Let All the Children Come

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Katy is a fourth-grader with severe learning disabilities. When
she first started attending Sunday school at our church, she was
very shy and fearful that the other children would find out she
couldn’t read or write. Our special program, though, has enabled
her to love participating.

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Like Katy, almost 12 percent of children in the United States
have a learning, communication, physical, or severe disability. It
hurts to think that some of these children might miss out on
receiving Christ’s love and fellowship at church because of their
disabilities. A few might not be welcomed warmly because they
create problems for teachers and kids, while others don’t want to
attend because the learning environment frustrates them.

When our church decided to serve all children, we developed a
special program for kids with disabilities. The program has
succeeded beyond anything we expected. Some of our children with
special needs would be a challenge for most professionals. And at
times, I’ve said, “Our program shouldn’t be working,” but it does.
Therefore, I’d like to share our experience to help your church
develop a similar program. Here are the key elements to
consider.

Dedication — To succeed, your program needs
cooperation and support from your entire Christian education staff
and church leaders. Determine how comprehensive your program’s goal
will be. Our goal is for every child to be able to participate in
worship, instruction, fellowship, and service as they grow closer
to God. Perhaps your goal will be larger or smaller. Whatever your
goal, though, you must have 100 percent buy-in from your staff and
church leadership.

Coordination — Your program needs an
experienced person who can design strategies to meet each child’s
special needs. Special education teachers or psychologists are
available in almost all communities. I volunteered as our church’s
coordinator following more than 30 years as a special education
teacher and administrator in California public schools. Your
coordinator will provide ongoing consultation and training for the
special teachers who work with your special needs children.

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Teachers — Dedicated volunteers, called
special teachers, create the heart of a program. We match each
volunteer one-on-one with a child who has disabilities, and we
place the pairs in a regular class. We want each child to bond
comfortably with his or her special teacher.

Recruiting special teachers has been easy. We use church
bulletin announcements to call for volunteers, and our coordinator
talks with potential special teachers to learn their interests,
experiences, and “comfort zone.” For example, we determine if
volunteers prefer older or younger children, active or passive, or
verbal or nonverbal. We take into account any other requests.
Volunteers may observe a special teacher/child duo in class before
committing. Once a volunteer decides to commit to the program for
nine months, the coordinator matches him or her with a child and
provides detailed confidential information on that child.

Placement — We place the children in
classrooms according to their level of functioning. With younger
children, we consider play level and appropriate toys and
equipment. With older children, we look at the social level of the
child and the program requirements in the regular class, such as
reading levels, amount of writing, and types of crafts. Our goal is
for the child to be involved in all the education activities to the
maximum degree capable. We also want the child with a disability
and the other students in each class to benefit. In some cases, if
a child can’t benefit from the regular program, we create a
separate, individualized program.

Strategies — We begin with a good base
educational program that we have for all our children-one that’s
lively and interactive with a concrete presentation of God’s Word.
The coordinator prepares a profile sheet for each special child
that includes demographic data, disabling conditions, and program
suggestions. This information includes what the child can and can’t
do, as well as the child’s likes and dislikes.

The coordinator gives each special teacher a number of specific
strategies to assist his or her child. For example, if the child
has a problem with writing, a special teacher might take dictation
or help the child draw illustrations. A special teacher can read to
a nonreader. For a child with attention deficit disorder, the
special teacher learns to call the child’s name, wait for eye
contact, and then speak to the child. Special teachers learn how to
cope with a whole range of challenges.

Sometimes we prepare the class for the arrival of a new child
with special needs. We try to place emphasis on common likes and
dislikes in areas such as foods or activities. The special teacher
discusses the disability including how the class can help and what
would or wouldn’t be appropriate. For example, being friendly would
be helpful but jumping on a wheelchair would not.

The special teacher may also model appropriate responses for the
children. For example, if a child makes strange noises, the special
teacher models acceptance and explains that the noises show the
child’s way of communicating discomfort. We encourage the children
to ask questions to help “clear the air.” One girl made a new
friend when she asked a special needs child on the first day of
class why he was called Speedy.

Results — We began our program in 1989 with
one child and have served 81 children ranging in age from birth to
12 since then.

Currently, we have 13 special needs children enrolled in our
program. The other kids are learning how to interact successfully
with their special friends, while the special needs children are
benefiting socially and educationally from being in the
mainstream.

George, for example, is a sixth-grade boy diagnosed with severe
emotional disturbance. Through focusing and limit-setting
strategies, he’s had weekly success in Sunday school. Since his dad
died last year, his teacher has included him in her family
activities. These special attentions have resulted in George
becoming more affectionate and cooperative. In another case, two
sixth-graders expressed interest in volunteering to work in a home
for children with disabilities after befriending a special needs
classmate.

In a world that sometimes rejects these special needs young
people, our churches need to welcome and love them as Christ loves
us. Our greatest joy has been in watching this love and acceptance
blossom.

MAINSTREAMING RESOURCES

For more help in developing an all-inclusive program for
children with special needs, check out these resources:

A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP

She sat alone at dinner, eating twice as much as anyone else.
The other children were embarrassed to be seen with Jane. No one
wanted her on their team. She huffed and puffed her way through
relays so her team always lost.

My heart went out to this lonely third-grader. I tried extra
hard to reach out to her. I greeted her warmly, joined her team,
and ate dinner with her. As our friendship blossomed, so did Jane.
She began making friends and listening intently to the Bible
lessons.

In the fourth grade, Jane made a new friend in Jesus and got her
very first Bible.

By the fifth grade, Jane had shed some weight and was even
running on her school track team. She wrote me this letter:

“I’ll always remember you as a special part of my life. You
helped me know a part of God and you gave me my first Bible. You’ll
always have a special place in my heart.”


Gail Cannis developed this mainstream model at her church in
Portola Valley, California. Please keep in mind that phone numbers,
addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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