By Mary Ann McPherson
Ten years ago, I heard God’s prompting to volunteer as a Sunday School teachers’ aide for a child with a disability. It should have been an easy task, my youngest daughter was born with Down syndrome and I had a degree in Child Development. However, I soon found myself overwhelmed with the challenge of meeting the needs of a child who had significant special needs within a classroom of typically developing children. This little boy responded very differently than the other children. He spent a lot of time wandering around the classroom and occasionally had a temper tantrum, particularly when the class was noisy. Building relationships was difficult because he was indifferent to all children and adults. His limited social skills impacted his ability to participate in both large and small group settings. In fact, his preference was to be in the quiet, dark classroom next door. His disability also impacted his cognitive and fine motor development. That made crafts a painful experience. Really, his best time in the classroom was during snack. Even though I cared deeply and prayed often, I knew that what had worked in the past with other children, even other children with disabilities, didn’t work with this child. I felt ineffective and frustrated.
You may be in a similar place in your ministry to young children. Unfortunately, a quick trip to the web page of the Autism Society of America may only increase your anxiety. Statistics taken in 2006 report one child in every 150 births was diagnosed somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Autism is reported to be the fastest growing developmental disability in America. Also, Autism is a “spectrum disorder” so two children with the identical diagnosis can have totally different skills and may act completely different from one another.
My discouragement ultimately led to a time away from the Sunday School classroom. However, I was still serving as a preschool teacher/administrator for our local school district during the week. To meet the requirements of professional development in that setting, I began working on an Early Intervention License. Then two years ago I co-taught a small special education preschool classroom with a teacher who had many years experience working with children who had developmental disabilities. I wondered what would happen if I took the structure of that secular environment and transferred it to a week of Vacation Bible School. I was amazed with the results! With a few adaptations, the interventions I used at school were successful in a church setting.
The first step was to design a classroom routine that never changes. This is as rigid as it sounds but I have found that children with special needs thrive on routine. The morning begins with quiet center activities like blocks, play dough, books, the sensory table and some kind of a simple art activity that involves coloring, stickers, watercolors or stringing. A few of the children benefit from having an adult aide who helps them make and follow a visual picture schedule. That adult is also present to facilitate interactions between children or to give simple directions during play. “Keep sand in table” instead of “Don’t throw the sand on the floor.”
I warn the children verbally and with a visual timer 5 minutes before I begin our “group time.” The structure of Group Time never varies and a picture schedule shows the children what will happen.
1. A welcome song where every child’s name is sung,
2. The Bible verse
3. A Bible story that uses props that the children can see and touch.
4. A time for songs that the children choose.
5. Prayer Time.
6. A closing song that never changes.
I use the same scripture verse and Bible story for two to three weeks. During group time some children need to hold thera-putty or squishy balls to increase attention. Others need to sit on therapy balls instead of in chairs. Still others benefit from holding the story props.
A structured routine and adaptive equipment may seem very foreign and uncomfortable to you at first. That feeling will change when your children with disabilities learn about God’s love for them. Their peers become more accepting of differences and some will become miniature helpers.
I don’t need statistics to know that there is an increase of children with developmental disabilities, because they now arrive at my classroom door each year. As I have learned to make adaptations in my curriculum and classroom structure, my concern has shifted away from how to handle challenging behavior. Now, I wonder how many families in our community are staying home from church because they know that volunteers are not equipped to meet the needs of their child. How many of those children will never know that Jesus loves them and knows their name? Let us strive to be more like Jesus, “Let the children come unto me.”
Mary Ann lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband, David and 2 teenage daughters, Kate and Sarah. She is a Preschool Director and an Early Intervention Specialist for the Madeira City School District. At Montgomery Community Church, she is a teacher for the Special Hope classroom with Crosstown Children’s Ministry. Mary Ann also helped write a chapter in the book “Special Needs Special Ministry” by Group Publishing. You can contact Mary Ann at [email protected]