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.
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.
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.
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.”
HELPFUL SPECIAL NEEDS MINISTRY RESOURCES
For more help in developing an all-inclusive program for children with special needs, check out these resources:
- Christian Horizons
- Joni and Friends
- National Organization for Rare Disorders
- Special Needs Ministry Start-Up
- Five Signs You Should Invest in Special Needs Ministry
Gail Cannis developed this mainstream model at her church in Portola Valley, California.