At the beginning of each year, we restock our tool chest with new curriculum, crafts, games, snacks, prizes, and Bibles as we prepare our classroom for the incoming students. We check and double check that we have everything we need in our tool chest, but we often forget to get information on our incoming students, especially those who have special needs.
Learning is definitely more challenging for some children due to their behavior associated with a diagnosis. That diagnosis often gets in the way of their learning and growing in their relationship with Jesus. How can we as leaders come alongside and assist children who have special needs in our churches? One of our greatest tools is an understanding of each particular special need. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3-5 percent of American school age children are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some of the physical characteristics of ADHD are: getting up and moving around inappropriately, talking constantly, fidgeting, blurting out answers, acting impulsively, having a low frustration threshold and exhibiting difficulty transitioning. You may find yourself repeating your requests for the child to sit down, stop talking, sit still, and to keep their hands off another child. Much to your dismay, your requests often go unheeded and the tension levels rise in the room! What are your options before the situation gets out of hand?
In working with children with ADHD for many years I found that one of the tools I use seems silly, but it is very useful and is easy to do without drawing attention to the child. Speak with the child before class starts in order to come up with a hand signal that you can use when you need the child to sit, to listen, to pay attention. One of my favorites is a hand gesture I use when I need the child to pay attention to what I am saying; I tap my nose. Since we agreed beforehand, the child then knows I need him to be quiet and pay attention. When a child looks at your nose he is more apt to look you directly in the eye and your message becomes more effective! Using a simple hand signal is a gentle but effective method of redirecting behavior.
Children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum are predominately boys and one out of every 150 children is affected. The severity of the disorder varies from mildly to severely impacting development. Many of the students on the autism spectrum have difficulty with loud music, a lot of visual stimuli, change in routine, lack of eye contact or difficulty with social interactions and communication. Understanding their disruptive behaviors is a necessity as the behaviors are functional and serve a purpose for the child. You may not understand what that purpose is and it may only make sense to the child, especially in a stressful situation. Knowing how to calm a child can make a difference in whether or not the child has an opportunity to learn about Jesus. One strategy is to take them to a “quiet room” where they can calm down; another is to have them enter the classroom first so they are not visually overwhelmed by all their classmates. Sometimes, it is a matter of the child understanding the nuances of social interactions.
While we all at times have felt shy or anxious, 10-15 percent of children, kindergarten through eighth grade, are very shy and 2-3 percent have difficulty separating from their parents. Children who are shy or experience anxiety reportedly cry for no apparent reason, blush, stammer, speak very quietly with their head bowed very low, or don’t speak at all. Others appear to “freeze” when they are spoken to, blush when they are called upon, have sweating hands and report that they feel their hearts are racing. Working with Sue* who had a lot of trouble separating from her parents each week, her parents and I decided to put a plan into action to help ease her anxiety. To help her transition into elementary children’s church, we had Sue come in for a few minutes each Sunday prior to her transitioning from early childhood. In addition, I took time to explain exactly what to expect in each class where she would be present. No tricks, no hidden agendas! Removing the “what if” questions that were often present in her mind helped her to join the kindergarten class. Once Sue was more comfortable, I paired her with a more extroverted and empathetic child to help her meet more children in her class.
Regardless of a child’s unique needs, your goal needs to include understanding the whole child by speaking with the child’s parents about what his or her current needs are and how to best address those needs by being patient, and flexible. A child who loves his or her teacher will respond to the best of their ability.