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How to Recognize Kids With Special Learning Needs

If Sunday school teachers don’t know how to recognize kids with special learning needs, they’re at a severe disadvantage. Use this special teacher-training meeting plan with this article.


“Every evening, the Israelites had meat from the quails that flew into the camp. In the morning, they had manna for bread,” the teacher explained before asking, “Where did the children of Israel get food in the wilderness?”

A hand popped up. “I know!” the boy exclaimed. “They had to meet the quails and get banana bread.” The other children laughed, and the boy broke out crying.

When you work with children, you may run into this type of situation. You may not know a child has a learning disability until you ask that child to do something.

Understanding Different Learning Needs

A learning disability may appear in many forms and have several symptoms. By becoming aware of different types of learning disabilities and how to handle them, you can alleviate misunderstandings and embarrassment for children. Some common learning disabilities:

Reading and language delays

When 9-year-old Amy was asked to read, “Daniel was in the lion’s den,” she read, “Daniel saw the lion dead.” Children with reading and language delays often reverse words or skip words and letters. Unless a parent tells you about the child’s reading disability, you won’t discover it until you ask the child to read aloud.

Written language delays

Whenever the teacher asks Joshua to copy the Bible verse on the board, he is disruptive. Joshua acts out to avoid becoming embarrassed by his disability. When Joshua does write, he spells many words wrong. He leaves out punctuation and spacing between words.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)

Seven-year-old Jason received notoriety in the church at an early age. As an infant, he was inconsolable; he fought all cuddling. As a toddler, he tore through the hallways, wrote on walls and knocked over chairs. He never seemed to sit still. Tests at school revealed that Jason had a high IQ and neurological signs of ADD. Children with ADD have difficulty in following instructions and in remembering numbers and letters.

Auditory processing difficulties

Eight-year-old Sherrie doesn’t quite hear right. She says “huh?” or “what?” quite often. She also misses the subtleties of languages such as homonyms (meet vs. meat). Although tests revealed that Sherrie has normal hearing, she may have intermittent hearing. Or, she may have difficulty with processing auditory information inside her brain.

Sensory-motor difficulties

Four-year-old Sammy astounds everyone with his advanced language ability. But Sammy also has behaviors that puzzle his teachers. Sammy doesn’t like being around other kids. He seems afraid to get Play-Doh or glue on his hands. Using scissors, crayons and pencils frustrate him.

Sammy has sensory-motor integration problems. Even though he’s bright, Sammy’s brain struggles to sort and organize all the information coming through his senses. Sammy simply cannot cope with all the sensory stimulation in the classroom.

Teaching Kids with Special Learning Needs

When working with children who have learning disabilities, respect them. Most learning-disabled children have normal or even superior intelligence. They just have trouble learning information in ways most children can learn.

Use care in labeling a child “learning disabled.” Until a child has been tested and the family shares this information with you, it’s unfair to judge. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t report your observations to your children’s ministry leader. Sometimes a teacher is the first to notice a learning disability.

Show God’s love for children with learning difficulties. Find out what these children are good at. Dr. Maxine Smith, who operates a California learning center, says, “Mastery of something difficult gives a child the self-confidence that is needed for success in school and is crucial to building self-esteem.”

Use these practical methods to teach children with learning difficulties.

Be flexible with your teaching methods.

Give children choices of activities by varying the materials and using both visual and auditory input. That way, a child with a reading delay won’t feel self-conscious if he or she can choose a listening activity over a writing activity.

Communicate with parents.

Ask parents for suggestions about what works with their child and what’s being done at school. Keep parents posted on progress. If needed, ask your children’s ministry leader to consider encouraging parents to have the child tested for learning disabilities at school.

Be sensitive.

Don’t assume the child who acts out is “bad.” The child may just be trying to cope with a learning disability.

Use lots of praise.

Notice what the child does right. Remind the child that everyone has difficulties in some way. Then give the child the genuine love of God — who loves us just as we are!

Barb Malone is an early childhood special educator in Colorado.

For even more helpful tips like this in every issue, subscribe to Children’s Ministry Magazine today!


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How to Recognize Kids With Special Le...

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