Professor shares psychology of evangelization for K-12


Photo by: Patrick Barry

On Oct. 2, Franciscan University of Steubenville psychology professor Matthew Breuninger explained the psychology of evangelization for children from birth through teenage years.

Breuninger, who holds a doctorate in psychology, gave this presentation as a guest speaker for the Life Values Outreach program, a Students for Life Values Outreach ministry which trains dozens of students to give catechetical presentations in their home dioceses.

Though part of the Life Values Outreach meeting, the presentation was open to anyone interested in learning how to tailor complex topics to younger minds.

Breuninger discussed psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of the four stages of human development and how speakers can use psychological awareness to be effective catechists.

Parents are the first catechists, explained Breuninger, as their interactions set the groundwork for trusting relationships. From birth to age two, children are in the sensorimotor stage in which sensory experiences dictate reality. By being attuned to a child’s needs, empathetic to his or her pain and consistent in one’s affirmations, parents create a secure attachment with their child.

By creating a secure attachment, parents give children the foundation for a parent-child relationship, including that of God the Father and his children.

Children between ages three and seven love “rich fantasy stories” and “vivid details,” said Breuninger, while they are in the preoperational stage. He recommended catechists invite young children to express their images of God, Jesus and heaven in art, words or play.

Catechists must relate to the children, who do not yet have the capacity to reason, abstract topics in playful, realistic or imaginative interactions. For example, the love of God is like the warmness, safety and joy of a big hug from one’s father or grandfather.

Stories from the Bible, said Breuninger, are best for grabbing the attention of children in the concrete operational stage. Between the ages of seven and eleven, youth love learning to reason and discovering relationships of cause and effect. Abstract ideas must be made concrete. For example, justice can only be understood as reciprocity or numerical equality, rather than retribution or fairness.

With high schoolers, on the other hand, catechists must “play to their ideals with saints,” said Breuninger, because “saints are embodied ideals.”

High schoolers, who are in the formal operational stage, have “big questions” that catechists must be ready to answer, said Breuninger. With abstract reasoning and a strong desire for identity and relationship, teenagers want satisfying reasons for believing in God.

“If we’re not catechized well,” said Breuninger, “they’ll see right through us.”

The audience of catechists-in-training showed its gratitude for Breuninger’s insights with applause and smiles before closing the night in prayer.

Sophomore psychology major Cristina Delany, who is preparing to present through Life Values Outreach, said afterward, “Now I can adjust my talk to give it to middle schoolers (by) adding more stories … not just talking abstractly.”