Classroom Tips for Including Every Child in Sunday School
When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14, NIV), he didn’t single out typically developing children. Jesus was in the business of helping all people, including those with disabilities. He refuted the idea that one group of people was more deserving of his love than another (Mark 2:15-17).
If we are to be like Jesus, we must find ways to include every child in our Sunday school classrooms. We must desire to help all children come to know and love Jesus. We do not need to be perfectly trained to effectively teach and include children who have special needs. And it doesn’t take a miracle to teach children who learn differently—just a leader or teacher who is willing to take a chance and shape a heart for Jesus. If you are that teacher, the tips below may help you.
1. Provide a language-rich environment.
One of the most disheartening parts of teaching young children can be that the children understand more than they are able to say. You may frequently hear the sound of your own voice with almost no verbal feedback from the children. Children with developmental delays may give even less verbal confirmation than typically developing students.
One of the most effective early intervention strategies for children with disabilities is to provide a language-rich environment. Display plenty of pictures. Using blank index cards and a marker, label furniture and classroom items. Point to and read the words on the cards as you proceed through class activities. Speak often, slowly, and with simple words. Your devotion to using the words of your mouth to name aloud the many things God provides is just what the children need. And those words will not return empty (see Isaiah 55:11)!
2. Turn off the lights!
Lights, especially fluorescent lights, are often a hidden sensory trigger. For the child with sensory sensitivity, the buzzing noise associated with fluorescent lighting can be very loud and distracting. The use of indirect lighting in the form of lamps provides a learning advantage for children who learn differently.
Consider building a place where young children can take sensory breaks. Turn a large appliance box on its side to form a cave. Using a utility knife, poke small holes in the ceiling of the cave. Then create a “night sky” inside the box by pushing a few individual lights on a strand of holiday lights through the small holes. Place the box near an outlet where the lights can be plugged in safely. This sensory cave can provide a retreat area for a child who becomes overwhelmed by the lights and noise of a busy classroom.
3. Narrow the visual field.
Children who routinely squint, cover one eye, or prefer to view objects from the side may be experiencing difficulties in visual perception. These same children may also misjudge spatial relationships of objects in the classroom by bumping into furniture or appearing clumsy. Occasionally they withdraw from classroom participation and avoid group activities where movement is involved because of their inability to perceive distances accurately.
You can help all children focus in on visuals and activity pages by providing empty paper towel tubes to peer through. As the children narrow their field of vision, there is less for their brain to process and they can view the scene with more accuracy. Everyone will have fun looking through the tubes to find specific objects—and they will be learning about Jesus as they do so!
4. Find the right pace.
Difficulty with transitions is a hallmark of children whose nervous systems are developing atypically. Developing at a different rate than other children, these children may want to perform some activities for longer periods of time than their classmates. Pinpoint the kind of activities that the child most enjoys. Strategically offer a preferred activity directly in front of a non-preferred activity. Then allow the child to choose and continue an activity she enjoys while the rest of the class moves on to the non-preferred activity. When you help a child finish her learning process in this way, you are providing learning for each child at his or her level of need.
Every child, no matter his disability or diagnosis, was created by God with a heart to be shaped. Whether modeling activities for the child with a hearing impairment or patiently dealing with a defiant attitude, the strategies you use to include all children will be worth the effort. Your entire class will benefit from the accommodations you make, and every heart will be shaped to love God, Jesus, and the church.
Standard Publishing, part of the David C Cook family, supports including every child in your classroom. In fact, our HeartShaper Sunday School Curriculum includes tips within each teacher guide to do just that. We believe in shaping hearts and changing lives for Christ. For more special needs resources and helps, visit HeartShaper.com/special-needs.