Programme for the Spiritual Education of Children - Update
'The education and training of children is among the most meritorious acts of humankind and draweth down the grace and favor of the All-Merciful, for education is the indispensable foundation of all human excellence...'
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá)
It is with great excitement that we are able to share the latest developments in the children's programme. Perhaps the first development of note was when, in January 2017, the section of the document published by the International Teaching Centre which related to children’s education was entitled ‘The Programme for the Spiritual Education of Children’ rather than simply ‘Children’s Classes’. This enabled a shift of consciousness that we were no longer dealing with isolated children’s classes occurring here and there taught by stalwart individual teachers, but were working towards a systematic and comprehensive programme of spiritual education for the younger generation of our communities.
Pre-publication versions of the first four grades of the programme are now available, and the final two grades are currently in development. Teacher training accompanies each grade as branch courses of Book 3, and a cohort of trainers for each grade, comprised of teachers who have experience in the respective grade, is being raised up across the region. Groups of teachers have recently engaged in training for both Grades 2 & 3, and further training is ongoing. Teachers attending this training have developed a greater appreciation of the profound nature of the material as well as specific experience with planning and teaching each set of lessons.
As these materials are being updated relatively frequently, it is wise for any teams starting a new class for any of the grades to ensure they have the latest version of the materials available from the Bahá’í Distribution Service. It is also useful for the team to re-study the specific graded materials together in preparation for starting their class, especially if it has been some time since they studied Book 3, or the related branch course for one of the higher grades. It is important to be aware that the 15 lessons from the original version of Book 3 have long since been replaced by 24 lessons based around spiritual qualities. While some of the original lessons have been retained, many have been significantly revised, and others are completely new.
Grade 2, comprised of seven sets of three lessons that focus on habits and patterns of conduct of a spiritual life, has also been revised frequently. Grade 3, which explores the eternal covenant, the role of the Manifestations of God, the lives and teachings of previous Manifestations, and the life and mission of the Báb, has just recently been significantly updated. A provisional Grade 4, focusing on the life and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, is also available, but is likely to be significantly revised in the near future. Classes graduating from Grades 3 & 4 should contact their coordinator for further materials and training (or email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Attaining a Higher Level of Functioning
It is also extremely helpful for children's class teams to study Section 3 of the 'Training Institutes: Attaining a Higher Level of Functioning' document prepared by the International Teaching Centre as this encapsulates the latest learning and next steps for the children's programme around the world. A tool for analysis for teams to identify the next steps in the development of a children’s programme based on this document is also available.
A few specific developments have been highlighted as key to the progress (both qualitative and quantitative) and stability of the children's programme. The first is the development of a team around each children's class, ideally a mixture of both youth and adults, some of whom may fulfil roles other than teaching. This team would explore the spiritual themes of each lesson, plan, consult on issues related to the class, and reflect together on a regular basis. Where teachers do not currently have an existing team, it is possible to collaborate with other teachers in neighbouring classes, either through regular face to face meetings, or through creative means such as online planning sessions, or some combination thereof. Some areas have supplemented this with closed social media groups for teachers to share ideas and pictures of class projects.
Ideally, these teams would be characterised by the qualities identified in the Ridván 2018 message of the Universal House of Justice: ‘Fundamentally… there must emerge… a growing band of believers who can maintain, with those around them, a sustained focus on nurturing growth and building capacity, and who are distinguished by their ability and discipline to reflection on action and learn from experience.”
Secondly, it is hoped that all children's programmes start to offer the higher grades as children progress through the programme (with each grade taking approximately a year to complete). Naturally, this will require teachers to engage in training in these grades in anticipation of this development, while also continuing their study of the main sequence. In addition to the classes advancing to higher grades, a new Grade One class will ideally be established at least each year, eventually leading to localities and neighbourhoods offering the full six grades of the programme. In more intensive neighbourhoods, this may be more frequent, perhaps even every cycle to align with the training of new Book 3 graduates.
Involvement of Families
The other key to progressing the children's programme is learning to create spaces for children's class whanau to come together, whether in devotional meetings, whanau hui, class-based holy days, service projects or end of term events. Alongside these spaces, regular home visits to build relationships, increase the commitment of the parents to the programme, explore with them themes from the materials or related to children's education, and update them on their child's progress, are key to the sustainability of the programme.
Obligations towards Children
Naturally, all children's class teams, and all Assemblies in whose jurisdiction a children's class is being conducted, will wish to ensure all those involved, whether teaching or in a support role which requires direct contact with children and young people, such as providing transport to under 18 year olds, have been accredited under the Child Protection Policy of the National Spiritual Assembly.
“Let them never forget the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character.”
-The Universal House of Justice, Oct. 20, 2008 Message
‘The education of children in the teachings of the Faith must be regarded as an essential obligation of every Bahá’í parent, every local and national community and it must become a firmly established Bahá’í activity during the course of the Plan.’
-Naw-Rúz 1974 – To the Bahá’ís of the World
‘In much of the region, insufficient attention has been given to the education of children. Far more extensive programs should be initiated in those countries where the need exists, to ensure that Bahá’í children are nurtured, encouraged to acquire trained minds, illumined with a sound knowledge of the Divine Teachings, well-equipped to participate in the work of the Cause at all levels and to contribute to the arts, crafts and sciences necessary for the advancement of civilization. Such programs, when open to all children, Bahá’í or not, offer a potent means of extending the beneficial influences of Bahá’u’lláh’s Message to the wider society.’
-Special message addressed to the “Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in Australia, the Cook Islands, the Eastern Caroline Islands, the Fiji Islands, French Polynesia, the Hawaiian Islands, Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Korea, the Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and the Western Caroline Islands”, Ridván, 153 B.E. (1996)
Using the curriculum with children from the wider community
One wonderful facet of the Ruhi curriculum is that it can be used for all children, both those from Baha’i families and those from the wider community; there is no need to change, adapt or water down the content to make it more palatable for friends of the Faith. Although we certainly need to build our capacity to present aspects of the programme in our conversations and through home visits, both children and their whanau appreciate its value as is. While teachers might teach the elements of a lesson in different ways in response to the particular interests and talents of the students in their class, and factors such as physical environment and available resources, the integrity of the lesson is not jeopardised. Likewise, teachers may creatively supplement the lesson with an activity or resource, but will be conscientious in ensuring that any such additions enhance the children’s understanding of the aim of the lesson.
The Materials and Supplementary Resources
The 12th of December 2011 message of the Universal House of Justice directly addresses the issue of educational materials for children’s education, as well as other aspects of the children’s programme. This message is particularly valuable for teaching teams and the community to refer back to frequently. A few passages from this message are extracted for ease of reference below.
‘…the question of educational materials specifically as they pertain to children’s classes and to junior youth groups has to be considered. With regard to the former, we explained in our Riḍván 2010 message that the lessons prepared by the Ruhi Institute would constitute the core of a programme for the spiritual education of children, around which secondary elements could be organized. Whether or not any additional elements are required to reinforce the educational process for each grade would generally be determined by teachers themselves, on the basis of specific circumstances, not infrequently in consultation with the institute coordinator at the cluster level.’
‘We trust that, in studying the institute courses, teachers and animators will find themselves increasingly equipped to make judicious decisions in selecting any materials or activities necessary, whether from traditional educational sources or from the wealth of items, such as songs, stories, and games, that are sure to be developed for the young in the Bahá’í community in the years to come.’
‘An educational process that dilutes content in a mesmerizing sea of entertainment does them no service.’
A source of supplementary resources and ideas is the ‘Supporting the Core Activities’ website Teachers' Companions for Grade 1 & 2 are useful resources for planning and keeping class records, and are also available from the Bahá'í Distribution Service. All of the songs for each lesson can be downloaded for free from the Ruhi Institute website and CDs of the songs can also be requested by emailing email@example.com. There are other rich sources online of supplementary songs for the various grades, often including versions of the prayers and quotations in the lessons, or those related to the theme of the lessons. Increasingly, musical and other resources are being produced locally in response to experience teaching the various grades, and these are shared in teacher training and encounter spaces. This development is again foreshadowed and encouraged by the Universal House of Justice in their 12th of December message of 2011:
‘What we ask at this stage, then, when energies are to be invested in the extension of children’s classes and junior youth groups, is that the multiplication of supplementary items for this purpose be allowed to occur naturally, as an outgrowth of the process of community building gathering momentum in villages and neighbourhoods. We long to see, for instance, the emergence of captivating songs from every part of the world, in every language, that will impress upon the consciousness of the young the profound concepts enshrined in the Bahá’í teachings.’
What about virtues education? Isn’t that enough?
The section for tutors of Book 3 found in Book 7 provides a useful perspective on this topic.
“Efforts to shape character can, of course, take various forms. Today, educators in all parts of the world are placing increasing emphasis on moral education. They generally adopt a secular approach and try to teach what they consider to be the virtues of a good citizen. In their desire to collaborate with like-minded people and organizations, Bahá’í communities do their best to contribute to efforts of this kind undertaken by official national school systems. It should be remembered, however, that there is a difference between secular moral training and the development of spiritual qualities illumined directly by Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation.”
This is reinforced by the following passages from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
Certainly, certainly, neglect not the education of the children. Rear them to be possessed of spiritual qualities, and be assured of the gifts and favours of the Lord.
(From a Tablet, translated from the Persian)
“… qualities of the spirit are the basic and divine foundation, and adorn the true essence of man; and knowledge is the cause of human progress. The beloved of God must attach great importance to this matter, and carry it forward with enthusiasm and zeal.”
The importance of the spiritual education of children has also been repeatedly emphasised by the Universal House of Justice. In 2010, they noted that the significant increase in the number of teachers trained through the Ruhi curriculum ‘has made it possible for the community to respond wholeheartedly to the spiritual aspirations of the young’. At Ridván 2000, they stressed ‘there is a pressing challenge to be faced: Our children need to be nurtured spiritually and to be integrated into the life of the Cause. Our children…should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers…. This realization should spur us all to urgent and sustained effort in the interests of children and the future…’ (To the Bahá’ís of the World, Ridván 2000)
The Ruhi children’s programme is designed for children aged from five to eleven. At the age of twelve most children will enter the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Programme (JYSEP). It is not encouraged that children graduate to the programme for junior youth unless they are twelve (or turning twelve within the cycle), no matter how intelligent or mature they are. The higher grades of children’s classes are sufficiently challenging for even the most able students. Also, parents should not fear that their children will not encounter a sufficiently comprehensive exposure to the principles and teaching of the Faith through the current curriculum. If children are enabled to advance through the grades, they will acquire an understanding, steadfastness and spiritual perception rivalling that of most adult believers.
Some parents of pre-schoolers are anxious that classes also be provided for their children. Informal preschool sessions are a great way to build relationships with other mothers and their children, but these need not be overly formalised. In most cases, a few simple prayers, songs, and perhaps a story from the annals of the Faith and a game or craft activity focusing on the development of a spiritual quality would be sufficient. There are many different resources available for this age group from which parents may select those appropriate to their children and circumstances. Again, this is an opportunity to build capacity in others to plan and run the various activities. Once the children turn five, this could naturally transition into a more formalised Grade One class.
Ages & Grades
A common question asked is which age each grade is intended for. Although eventually each grade will sit approximately alongside each year of primary school and the first year of intermediate school, the current answer is that each grade represents the first, second, third, etc. year of a programme of spiritual education. The concepts in each grade build on those in the previous one, and the complexity of each grade, as well as the demands on the teacher, increase significantly as we advance through the programme. Ideally all children should begin the programme in Grade One, and advance systematically through the grades. This means that in some cases we may have, for example, three Grade One classes in one area occurring simultaneously with different age groups following a strong expansion phase. However, the teaching of these classes and the speed at which the class advances through the grade may differ according to the age of the children.
There are circumstances when some flexibility with regard to placement in grades is warranted, particularly where human resources are limited. These specific situations can be discussed with the children’s class coordinator to identify how best to meet the needs of the children concerned.
Who should study Book 3?
Again, Book 7 clarifies this question:
‘Many who study the book do not actually intend to teach children’s classes. Yet spiritual education is a concern of every Bahá’í. As parents, as brothers and sisters, as members of the community, as members of institutions and agencies of the Faith, we all have to pay attention to this responsibility of paramount importance. In its Ridván message of 2000, the Universal House of Justice stated:
“Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children. They are a trust no community can neglect with impunity. An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behavior toward them—these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline, the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices. An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel that they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.”’
As well as our responsibility towards children, there are many other advantages of studying Book 3 as part of the sequence of Institute courses. Among these are that it illuminates for us the essence of what is required to live a Bahá’í life as each lesson is ‘structured around one of the spiritual qualities that we must all strive to develop’. It also connects us more deeply to the Centre of the Covenant, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whose example, illustrated in the stories which accompany each lesson, serve to guide and elevate our behaviour, whether child or adult. Additionally, it helps us develop skills in memorisation, storytelling, lesson planning and class management that prepare us to engage more effectively with the higher books in the sequence and other acts of service (particularly animating and tutoring). The sequence of courses has been carefully designed to scaffold skills and build capacities that are needed later on.
Building Capacity in Others
As teachers gain in experience, they understand that their role is not only to develop their own capacity to teach the higher grades (which require a greater degree of skill and creativity) through training, collaboration with other teachers and engaging in encounter spaces, but also to foster the capacity of new teachers and Book 3 graduates. Through accompaniment to plan and reflect on lessons, less-experienced teachers can rapidly build confidence and ability to manage the elements of lessons in the first grade, to teach independently, and to sustain regular classes. Adults, youth and more mature junior youth (whether enrolled Baha’is or from the wider community) have all demonstrated ready capacity to teach the curriculum effectively when given appropriate support. However, those more experienced friends providing such accompaniment will be conscious not to present themselves as experts in the field or their particular methodology as a rigid formula to follow, lest they stifle the nascent/emerging abilities and enthusiasm of those entering the field. Every new teacher brings with them valuable contributions to lesson planning, and to the advancement of the programme as a whole. Experienced teachers accompanying others are encouraged to study Unit 1 of Book 10, ‘Building Vibrant Communities: Accompanying One Another on the Path of Service’.
The responsibility of the Local Spiritual Assemblies
The role of the Local Spiritual Assemblies in ensuring all those involved in the children’s programme are appropriately accredited under the child protection policy of the National Spiritual Assembly has already been mentioned. However, this is not the only responsibility Local Assemblies have in regards to children’s education; all classes held in an Assembly area are under its jurisdiction and guidance.
In the Child Protection Policy workshop manual, participants learn:
‘Once you are accredited, you may take initiative to start a children’s class or junior youth group, and naturally as you prepare to do so, you would keep the relevant Bahá'í institutions and agencies informed of your plans. Accreditation under this policy is not approval to teach, supervise or care for children, which is always subject to the decisions of the Bahá'í institutions and agencies. This training and accreditation is also not to be seen as a substitute for teacher training.’ (p.10)
While cluster and regional coordinators concern themselves with the quality of the programme and training, and remain alert to the possibilities for expansion where trained resources are available and the circumstances are propitious, ultimate responsibility for any activities occurring within an Assembly area rests with the Assembly itself. Questions for Local Assemblies to consider might include:
‘Are all Baha’i children (and children from families with a close relationship to the Faith) currently catered for in children’s classes?’
‘What can be done to encourage others from the community to arise to serve as children’s class teachers?’
‘What creative solutions can be found to allow willing individuals to engage in training?’
‘Are the classes currently utilising the (most recent version of) the curriculum? If not, what are the barriers and how can they be assisted to transition?’
‘How can teachers and other interested individuals be supported to form teams around each class to ensure sustainability, enhance quality and encourage growth?’
‘Do any classes need encouragement to be more outwardly focused?’
‘Is the current distribution of teachers and support people rational, or would another arrangement be more advantageous to our community?’
‘What measures can be taken to encourage new Grade One classes being initiated alongside existing classes/ or in each neighbourhood/community without one?’
‘How can we ensure the smooth transition of children into the Junior Youth Programme at the age of 12?’
‘How frequently will children’s education appear on our agenda going forward?
“Strategies to advance the process of entry by troops cannot ignore children and junior youth, if the victories won in one generation are not to be lost with the passage of time. It is imperative, then, that at this point in the process of systematization of the teaching work, definite steps be taken to ensure that the vision of the community fully embraces its younger members. The education of children, an obligation enjoined on both parents and institutions, requires special emphasis so as to become thoroughly integrated into the process of community development. This activity should be taken to new levels of intensity during these twelve months and then be further raised in the years immediately after. That the programs of most institutes in the world provide for the training of children’s class teachers represents an element of strength. Spiritual Assemblies and Auxiliary Board members will need to mobilize these newly trained human resources to meet the spiritual requirements of children and junior youth.”
The Universal House of Justice; 26 November 1999; To the Bahá’ís of the World
‘They [the Assemblies] must promote by every means in their power the material as well as the spiritual enlightenment of youth, the means for the education of children, institute, whenever possible, Bahá’í educational institutions, organize and supervise their work and provide the best means for their progress and development.’
From the section ‘Duties of Spiritual Assemblies’ in Baha’i Administration by Shoghi Effendi
‘It is incumbent upon that Spiritual Assembly, that assemblage of God, to exert every effort to educate the children, so that from infancy they will be trained in Bahá'í conduct and the ways of God, and will, even as young plants, thrive and flourish in the soft-flowing waters that are the counsels and admonitions of the Blessed Beauty. Work then with heart and soul, loose your tongues to further this endeavour…’
('Abdu'l-Bahá, from a Tablet - translated from the Persian)
‘With regard to your activities in connection with the training and education of Bahá'í children: needless to tell you what a vital importance the Guardian attaches to such activities, on which so much of the strength, welfare and growth of the Community must necessarily depend. What a more sacred privilege, and also what a weightier responsibility than the task of rearing up the new generation of believers, and of inculcating into their youthful and receptive minds the principles and teachings of the Cause, and of thus preparing them to fully assume, and properly discharge the weighty responsibilities and obligations of their future life in the Bahá'í Community.’
(From a letter dated 28 April, 1939 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a National Committee and an individual believer)
‘Bahá’í parents will continue to be faced with the problems caused by the exposure of their children to irreligious and immoral attitudes, behavior, and even instruction, from their fellow pupils and their teachers. This is a great challenge to Bahá’í parents, to the Bahá’í children themselves, and to the Spiritual Assemblies…. Your Assembly is correct in its view that a major effort will have to be exerted to raise the number and quality of Bahá’í children’s classes, and to assist Bahá’í parents to bring up their children as firm Bahá’ís able to withstand the moral and spiritual poisons and temptations of the society around them.…’
(2 December 1976 –to The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States)
For further information, updates or clarification about any aspect of the Programme for the Spiritual Education of Children in Aotearoa New Zealand, contact one of the following:
Auckland: Sara Leask firstname.lastname@example.org
Wellington: Sheena Naik email@example.com
North Island: Su Ellis firstname.lastname@example.org
South Island: Tala Asaua Pesa email@example.com