At various times in the Confirmation preparation sessions and the Confirmation retreat, you will want the young people to work and interact in small groups. Small-group learning has the goal of promoting peer-based learning while at the same time fostering bonds of friendship. For some young people, the idea of working in small groups is exciting, while for others it only elicits nervousness and self-consciousness. Following a few simple guidelines when working with young people in small groups will ensure that it is a positive experience for all.
Know the Youth. Make sure to take the needed time to really get to know the youth that are in the Confirmation program. Knowing something about each of the young people will help you get a sense for who might best function together in small groups. At the same time, it will also help you identify personalities that might clash in a smaller group setting. When moving young people into small groups try to have a mix of abilities, learning styles, personality types, sexes, and so on.
Small-group Leaders. If you have a large group of youth present or are preparing for a retreat, it will be helpful to have catechists or other adults act as small-group leaders. This is a particularly effective approach to small-group work as a leader can guide the activity and discussion of the group and keep the young people focused on the task at hand. It is also an opportunity which provides an available mentor for the small group. Remember that a small-group leader is likened more to a facilitator than a teacher. The goal is to encourage everyone to take an active role, to use proper listening skills, and to work as a team. If a small-group leader is present, they should take an active role in the group’s tasks rather than simply watching the young people. This engages the small-group leader as an equal and involved member of the group.
Group Name. To help foster a spirit of community and teamwork, you may wish to allow the young people to create a name that represents their particular small group. This creates ownership among the young people and encourages them to work together. Give them parameters for naming their group, such as it must be a saint’s name, there must be something in the name that relates to Confirmation, or the name must include something identifiably Catholic. Let the young people be creative, but make sure to direct them to a name that is reverent and in good taste.
Confidentiality. One of the most important rules to set is the absolute necessity of confidentiality within the small group. This creates a safe environment in which young people can more freely share their thoughts and stories. Remind the group at the beginning and the end of each sharing or activity that anything that is shared must remain within the small group. Only the person who shared is excused or can excuse someone else in the group from this rule. The obvious exception that must be clarified to the group is that if someone reveals that they wish harm to themselves, the group leader is obligated to notify someone.
Introverts and Extroverts. If a small-group leader is present, it will be important for them to facilitate sharing from all members of the small group. The extroverts present will be willing to share freely while the introverts may only share after being personally invited by the leader. Emphasize that everyone’s thoughts and experiences are important and equally valued. Also, give everyone the opportunity to “pass” if they do not wish to respond to a particular question. This creates a safe environment in which the young people do not feel pressured to share something they hold as too personal or are not yet ready to share.
Sense of Humor. It will be important, especially if a small-group leader is present, that humor be allowed to be a balanced part of small-group work. It is through laughter, storytelling, and humor that people are made to feel more comfortable and through which friendships and teamwork are developed. Teens are looking for others they can relate to, and a small-group that is too serious can create an atmosphere of lifelessness and disconnection. Help provide boundaries so that the small group understands when it is time to have fun and when it is time to be focused on the task at hand.
Change the Groups. Although it is more effective to keep the same small groups throughout a retreat because of the nature of sharing and team building that is involved, providing some change in groups throughout the preparation sessions themselves is a good idea. This gives the youth a chance to interact with the entire Confirmation group on a small-group level and encourages community building. It also gives you a good sense of the group and who works well together. This can be helpful as you form small-groups for the retreat later on in the preparation process.
By following the above suggestions, small-group work can become a vibrant and welcome part of the Confirmation preparation process. Both you and the youth will look forward to this time, and the learning that will take place will be deeply meaningful and memorable.