Faith Enhancing Practice* #11 – Understanding student faith development stages

It’s a typical reaction in workshops with Christian teachers – I usually get some blank stares and very few hands raised when I ask the question, “How many of you have had any training in student faith development stages?” Most or all hands go up when I ask similar questions about study of Piaget, Erikson, or Kohlberg in their college courses. From these kind of anecdotal experiences, one could conclude that teachers in Christian schools have been well versed in Piaget’s cognitive development theories, Erikson’s psycho-social development stages, and Kohlberg’s moral reasoning thoughts in their college courses, but know very little about research relating to children’s spiritual development. It simply has not usually been part of their training.

Yet, if we see our mission in Christian schools and churches to equip students to transform the world for Christ, shouldn’t we at least have a basic understanding of how religious beliefs develop in adolescents, how children perceive God at various ages, what practices are most effective in working with children, how parental images impact children’s thinking, and even what types of differentiation may be needed to challenge children at different stages? What is our understanding of how children’s faith has been perceived and developed throughout history by church leaders and what recurrent themes and practices may be seen and built on to instruct our experience? (Marcia Bunge’s book, The Child in Christian Thought is an excellent resource here.) What can we learn from contemporary leaders such as Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Catherine Stonehouse, Craig Dykstra, and others as to how to best engage adolescents and encourage their faith?

We live in a time when our understanding of child/youth development is still emerging and changing. When we see the seriousness and trust of youthful faith expressed by our children in our Children in Worship settings at church or in worship experiences at Christian schools, we gain respect for the level of faith and engagement with the Spirit that our kids demonstrate. Our level of respect for kid’s capabilities continues to grow when we see them mastering areas such as language acquisition or technological proficiency at very early ages. I hope we are moving toward seeing children as real people, rather than in ways that underestimate or diminish who God has created them to be.

While some would argue we live in a culture that is too child centered, our lack of understanding and desire for study of children in this critical aspect of better understanding faith development may ultimately diminish our effectiveness in nurturing their faith and meeting our missions. We need to demonstrate positive attitudes toward children that will serve to counteract a society that views children as consumers to be manipulated, economic burdens to be endured, or as aliens we must fear in the teen years. If we are taking seriously our responsibility to train teachers in the best discipline knowledge and professional pedagogical practices, then let us also give our teachers working in Christian education the kind of training they need in our colleges and seminaries around how students develop spiritually. In the end it is what matters most.

*(For an explanation and definition of Faith Enhancing Practices see my post of February 3, 2007 entitled “What’s the difference between teachers?”) If you are interested in seeing all 12 Faith Enhancing Practices modules at once, you can go to the Member Community Center and access them there.


Filed under classroom, distinctively Christian, kids/culture

6 responses to “Faith Enhancing Practice* #11 – Understanding student faith development stages

  1. “How many of you have had any training in student faith development stages?” —a good question, Dan. Thanks for writing this entry. I’m thinking about purchasing The Child in Christian Thought. To what extent is student faith development part of teacher education programs?

  2. Ali

    I understand the importance of spiritual development in children. However, I have a hard time thinking that we should be putting their spirituality in stages. Faith is not something that can be categorized and labeled as a staged theory. How can you train a teacher to gauge a students spirituality? I personally do not think that it’s the teacher’s job to determine where the child is at in their Christian walk. I feel that Christian school teachers have a responsibility of planting seeds of Christ in each child in the early years and then have that faith nuturued as the years go on. Teachers can take on the role as a nuturerer more seriously, but to define each child’s walk by a certain stage has me a little bit uneasy.

  3. Ashley Winters

    I really enjoyed this post. I totally agree with the idea of developing spirituality. I think too often children are just taught the word of God, but don’t really know how to grow and develop from there. Children are taught the bible in school just like any other subject. So the memorize what they need to, accomplish a task in school, but after the memorization, what next? If teachers are equipped with the knowledge of how to take what students have learned,nurture, and help spirituality grow from there, students would have a better understanding of what they are learning and how it relates to them.

  4. Cori

    I agree with Ali in that children’s spirituality should not be categorized into stages. Each Christian has a different journey with Christ and putting spirituality into stages may cause tension between students. I also agree with Dan on the point that children should not be viewed as something to be manipulated, but as significant members of society. Adults can learn a lot from a younger child if they are open enough. I also believe that children are strong future leaders and need to be taught correctly. It is important for teachers to nurture a students faith, and teachers should view students as strong, independent members of society.

  5. Samuel Soliven

    Faith development starts upon birth. This normally depends on the faith of a child’s mother and father. If the parents have preferred religious preference, the child will be more grounded on his/her faith development. In the case of the Catholic faith, baptism is one great moment in the faith development of the child. When both parents affirm this faith, the child will be led to grow as a better Catholic. Later in life, the child will go through the process of schooling. Enrolling a child in a Catholic school makes faith development continue to escalate. He then becomes a more responsible individual. Catholic schools therefore must anticipate the inflow of Catholic school children. All of their subjects must be centered on Catholic faith. Math teachers must anchor their math lessons on the Catholic teachings and the Bible. Faith and the subjects must be meaningfully interwoven.

  6. Reblogged this on echoesineducation and commented:
    Faith development starts at home

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