by Pat Verbal
As a children’s pastor, I always enjoyed visiting classrooms. Our teachers often surprised me with a new, creative display or learning activity. Sometimes I would slip into a chair in the back of the classroom to watch the children’s reactions. On one occasion, the four-year-old class was engaged in a story circle, everyone except Andrew, who was playing with trucks near the toy shelves. When I asked the assistant teacher why Andrew was not with the others, she explained that although she encouraged him to join them, he often chose not to. She assured me that Andrew was listening and could answer questions after the activities.
Back in my office I thought about the incident. Andrew had disabilities that resembled cerebral palsy, but were mainly muscular. He had already undergone hip surgery and spent thirty-three days in a body cast. His leg muscles were weak, but he moved fast with his four-wheeled walker. Andrew acted shy unless he was with his peers where he could be fearless in a spirited game of tag. So, why did Andrew not engage in the story circle, and why did his teachers find this acceptable?
Inclusion Begins in the Heart
Preschoolers with special needs like Andrew are often seen as incomplete or less-capable than their classmates. Children with obvious handicaps can appear “sickly” so we tend to make exceptions for their behavior. We pity them and subconsciously create roles of “giver” and “receiver,” which ultimately block healthy relationships. Another common mistake is thinking children with disabilities are special angels sent from God to teach us something, as if they exist for our benefit. These false perceptions are actually forms of prejudice and devalue the child. Many children with physical disabilities, including those on the autism spectrum, have above average IQs. Regardless of their special needs, they are no less important to God.
A class at church should be a welcome place for children with special needs because the Bible clearly teaches that every child is “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance (Ephesians 2:10).” These children are different, not deficient. When we interact with them, we are not stooping to a lower level. Each child has equal value and can be a blessing to others, whether handicapped or not. Each one possesses spiritual gifts designed to build up and bless God’s kingdom on earth. We also know that Jesus made people with disabilities a priority in his ministry and our attitudes must be the same (Luke 14:13-14, Philippians 2:5).
Negative attitudes toward disabilities are often fostered by inaccurate information, fear and lack of personal experience. But when our hearts are willing, we can replace negative attitudes with Christ-like ones. We can renew our minds in relation to disabilities by focusing on God’s view of others and letting him fill our hearts with love for these children and their families. “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5:5).”
Reaching for my yellow pad and a #2 pencil, I went to work on an action plan to get Andrew back into the story circle. My first task was to help all of the teachers reexamine any underlying tendencies and preconceived notions they had about the children with special needs.
Unwrapping Our Strengths and Differences
#1 – Review the children’s ministry mission statement at the next teachers’ meeting.
Our mission is to provide a loving, caring environment where all children can develop spiritually, socially, and intellectually to meet life’s challenges and experience God’s great love. Our primary goal is to help children understand that God created the world and each person with unique talents, gifts and abilities. We want children to experience success, to practice making decisions and to become critical thinkers. Our teachers guide children in a positive, Christ-like manner and encourage them to use their imaginations.
Some Christian churches do not provide special needs ministries, blaming the cost of specialized equipment and resources. However, many children with special needs do not require extra materials, and parents are often willing to help train volunteers. On the other hand, some churches work to provide funding and recruit volunteers because they see accepting children with special needs as a ministry to the families in their community. Either way, you can begin by respecting your church’s current position while working to increase awareness of the needs of children with disabilities.
#2 – Discuss why children with special needs might avoid an activity.
Preschool is the ideal time to integrate differences because young children have no preconceived notions and tend to accept what they are exposed to and taught. Smaller bodies can easily be lifted out of wheelchairs for playing on the floor where parallel play is common. Developmental delays are less obvious, and children with special needs can benefit from modeling the behavior of typical peers who are also learning about accepting others.
There are usually unspoken reasons why children with special needs separate themselves from a group. Loving teachers can use the following mental checklist to determine what their students with special needs may be thinking. The key is getting to know each child’s unique challenges.
- “My personal space is being invaded.”
- Â “I do not like change in routine, new situations or new people.”
- “My senses are on overload.”
- “I do not feel good because my medication has changed.”
- “You do not understand me and I do not understand you.”
- “I feel helpless; I want to be in control.”
- “I am scared or uncomfortable.”
For example, when Betsy first came to Sunday school, she refused to eat her snack or even sit at the table with her friends. Eventually, her teacher discovered that Betsy’s autism made her hyper-sensitive to the smell of plastic spoons and forks. When the class began using stainless utensils at snack time, Betsy was able to participate.
#3 – Review how to include children fairly, not equally.
Preschool children are in the pre-operational stages of cognitive development. Their thinking is concrete, focusing on the real things they can see, touch, and manipulate. They gain knowledge by interacting with objects and people in their world. If they see another child getting something they do not have, they are quick to declare, “That is not fair!” As children grow they begin to comprehend that what is fair and best is not always the same thing for everyone. For example, because Jorge seldom speaks, his classmates are not surprised when he uses word cards instead of saying his memory verse. They are less accepting when Molly is allowed to fidget with a toy during chapel time because she has an attention deficit disorder.
When questions arise, teachers can be prepared to give meaningful answers. Parents want their children to feel accepted in class and are anxious to help teachers explain their child’s abilities, but it is a good idea to discuss it with them in advance. Here are some questions that may arise.*
Why can’t Amy walk? . . . Amy’s muscles are not as strong as yours.
Why can’t Tommy talk? . . . The part of Tommy’s brain that helps him with words does not work quite right. How can we help him show us what he wants without words?
Is Sheri still a baby because she wears diapers? . . . She can do some things like a big girl, but this one area is giving her extra trouble.
Is Joey crazy? . . . No, Joey has autism. His brain does not work exactly like yours and mine, which makes him act different from other people. But you should see how smart he is with puzzles!
Why does Latisha look like that? . . . Sometimes babies are born different. Have you noticed that no two trees look exactly alike? That’s the way it is with people.
#4 – Cover families affected by disabilities with prayer.
At the core, programs at church are evangelistic, outreach ministries. Colossians 1:28-29 says, “We proclaim him [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
Frequently, it is during a child’s preschool years that parents are challenged to come to grips with the fact that their son or daughter has a special need. Sometimes a teacher is the first to notice that a child is not developing in one or more areas. This is a sensitive issue requiring godly wisdom on how to approach the family and still maintain confidentiality. Teachers need to be reminded that it is a privilege to pray for these families because disabilities do not just happen to a child. There are parents, siblings, grandparents and extended family members who may need the love of Jesus Christ in order to be supportive and accepting of their new “normal.”
As our teaching team discussed the four-point plan I outlined and prayed for Andrew, I encouraged his teacher to talk with his parents. Knowing them personally, I felt confident that they would encourage her to gently draw Andrew into the story group. They acknowledged that Andrew had different challenges than some of his peers, but assured his teacher that he would respond to what was expected of him and in turn, learn more about Jesus. In the end, we all grew closer through our shared experience… and Andrew enjoyed the new camaraderie with his teachers and classmates.
*Special Needs Smart Pages by Joni and Friends. (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light Publishing, 2009), p. 151.
Pat Verbal is the Manager of Curriculum Development at the Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends. She is a well-published author and the creative editor of the Special Needs Smart Pages by Joni and Friends. She co-authored Life in the Balance, Special Needs Special Ministry and is a columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine. Pat is a featured speaker in churches, conferences, and the media, sharing her twenty-five years of ministry experience as a pastor, teacher, and school administrator. She holds an MA from Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University where she also served on the Council of Church Leaders.