Having a child with special needs show up in your Sunday School class on a Sunday morning is not a time to panic. It is, however, a time to prepare yourself to try to meet the needs of that child in the best way possible.
As soon as you can, try to schedule a home meeting with the parents. Not only can you see for yourself the interactions of the family, but you can also discuss delicate information in a non-threatening place.
One of the first things you will need to discuss is whether the child will be mainstreamed or will need a separate, self-contained class. This will largely depend on what the child is comfortable doing at school.
IF the child is mainstreamed, you might want to try to find a “shadow” or “buddy” to work alongside the child in the class. The “shadow” can ward off any potential problems which might arise by removing the child physically from the classroom when necessary. Often, a child and his “buddy” form close relationships because of the consistency of the same person seen from week to week.
In addition, the child might require a “fidget” to help him stay focused and calm during the Sunday School time. Fidgets can be soft Nerf balls, a scarf or handkerchief, or anything small and unobtrusive that the child can manipulate with his hands.
IF the child needs a self-contained classroom, here are some tips to think about and perhaps incorporate:
1. Keep the room as uncluttered and serene as possible. Some, not all, children respond well to soft music playing in the background.
2. Post the class schedule so that the child will know what is coming up next. Try to keep the same schedule week to week. If the child does not have food allergies, you might want to have a snack and potty break about halfway through the class time.
3. Talk about behavior expectations and have the child suggest 2 or 3 ways to ensure positive results. Write those on a poster for the wall as a reminder.
4. Keep everything short and simple. You might try to tell the Bible story using pictures and only a few words. You might have some simple Bible costumes and/or props so that the child can act out the story. When possible, sing a song or two about the story. The actual Bible story time should be limited to about 5 minutes.
5. When doing art work, try to resist the temptation to use only Bible pictures for them to color. After all, every child might not have the fine motor skills that coloring requires. Instead, try building a Bible scene with soft blocks, play dough, or any art materials at your disposal.
6. Use the Bible in some way every Sunday. Look up the memory verse or the story in the Bible. Emphasize that the stories in the Bible are true and help us to know and understand how God expects us to live.
7. If/when the child is comfortable and can verbally do so, let him participate in the prayer time. It may be that you can pray short phrases for the child to repeat after you at the beginning until he feels comfortable praying by himself.
8. Continue to give positive reports to the parents and to maintain contact with them about any questions you have or anything they can share to keep you doing your best for their child.
Working with children with special needs is very rewarding. Although the child might not be able to verbally express his appreciation, his smiles and hugs will keep you going for years to come. And the parents will be full of gratitude, too.
Mary and Mark Buckner live in Stanardsville and are active members at Belmont BC in Charlottesville. They are both retired.