We are called to provide a warm and comfortable environment in our church school programs for children with disabilities. It's an important way to affirm that all of our children receive God's covenant promises and serve in God's kingdom.
Your own acceptance of the child with disabilities is the most important factor in helping the child to be accepted by the group. It's natural to have some feelings of uneasiness about working with children who have disabilities, but these fears will quickly disappear as you gain some experience. Seeking the advice and help of the child's family is a first critical step. Family members and other resourceful people in your church family can help you meet the child's needs with sensitivity.
Here are some general tips:
- Get to know the child as a unique person—you'll soon realize the child is more like other children than different. Eye-level contact and a warm smile can communicate an open invitation to get acquainted.
- Use age-appropriate language and activities.
- Don't do anything with the group that one child has no chance to do successfully.
- Don't feel sorry for the child. Respect the child's need to develop independence; be patient and praise the child's best effort.
- Talk to the whole group about the person with disabilities. Consider whether this is best done in the child's presence or absence, but stress that it's okay to be different, and talk about how everyone can be loving and kind.
- Keep communication open and honest between you and the child's family. Request information from the family and offer your support.
Additional suggestions below will help you minister with young children who have four types of disabilities. Just keep in mind that each child is an individual, and that you and the child will discover together what works best.
Learning disabilities affect a person's ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, or do mathematical calculations. Preschool and kindergarten children need lots of encouragement and praise so they can experience the joy of learning new basic skills.
In your group avoid putting an individual child in the spotlight. For instance, rather than asking each child to recite memory work, call on small groups (of varying ability) to say it together. Pair up children to help each other on tasks that may prove difficult to one of them alone.
Allow plenty of time for a child with learning disabilities to respond to a question, and provide visual prompts, if necessary. Use contrasting backgrounds to display visuals. Avoid distracting background noise. Repeat directions and memory work often and in short sections.
For younger children, provide individual help with tasks that require eye-hand coordination; use large colors and markers for drawing. Guide the child during physical activities. Use bags to organize the child's take-home paper and any other projects.
For older children, it's also helpful to break tasks into smaller steps. Repeat directions or write them on a chalkboard. Provide reading markers (note cards, bookmarks, or rulers) to focus on the text, and let the child read along while listening to a taped story. Introduce the key points of a story, and repeat these points during the summary time. Offer a choice of activities.
Attention Deficit Disorders
Children with attention disorders may be hyperactive, easily distracted, or impulsive. The terms Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be used to describe the child's difficulty with staying on task. Many of the things that help the child with attention disorder will benefit all children: smaller classes, quieter classrooms, routines, limited distractions, praise rather than criticism, friendship, peer helpers.
If your group is large, consider dividing it. If this isn't feasible, ask for an adult volunteer so that you can work in smaller groups (or one-to-one if necessary) for some of the activities.
Establish regular patterns and routines. The way your curriculum structures the sessions should help you establish these routines. Younger children will benefit from using the same song to open your session or repeating the same greeting to introduce story time. Listen to stories on the cassette or tell them to the children yourself. See the session plans for additional ideas. Keep instructions and rules simple, and then be firm about your expectations. Try to maintain face-to-face contact with a hyperactive child, especially when moving from one activity to another. Remember to keep your attitude positive—this will encourage the other children in your group to accept the child too.
For more ideas, check out Learning Disabilities and The Church by Cynthia Holder Rich and Martha Ross-Mockaitis. This brief and practical manual helps churches better serve youth and children with Learning Disabilities and Attention Deficit Disorders.
Intellectual disabilities cause delays in most areas of development, including development of intellectual and social skills. Techniques suggested for the child with learning disabilities will also help the child with intellectual disabilities. Repetition of songs, memory work, key points in the story, names of others in the group, and routine directions will help the child learn and become a part of the group.
Motion activities can be fun for the whole group to practice over and over and can reach the child who is nonverbal. Find other simple ways—such as pointing and nodding—to communicate with the child who is nonverbal, or learn some of the basic signing language the child may also be learning. Mainstreaming of the young child often works best with the help of another adult and is recommended until the child is about age ten.
The older elementary-age child may benefit more from a program such as Friendship, which is designed especially for children with intellectual disabilities. (If your church or community does not have a Friendship program, contact Friendship Ministries for information and sample curriculum materials or visit their website.
Older children may be somewhat self-conscious about talking or asking questions about a disability and will need your help in finding a comfortable way to break down barriers. Encourage the child with a disability to become the "expert" teacher to help others understand and to give you tips for helping him or her learn in the least restrictive way possible. You will find much joy in reaching out to welcome the child with intellectual disabilities. Each child can experience God's unconditional love through your faith in action.
A wide variety of conditions and diseases challenge children with physical disabilities. Some are present at birth; others are a result of disease or injury. The disability may interfere with performance in some important area of development.
Since physical disabilities can present a wide range of needs, it's especially important to work with the family to understand specific needs. You can start by providing a safe physical environment and lots of encouragement for the child to be as independent as possible. Enlarge visuals; sign some of the songs. Be aware of food allergies or diabetes when serving snacks. Direct the young child's natural curiosity about wheelchairs or other adaptive devices by letting children touch the special equipment (with the child's permission), or by asking the child to demonstrate how it works.
Helping Kids Include Kids With Disabilities by Barbara Newman is a wonderful how-to manual for teachers of children in church programs offers practical suggestions and short session plans for helping groups of elementary-age children understand and welcome into their group a child with a particular disability.