's religious creativity. Psychotherapy may be required to remove such blocks.

The Importance of the Student-Teacher Relationship

Teaching is the fine art o£ helping persons to learn. The degree to which the goals of religious education are achieved depends, to a large extent, on the quality of the student-teacher relationship. Carroll A. Wise sharpens the issue when he points out that although religious symbols can be transmitted by formal, academic means, the inner meanings of these symbols cannot. These meanings have to be achieved by the individual for himself. The fact that this occurs largely as a result of identification with an admired person makes the personality of the teacher a crucial consideration.( Carroll A. Wise, Religion in Illness and Health (New York: Harper & Brothers. 1942), p. 236.) The teacher-student and student-student relationships are transmission lines along which attitudes and values are communicated. Depth education involves identification with the teacher and/or with the learning group. Cold, mechanical teachers may present significant facts in abundance, but the truths will seldom influence or inspire the students. On the other hand, warm, enthusiastic, dedicated teachers who pour themselves into their teaching often have a lifelong impact on students.

In discussing college teaching, Nathan M. Pusey has stressed the essence of any teacher's job: "The teacher's task is not to implant facts but to place the subject to be learned in front of the learner and, through sympathy, emotion, imagination, and patience, to awaken in the learner the restless drive for answers and insights which enlarge the personal life and give it meaning." (Wesley Allinsmith and George Goethals, The Role of Schools in Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962), p. 138.) The teacher who is "open" to his students will often sense their needs for reassurance, confrontation, appreciation, challenge, or affection.

Church school teachers should be chosen from among the adults in a church who are obviously growing spiritually and interpersonally. Several years ago, the National Education Association reported that about twenty percent of our public school teachers could profit from psychotherapeutic help because of minor emotional difficulties.( N. L. Kelly, "The Teacher's Role in the Prevention of Alcoholism," Inventory September-October, 19S7, p. 22.) At least this high a percentage would be found among church school teachers. I recall one church in which an elderly woman with obvious senility-related mental problems was superintendent of the preschoolers department. She had been in this unfortunate condition for several years. Because no one wanted to hurt her feelings, the most impressionable children in that church school were being exposed each Sunday to her declining mental health. Finally the minister mustered his courage and, with the backing of the commission on education, asked her to relinquish her post. A well-deserved "appreciation party" for the woman poured oil on her wounds. But what about the children's wounds?

Teachers of younger children should be selected with special attention to the robustness of their emotional health. Children of the impressionable ages often take their Sunday school teacher very seriously and are highly sensitive to the emotional nuances of their teacher's responses.

One of the minister's two key roles in the church school is helping the superintendents to locate and motivate growing teachers who will both present and represent the gospel in a healthy manner. What is essential is not freedom from neurotic conflicts, but a core of inner strength "upon or against which the pupil may begin to build his own firm attitudes.''(The Role of Schools in Mental Health, p. 137.) In her book, The Unconscious in Action, Its Influence on Education, Barbara Low states:

What does psychoanalysis suggest as the fundamental requirements for the most favorable relationship between teacher and taught? . . . the educator has need of knowledge of his own psyche, in order to know and deal with his special tendencies and complexes.... "Only the person who is educated and inwardly he can educate others properly. ((London: University of London Press. 1928), p. 52).

Mental Health Criteria for Teacher Selection

Here are some questions which should be asked in screening volunteers and in ascertaining who should be recruited for teaching: (a) Does the person have a relatively mature religious faith, uncluttered by the vestigial remains of childhood magic and fears? It is essential that a church school teacher have a growing relationship with God, though not necessarily "God" in the conventional or orthodox mode. (b) Will he be able to present and represent the Christian way in a constructive, attractive, life-affirming way? (c) Why does he want to teach, if he is a volunteer? Does he have an ax to grind? Or is he motivated by a wish to help others find a meaningful religious life? (d) Does he respect and like children, youth, or adults? The quality of his relationships with his own children is often the best clue. (e) Does he have a reasonably sturdy sense o£ self-esteem? His ability to esteem others will depend on this. (f) Are his interpersonal relationships generally constructive? The heart of the teaching-learning process is an interpersonal relationship. Does he manipulate others or does he respect their freedom to grow toward their unique personhood? (g) Is he growing and teachable? The direction of his life may be more important than its current location. Is he open to new ideas and methods? Does he have an authority problem which will make it difficult for him to accept on-the-job supervision from a person with more training? His ability to accept constructive criticism without being unduly threatened is an indication of the adequacy of his self-esteem.

Training for Creative Teaching

After reading the foregoing list of criteria, most church school teachers or potential teachers will probably feel, "I'm not up to that! Count me out." To reduce the danger of precipitating a mass lemming-like exodus of Sunday school teachers, let me hasten to say the criteria are statements of ideal qualities which even the most effective teachers only approximate. Nearly everyone has a self-esteem problem to some degree. Most of us have difficulties at times relating to our own children. All of us have some vestigial remnants of childhood fantasies and feelings in our religious life. Very little Sunday school teaching would be done if only those who rate high as judged by all these criteria were eligible to teach. In short, as finite beings, possessing a combination of personality assets and liabilities, all of us fall short of these ideals

However, if one's life is not dominated by one's liabilities it is possible to be an effective teacher in spite of them. If one is open to relationships, then teaching itself can be a growth experience for the teacher. With the help of a creative lead-teacher, superintendent, or pastor, a teacher can find both satisfaction and invitation to personal growth through teaching. The teacher becomes a co-learner. Christian education occurs within the milieu of a group struggling to be a redemptive community. The teacher has unusual opportunities to participate in experiences at the live centers of growth in that community.

An ongoing program of teacher-training is essential if teaching is to be a satisfying experience and if religious education is to move decisively toward the goals described earlier. Active involvement in teacher-training is the second vital aspect of the minister's church school role. To be a "teacher of teachers" is one of the most vital functions of the pastor's total ministry. Any major positive changes in the quality of a church's educational program presupposes the minister's or director of Christian education's active leadership.

Unfortunately, many of us in the ministry are not well-equipped to be "teachers of teachers" in the sense of being knowledgeable concerning recent developments or even basic principles of Christian education. To meet this need, the Central Pennsylvania Conference of The Methodist Church has devised a study-action seminar in Christian education for ministers. Twelve carefully selected ministers are invited each year. After an initial orientation day at Lycoming College, the seminar meets once a month to study training methods relevant to the teachers of a particular church school department. Between seminars each minister spends some ten hours in training sessions with those teachers in his church school. In one year, nine ministers who previously had virtually ignored their nursery departments held fifty-one training sessions for nursery teachers and, in the process, acquired sixteen additional teachers. In the seminars the ministers experienced the small-group process. They discovered that they could apply this method in teacher-training and in other small group activities.( For a description of this project see L. Paul Neufer, "Our Pastors Went to Sunday School," The Christian Advocate (October 13, 1960), p. 17.)

There are several effective approaches to teacher training such as working under an experienced teacher as an apprentice teacher, regular workers conferences, and personal conferences with an experienced superintendent. "Laboratory schools" are a highly useful form of training. These are usually held for five consecutive days with a minimum of thirty hours of guided experiences. Certified instructors conduct sessions with children of a particular age group. The student teachers observe the instructors in action and also work under supervision with the children themselves. Instructors and student-teachers plan, experiment, and measure results. Demonstration teaching, with adults taking the roles of children, is another device which is used. This reality practice helps adults grasp the inner world of children. Skilled public school teachers can be used as instructors in church school teacher-training programs.

To enhance mental health values, teacher-training should help teachers grasp the meaning and method of dialogic teaching. Miracle of Dialogue (Reuel L Howe (New York: Seabury Press, 1963) is a useful resource. Understanding the "developmental task" of the age group with which they are working is also essential. Erik Erikson's Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: International Universities Press, 1959). and Lewis J. Sherrill's writings,( Guilt and Redemption, rev. ed. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1957) ; The Struggle of the Soul (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1951); The Gift of Power (The Macmillan Company, 1955) are valuable books in this area. Understanding of the teaching-learning process can be enhanced by systematic study of Nathaniel Cantor's volumes, Dynamics of Learning and The Teaching-Learning Process.( (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1953). Contact with Cantor's germinal mind will cause a teacher to begin preparation by asking, "Who am I teaching and what are their wants and needs?" Reviving and releasing the spontaneous will-to-learn (stifled by years of uncreative echoing back what teachers wanted to hear) must be a major objective in teaching older children, youth, and adults. Cantor says emphatically:

The central problem of education is self-discipline, self-motivation.... Significant learning stems from the self-directed motivation of the learner who wants something positive and creative for . . . unfilled need of his. No one can learn for another any more than a mother can help her child grow physically by eating the child's meal.( The Dynamics of Learning, pp. xiv-xv.)

For there to be genuine learning there must be tension and desire arising from unfilled need. The teacher's job is to discover and awaken the sense of need.

The Climate of the Classroom

Ten of the nation's leading educators were asked, "If you could address all the teachers of the nation for five minutes, what would you say?" Two of the major themes in their responses were an emphasis on the crucial importance of the emotional climate of the classroom and the key role of the teacher in producing this climate.( "Portfolio of Teaching Techniques, No. 1" (New London, Conn.: A. C. Croft Publications, 1951). This is a brief, imaginative resource for teachers.)

Experiments involving the measurement of blood sugar levels of elementary students in a public school revealed that the levels were characteristically high or low in certain classrooms. The researchers concluded that the emotional atmosphere of a given classroom affected the pupil's endocrine systems -- a hostile, threatening, or highly competitive atmosphere tending to cause the release of sugar in the blood. In a classic experiment, pioneer social psychologist Kurt Lewin found that different group climates could be created by varying the leadership from autocratic, to laissez faire, to democratic. Thirty times more hostility and eight times more aggression were found in the autocratic than in the democratic groups. Overt aggression was usually directed, not toward the autocratic leader, but toward scapegoats (weaker children). In four of the five autocratic groups aggression was converted into apathy.

A negative emotional climate is created when the teacher's behavior threatens the students' sense of personal worth. Many students bring angry, hurt feelings toward adults to the classroom. They respond to the teacher in negative ways, which sometimes causes the teacher to respond in a threatened and therefore threatening fashion. Thus a self-feeding, vicious cycle of interaction produces increasing deterioration of the classroom climate.

Here are some of the factors which threaten selfesteem in the classroom: (a) Persistent criticism and shaming -- Severe criticism makes the child feel rejected as a person; the need for recognition is so intense that a child will seek it in unconstructive ways if he cannot get it by achievement. Criticism and even punishment seem better than being ignored. This is the root of many discipline problems. On the other hand, well-distributed approval, particularly of the whole group, germinates a positive classroom climate. Appreciation is the language of acceptance. (b) Expecting too much from an individual or group -- Demanding much more than a child can produce creates fears, hostility, and failure-feelings. The continual presentation of concepts that are far beyond the life experience and ability to comprehend creates confusion and resentments. (c) Repeated experiences of failure -- Each student needs to experience success in some areas. Instead, many classroom situations allow some to excel and others to fail continually. Nothing fails like failure! Each failure makes it easier to fail again. Only active intervention by the teacher can rescue a child from a spiral of chronic failure. (d) Authoritarian methods -- Heavy-handed authority stifles a student's need for growing autonomy and self-directedness. The learning process is paralyzed by passivity, submissiveness, and lack of personal involvement, on the one hand, or chronic rebellion, on the other. (e) Over-permissiveness -- In the Lewin experiments, it was discovered that laissez faire leaders who set no limits produced considerably more hostility and scapegoatism than did the democratic leaders. Anna Freud and others have pointed to the dangers of classroom overpermissiveness.( See Anna Freud, The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Children (New York: Schoken Books, 1946), and Barbara Biber, "Schooling as an Influence in Developing Healthy Personality" in Community Programs for Mental Health, Ruth Kotinsky and Helen L. Witmer (eds,) (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955). Children and adolescents need a dependable adult-defined structure within which they can discover their identities. The church school should strive to balance structure and content, on the one hand, with freedom of expression (within the structure), on the other. Allinsmith and Goethals state: "If a teacher demands too much docility, the pupils may some day have trouble in thinking independently and imaginatively; if too much time is spent in 'free expression,' mastering basic skills may suffer." 29

(f) Lack of challenge and stimulation -- Dullness is the besetting sin of many church school classes. Slovenly preparation, lack of imagination, and poor teaching facilities all contribute to this. A teacher's enthusiasm or lack of it will be caught by his class. Plato's conception of the ideal school was that it would be an intellectual playground. The church school should be an intellectual-spiritual playground. In an article called "Thanks to Books," Stefan Zweig lyricized: "Tiny fragments of eternity, mutely ranged along an unadorned wall, you stand there unpretentiously in our home. Yet when a hand frees you, when a heart touches you, you imperceptibly break through the workaday surroundings, and as in a fiery chariot your words lead us upward from narrowness into eternity." (The Saturday Review (February 8, 1959). p. 24.) Sparks of interest will fly in a church school class when this spirit is present in the teacher's attitudes toward the Bible and the magnificent ideas of our religious heritage.

(g) Lack of participation -- In her excellent pamphlet on behavior problems in the classroom, Nina Ridenour says: "Good schools today are shot through with the 'let's find out' approach to teaching. Lucky the youngster whose teacher has a gift for stimulating in him genuine pleasure in finding out for himself" (The Children We Teach (New York: Mental Health Materials Center, Inc., 1956) . p. 4.) Learning-by-doing is a fundamental principle of effective education. The children in a primary class were finding out about God's world, in particular, the world of air and weather. Making and flying kites was an unforgettable learning experience for them. Participation and the emotional involvement which results from it produce a climate of contagious enthusiasm.

(h) Neurotic problems of the teacher -- The prime determinant of classroom climate is the personality of the teacher. If he is cold and conflicted, no amount of skill in "educational techniques" will suffice. If he is warm, giving, and alive, reasonably healthy children will tend to respond in kind. Personality needs (students' and teacher's) will be satisfied and a healthy emotional climate will be obtained.

Transmitting the Gospel Via Meaningful Experiences

Contemporary approaches to religious education aim at providing meaningful experiences through which the Christian message and experience can be communicated. Attitudes are formed and reformed through experiences of interaction in relationships. To illustrate the application of this principle, a youth group followed their discussion of techniques for diminishing prejudice by role playing the experiences of minority group members. By this means they were able to experience to a degree, how it feels to be discriminated against and treated with contempt.( For a discussion of the effectiveness of role playing in changing attitudes see Gordon Allport "Is Intergroup Education Possible?" Harvard Education Review, XV (1945), 83.) Even this limited empathy with minority group feelings led the young people to join in a project aimed at reducing discrimination in housing in their community.

The church school should give persons of all ages those experiences which will awaken their sense of need to search for an adequate and satisfying faith. It should also provide experiences which will give guidelines and resources in their search and provide the opportunity to know firsthand the living truths which they can then make their own. For example, a small group in which persons experience something of the koinonia quality of relationships will awaken Christian discipleship more effectively than many lecture sessions on the topic.

One facet of teaching with particular relevance to preventing mental ill-health is that which encourages children to feel their emotions, and to work them through in creating imaginative stories, finger-painting or clay-modeling. In a chapter of New Ways in Discipline entitled "New Ways of Discipline in the Schools," Dorothy W. Baruch describes a wide variety of techniques which are useful in helping children work through their "bad" feelings. The church school should include approaches such as this so that potentially harmful feelings can be expressed in nondestructive ways and thus diminished or redirected. Unless this happens somewhere within the child's experience he will tend to take his negative feelings out on himself in the form of personality, religious, or psychosomatic problems, or on society in the form of delinquency.

Clark Moustakas holds that "listening to children as they express themselves without trying to press our thinking and feelings upon them is perhaps one of the most fundamental ways of promoting mental health in the classroom." (The Teacher and the Child (New York: McGraw-Hill. Inc, 1956), p. 42). He believes that a teacher should provide an accepting climate in which feelings about the teacher and the school can be expressed.

Developments in teaching materials in recent years have been felicitous from a mental health standpoint. The "Christian Faith and Life Series" (United Presbyterian) and the Seabury (Episcopal) The Wesley Series (Methodist) and the United Church of Christ Series are examples of curricular materials which reflect contemporary psychologica1 insights without sacrificing solid biblical-historical content. Katherine Wensberg's and Mary Northrop's The Tuckers ((Boston. Beacon Press, 1952). (Unitarian), a volume of stories for children, aims at stimulating greater self-understanding.

Nathaniel Cantor summarizes the factors upon which genuine growth through education depends:

(1) The student's discovering for himself in the process of learning what he really wants out of that course and (2) the skill with which the instructor utilizes and meets the real needs of the student . . . What takes place between instructor and student provides the dynamic conditions which will be used by the student in his own way. Whatever genuine learning takes place occurs when the help offered by the teacher . . . is accepted willingly by the student as an aid toward making the meanings his own.( The Dynamics of Learning, p. 90.)

Teacher-Parent Relationships

If the church school is to make its maximum contribution to mental health, teacher-parent cooperation must be vigorous. Most of the child's fundamental life-attitudes are caught in the family matrix. In terms of deep attitudes about oneself, others, and God, parents are the most important teachers of religion. At best, the church school complements and undergirds the constructive side of what the family does in this area. When a child has acquired severe distortions of the Christian message from his parents, a teacher may gently but firmly introduce a more constructive way of understanding the message, exercising care not to damage the child's respect for his parents as persons. Hopefully, adult education experiences in the church school will help rectify the distorted views held by parents.

The family-oriented approaches to church-school curriculum, used by several denominations are sound from a mental health viewpoint. Direct involvement of parents in religious education occurs through home assignments, teacher-parent and teacher-parent-child workshops, and through the use of parents as rotating "helpers" in classes. These methods help foster good teacher-parent communication.

Church school teachers' morale (and their mental health influence) is sometimes damaged by parents who criticize in ways reflecting the poverty of their knowledge concerning current Christian education methods and goals. A common instance is the volunteer teacher who, while trying to use creative methods, comes under fire from misguided parents because their child isn't "learning enough Bible verses." A parent owes both his child and the teacher a serious effort to understand the aims and methods of his church school. The teacher's morale can be undergirded by parents offering to help in the program and by expressions of honest appreciation.

The morale of church school teachers is also enhanced by the existence of a warm esprit de corps among them. The "teacher's fellowship" should be among the most vital groups in a church, both in terms of interpersonal relationships and opportunities for growth. Other factors in morale are the teachers' relationships with the superintendent and the minister. A supportive, competent superintendent and an interested minister can boost teacher morale as much as the opposite types can hurt it. Trained substitutes and/or a team teaching approach allowing every teacher regular "breathing spaces" away from this demanding task, enhance morale and improve teaching. Fundamentally, high morale is the result of teaching being rewarding as well as demanding. It is when religious education helps to meet the interpersonal, intellectual, and spiritual needs of both students and teachers that they become co-learners and co-growers toward greater wholeness as persons.

Helping Unhappy and Disturbed Children

A child who is temporarily upset by disappointment or a family crisis can be helped by an understanding teacher. The same is true of the mildly but chronically disturbed child who is shy, overaggressive, or unpopular with other children. The severely disturbed child, however, is another matter. In such a situation, the important thing for the church school teacher is to recognize the severity of the disturbance and to do everything possible to encourage the parents to obtain professional help for themselves and the child. A teacher should have a therapeutic influence on his class, but he should not attempt to be a "therapist" with children who need a child guidance clinic and the complex skills of one trained in play therapy.

Identification of serious emotional disturbances is ordinarily made by parents, family physicians, or public school psychologists. Although the church school teacher usually plays a minor role, if any, in the process, it is well for him to be able to recognize the warning signs of serious disturbance. Occasionally he may have an opportunity to encourage early treatment. To illustrate the importance of early treatment, research has shown that in cases of phobias concerning school, "treatment is far more efficient and likely to result in complete remission when a child is referred soon after developing the phobia." (The Role of Schools in Mental Health, p. 43.)

Here are some of the signs which may indicate serious emotional disturbance in children: (a) Exaggerated aggressiveness-chronic defiance of authority, destruction of property, bullying weaker children. (b) Excessive daydreaming -- finding a large proportion of one's satisfactions in the world of fantasy; withdrawal from reality. (c) Gross inadequacies in peer relationships often linked with clinging dependency on adults. (d) Grossly regressed or retarded behavior inappropriate to one's age group. (e) Intense irrational fears, guilt feelings, obsessive thoughts, or compulsive actions. Obsessive-compulsive problems are repetitive patterns which cannot be changed by reasoning (f) Chronic lying or stealing -- A child may lie because he feels trapped between his need for approval and the excessive demands of adults. Stealing by an emotionally-starved child may be both a symbolic way of grasping for love and an attack on his parents. (g) Psychotic symptoms -- Warning signs include abrupt and radical personality changes, hallucinations, extreme suspiciousness, depression, and extreme mood swings.( For a more detailed description see The Children We Teach, pp. 44-48.)

A church school teacher who suspects the existence of a serious disturbance should discuss the matter with his minister. In a suburban church, a fourth grade teacher approached the minister of counseling following his talk on discipline problems. The teacher described a moody, withdrawn student about whom she was concerned. The minister of counseling sensed that the child was in need of psychiatric help. In spite of her uneasiness, the teacher agreed to visit in the home and talk with the mother. She found the mother not only appreciative of her concern but already aware, from public school reports, of the child's problems. At the appropriate moment the teacher mentioned the availability of the local child guidance clinic and suggested that the parents talk with the minister if they desired further suggestions concerning therapeutic resources. Subsequently, the parents contacted the clinic directly and the child received help.

An ounce of preventive therapy in childhood can avoid tons of unhappiness in adult life. It should be stated emphatically that many emotional difficulties which may not foreshadow major psychiatric problems justify psychotherapeutic treatment. Some church schools have mental health professionals who are on call to advise with teachers concerning problem children. For example, one church school has a social worker who, at the invitation of a teacher, visits that class to observe and work with a troubled child.

Here are some suggestions for handling garden-variety problems of children. (Nina Ridenour's The Children We Teach contains a more comprehensive discussion of these.) To the casual observer, some children (and adults) have problems, others are problems. Actually both the troubled and the troublesome are disturbed persons. The troubled person internalizes his disturbances so that they produce shyness, worry, guilt, and depression. The troublesome one externalizes his disturbances, acting them out in his interpersonal relationships. Some disturbed persons do both.

Shyness in children has several causes. Preschoolers may be shy when they begin Sunday school simply because of their inexperience in handling new relationships. Children may be insecure when they are away from home because they do not feel certain that their home is a secure place to which they can return. Frightened babies and small children should never be traumatized by being allowed to cry for long periods. Church schools should follow a firm policy that parents of such a child should be called and asked to remain in the room until the child feels safe in his new environment.

Adolescents are often shy because of self-consciousness about their bodies, their powerful, guilt-laden sexual feelings (and fantasies), and their struggle for a clear sense of who they are as individuals. A teacher should avoid doing anything which increases an adolescent's painful self-consciousness. The teacher should encourage participation without being coercive.

When a child or adolescent has chronic agonies of shyness, these feelings should not be taken as "just a phase." Often such a person is sending out silent distress signals saying, "I need help! My feelings are too big for me to handle unassisted." A shy child who does not respond to the individual attention of a teacher may need professional help. The internalizing child may be overlooked because he is not a discipline problem. He may even be regarded as a "model child," in spite of the fact that he may be more disturbed than an aggressive child.

Some children are naturally less aggressive and more given to inwardness than the blossoming extrovert type regarded as "normal" in our culture. To try to fit all children into an extrovert mold would stifle healthy inwardness which may produce some of the finest flowering of creativity. It is our culture which needs changing rather than such a child.

Chronic destructive behavior is usually a disguised "cry for help." The key question for the teacher to ask is "Why?" Is the child acting "bad" to protest against unrelenting pressure from his parents to be "bright" or "successful"? Is he trying desperately to define his identity by taking a stand against society? Perhaps he is saying, by his negative behavior, "I'm starved for someone to pay some attention to me!" or "My parents are on the verge of a divorce and my world is crumbling about me!" or "I desperately need the security of some dependable limits set and enforced by adults," or "To hell with the severe, rigid discipline which I experience without the love which would motivate me to become self-disciplined!"

If a teacher knows or suspects the causes of a child's behavior problems, specific remedies can be devised. For example, a discipline problem caused by the recent birth of a sibling rival can be diminished, to some extent, by generous helpings of attention from the teacher and the opportunity to ventilate feelings of jealousy. Unfortunately, the causes of behavior problems are often hidden from any except a highly trained therapist, who may require months of careful work to discover them in the nuances of the family's interaction.

In general, there are three approaches to discipline problems which frequently are helpful: (a) Provide opportunities to get "bad" feelings put into the open, as described earlier. Storytelling and opportunities to work out feelings through muscular activities are useful methods of draining off the child's head of emotional steam. Most important, the church school teacher should avoid saying those things which might cause the child to feel guilty about his feelings. (b) Give extra attention to the troubled child. This is important. It is difficult to do this without neglecting the other children. One of the many advantages of team teaching is that it makes it possible for one of the teachers to give special attention to a disturbed child. Allowing the child to lead, excel in some project. or otherwise gain approval from his peers often helps. (c) Make certain that the limits are clearly defined and fairly enforced. This is necessary to protect the class as a whole and avoid disrupting the educational process. It is also precisely what some problem children need. The limits should be firm and, if possible, friendly. Children who persist in not conforming to reasonable, necessary limits should be punished by the temporary removal of privileges. (If the child is misbehaving because he is emotionally malnourished, punishment may make his behavior worse.) If all three of these approaches are to no avail, removal of the disturbing child until he has had psychotherapeutic help may be necessary to save the class from chaos.

The Exceptional and the Handicapped Child

Providing special religious education resources for the physically handicapped, the retarded, and the brilliant child is a responsibility which a growing number of churches are undertaking to meet. Team teaching is one answer to this need. It permits one or more teachers within a team to be free to concentrate on the special needs of a blind child or a small group of high-I.Q. children who require a more demanding curriculum. Special classes for moderately retarded children are available to some churches.

The First Methodist Church of Wausau, Wisconsin, has developed a Tuesday afternoon "opportunity group" for physically and mentally handicapped children. Nine patient, loving women compose the teaching staff. About fourteen children attend. The purpose of the program is to develop social skills through stories, games, music, art, and field trips, and to bring the children kindness and love. University Park Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas has an "Opportunity Class for Exceptional Children" which meets on Sundays. For most of the children the class is the high point in the week. The existence of the class has fostered understanding and concern within the congregation as a whole.( Together (November, 1963), p. 30) Programs such as these can give moral support and guidance to the parents of a handicapped child.

There are between five and six million mentally retarded children and adults in our country -- approximately three percent of the population. Each year produces some 126,000 new cases. In some slum areas ten to thirty percent of the school-age children are mentally or culturally retarded.( "Message from the President of the United States Relative to Mental Illness and Mental Retardation" (February 5, 1963), reprinted in Pastoral Psychology (May, 1964) . There is new hope in this entire area. The special medical panel appointed by the late President Kennedy to study mental retardation reported that "with present knowledge, at least half and hopefully more than half, of all mental retardation cases can be prevented." (Ibid., p.16) The rate of mental growth can be accelerated among the children who are mentally retarded because of cultural deprivation. The social functioning of many other retarded children can be improved greatly by guidance, training, and modern rehabilitative procedures. Our churches should have a dynamic role in devising imaginative new approaches to this long-neglected problem.

The Strategic Focus on Preschool Children

Every age group, from the nursery to the senior citizens, offers rich, undeveloped opportunities for developing positive mental health programs. However, two groups offer particularly strategic opportunities -- preschool children and their parents. These should be given top priority in a church's mental health approach. Periodically the commission on education should ask itself: Is our program of education seriously taking into account the findings of the social scientists which demonstrate that the foundations of mental, emotional, and spiritual health are laid during the preschool years? Is our church doing everything possible to provide a positive, security-giving experience in the church school classes for these children? Are we doing everything we can to help prospective parents and parents of young children be what they most want to be -- adequate parents -- during these crucial years? The programs of many church schools would receive radical revision if these questions were asked and answered with action. More than any other institution in our society, the church has an opportunity to strengthen lives at their very foundations.

Mental Health Education in the Church School

On the youth and adult levels, church school curricula ought to include serious study of mental illness, its causes, treatment, and the church's role in prevention. On all levels, the things that make for positive mental and spiritual health should be a prominent concern in the church school. For instance, the church school should supplement whatever the public schools do in the area of sex education and preparation for family life by relating these areas to the Christian understanding of the good life.

Mental health flourishes in churches, marriages) vocational life, parent-child and other relationships, to the extent that the basic hungers of personality are satisfied in these relationships. The church school has an exciting opportunity to help persons understand the nature of these fundamental human needs and the ways in which they are satisfied in interpersonal relationships. Here is one way of describing these basic "foods of the spirit":

To have good mental health, every person needs --

S -- security

The inner feeling of safety and stability that comes

to a person in a relationship in which he feels

wanted and accepted.


The investment of oneself in others that brings the

awareness that one can make one's life count. Giving

love to others is a fundamental human need.

E -- esteem

The awareness that one is recognized, respected, and appreciated by others.


Experiences of the pleasures of the mind and the senses, including physical, intellectual, aesthetic, interpersonal, and spiritual satisfactions, as well as the adventure of new experiences.

L -- love

The experience of knowing that another cares, warmly, intensely, and acceptingly. This is the most basic and indispensable need of any human being.


The sense of living within a dependable structure -- the laws of nature, the principles of the psychological and spiritual life, the requirements of life in society.

F -- freedom

Experiencing a growing sense of autonomy and self-directedness appropriate to one's capacity for responsibility. The discipline of external limits gradually becomes the self-discipline of responsible freedom in the course of normal development.


A satisfying philosophy of life and a hierarchy of personal values giving meaning to living, along with a sense of trust and mystical relatedness to the universe and to God.


These are the vitamins, the minerals, the essential food elements of human personality. Persons become and remain healthy children, parents, spouses, employees, ministers, church members, friends, and so forth, to the degree that these basic needs are satisfied in their interpersonal relationships. As in the case of physical malnutrition, severe shortages of psychological food have their most damaging effects during the early years when growth is the most rapid and personality the most plastic. A person who had abundant satisfaction of his personality needs in the preschool years is like the house built on a rock in Jesus' parable. Conversely, the person who experienced severe psychological malnutrition during those years is like a house built on sand -- highly vulnerable to the storms and stresses which occur in later life.

Wisdom -- the Far Goal of Christian Education

In a moving discussion of "The Glory and Agony of Teaching" Loren Eiseley recalls this poignant experience:

In Bimini, on the old Spanish Main, a daughter of the island once said to me: "Those as hunts treasure must go alone, at night, and when they find it, they must leave a little of their blood behind them."

I have never heard a finer, cleaner estimate of the price of wisdom. I wrote it down at once under a sea lamp, like the belated pirate I was, for the girl had given me unknowingly the latitude and longitude of a treasure." ("The Glory and the Agony of Teaching" Think, October, 1962, p. 25.)

The hope and dream of every church school leader should be that his learners will push on beyond knowledge about religious truth to the pulsating reality of religious experience, and that many, as the years pass, will catch a vision of the depth dimension of the inner life -- spiritual wisdom. As Eiseley says so well, the quest for wisdom often is a lonely quest in which one must pay a very personal price. But it is as individuals discover this treasure that the spiritual legacy of mankind is enriched.




Allinsmith, Wesley, and Goethals, George. The Role of Schools in Mental Health. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1962

Cantor, Nathaniel. Dynamics of Learning. 3rd ed. Buffalo, N. Y.: Henry Stewart, 1956.

Cantor, Nathaniel The Teaching-Learning Process. New York: The Dryden Press, 1953.

Kemp, Charles F. The Church: The Gifted and the Retarded Child. St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1958

Manual of Procedures, Topics, and Materials for Discussions in Mental Health. New York: National Academy of Religion and Mental Health, 1956.

Ribble, Margaretha A. The Rights of Infants. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

Ribble, Margaretha A. The Personality of the Young Child. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.

Ridenour, Nina. The Children We Teach. New York: Mental Health Materials Center, Inc., 1956.

Sherrill, Lewis J. The Gift of Power. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955.

Sherrill, Lewis J. The Struggle of the Soul. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951.