Teachers and leaders of young people try to create a church environment where they all can have fun, learn and feel loved. But with conditions like autism becoming more common, teachers and leaders have an increasingly difficult task of meeting the needs of all their students of different abilities. Even if some kids don't have the same mental capacities as their peers, none should be turned away from potential spiritual experiences at church.
Having faced this intimidation personally as I taught a church youth group and a girl with special needs joined my class, I learned some useful methods to address this challenge.
There is a wide range of abilities and understanding levels under what qualifies as special needs, so some of the tips below may not apply in all circumstances. They may, however, make the balance manageable between preparing lessons and activities that are inclusive for those with special needs yet challenging for the rest of the class.
1. Collaborate with parents and use their suggestions.
In my experience, this was one of the most effective tools. Better than anyone else, parents can explain their child's abilities and needs and advise appropriate accommodation.
One important thing to learn may be the child's schedule. Children with special needs frequently thrive under structure and organization. If something occurs at home or school at a particular time, perhaps matching an aspect of that schedule during a church lesson or activity can help the child behave or focus.
If parents enforce certain rules or discourage certain behaviors, leaders and teachers should do the same. Receiving consistent feedback from parents and leaders confirms acceptable behavior to special needs kids.
Knowing a child's likes and dislikes can aid in deciding treats or rewards or when planning activities or lessons. For instance, I worked with a girl who liked to draw, so I frequently asked her to draw a picture to answer a question during a church lesson. We also planned activities with artistic projects adaptable for any skill level.
If church teachers wish to learn more about a child's specific needs, they should ask about extra resources or websites to which parents can refer them. Additional tips for a child's specific conditions can be used from these sources as well.
2. Use their innocence and example to teach others in class.
Sometimes the rest of us can learn from the simple way those with special needs see the world and their relationship with God. Their basic answers, drawing of a concept or idea, or listening to their singing can sometimes uplift the class. For our Christmas lesson, I asked this girl to draw a picture of what she could give Christ and others around her. She drew a picture of a Christmas tree and presents underneath, on one of which she wrote in squiggly letters: love. When she showed the other girls what she had drawn, some visibly took her message to heart. Special needs kids can help their classmates learn more about and feel God's love.
3. Be patient and encourage the others in the class to be so as well.
Kids with special needs often do things differently than their peers. They may do or say awkward things. Teachers and fellow students need to learn to tolerate their quirks at church, within reason. If the child enjoys singing and starts to sing an appropriate song, why not let him or her sing it? Or the teacher could provide time before or after the lesson for singing to satisfy that child. What may seem to be a random, strange action at first may be an attempt to communicate or just an expression of what they feel at that moment.
Beyond the usual antsy nature of kids, some special needs kids may literally be incapable of sitting still in a church class for extended periods of time. During a lesson when my special needs girl struggled to behave, I encouraged her to draw as much as and whatever she wanted. Although drawing pictures unrelated to the lesson that did not fill the time completely, she remained in the classroom without disturbing anyone. This may not be possible for every special needs child, but those who have some control of themselves should be given the chance to join the rest of the class.
A reward system may reinforce good behavior in a church class, and the other students need to understand and accept why their classmate may get a reward or special attention.
4. Be firm but loving when they cross lines.
Although teachers and leaders need to be patient, at church they need to reinforce the rules that their special needs students obey at home. Also, if the child clearly makes another student uncomfortable through inappropriate actions or distracts too much from the message, he or she should be instructed to stop kindly but directly and clearly. The girl I served loves to hug and show affection, but not everyone loves to receive it. Several times I saw pained expressions on some of the other girls' faces as she stroked their arms or crowded their personal space. I simply asked her to keep her hands to herself, and she obeyed. Just as when I censured the other girls, I could move on without dwelling too much on her misbehavior. Many times, I didn't have to repeat myself during the same lesson, but usually I had to remind her once almost every week. When necessary, I also arranged for another girl or leader who did not mind being touched to sit next to her. If problems persist with inappropriate behavior, parents may need to be involved or at least consulted for advice.
5. Ask classmates to help.
If a child or youth with special needs struggles to perform a task, a peer can be a more welcome helper or source of encouragement than the teacher. Others in the church class can also set the example and invite the special needs student to follow suit. During physical activities, my girl often wandered off. Instead of pursuing her myself, I usually sent one or two girls to invite her back. One time as she returned to our activity, she sweetly held hands with one of the girls sent to retrieve her. Offering service to those with special needs can be an enlightening experience for kids and youth, one that cultivates lifelong compassion and a love of giving service.
6. Use other available resources to enliven church lessons and activities.
Videos and pictures engage visual learners, and useful material can be found from many resources online. As I included more videos in my church lessons, I more easily held the attention of my special needs girl - and her classmates. These resources can enhance lessons and activities not only for those with special needs but all kids and youth.
7. Plan and share lesson plans with their families in advance.
Families with special needs children can use lesson plans to prepare their children for upcoming Sunday lessons. By providing lesson plans to the families in advance, the hope is that the content will not be completely new during the lesson, and their kids may be able to participate more. Although in my experience this tactic did not work every time, it did work occasionally. Also, I often prepared extra simple questions specifically for this girl to answer, which allowed her to take part in the lesson.
We as church teachers must make lessons and activities accessible for those with special needs. Parents of special needs kids and youth cannot be expected to bear exclusively the burden of teaching their children about God. There are so many growth opportunities available for all involved as we invite all to join us, as Jesus would have us do. Following these tips can enhance the entire church experience for everyone - kids and youth with special needs, their classmates, and their leaders and teachers.