Children with Special Needs and God

Children with Special Needs and God - Parenting Like Hannah
Photo by USACE Norfolk District
Peter is one of my favorite apostles. Mainly, I think it is because we have very similar personalities. He is also probably one of the best examples of God taking someone from where he was. With Jesus’ love and training, God used Peter to do amazing things in His Kingdom. Peter was very likely a poorly educated fisherman, at least compared to someone like the apostle Paul. Yet Jesus took him from the fishing boat and worked with him patiently for three years. Let’s face it, Peter made some major mistakes that could have gotten him fired had the apostles been a corporation. Yet even after his denial of Jesus, Jesus still sought him out and worked with him. Just a few weeks later, Peter preached the sermon on Pentecost basically creating the first congregation of believers. Later God also used Peter to preach to Cornelius and open the church to Gentiles. Evidently, God can see past any weaknesses we have and help grow us to where he can use us.

One of my passions is working with children with special needs. It doesn’t matter if the child has autism, is blind, is from a deprived environment or is gifted, I love helping children reach their full potential. That is why I majored in education. As a trained teacher, who now homeschools her child, I totally understand many schools only do a marginal job at helping children with special needs reach their full potential. Sadly though, I think the church as a whole does a much worse job.  From my experiences in congregations large and small, children with special needs are largely being ignored or merely tolerated. I don’t think it is because these children are loved any less, it is just that people don’t know how to help them. (This also happens to children with special gifts.)

I want to encourage you as a parent or a Bible class teacher of a child with special needs not to assume the child is either incapable of getting anything out of Bible teaching or is getting everything they can out of the Bible teaching they are receiving.  There are several easy steps you can start taking to help every child get more from Bible instruction at church and home.

1. What special needs or challenges does the child face? Hopefully as a parent you know this information, but if not, ask your child’s school teachers. As a Bible class teacher, it is actually a good practice to ask this of all parents. Sometimes it may only be that they are allergic to peanuts, but sometimes the information you learn may be crucial to helping the child not only learn more, but enjoy your class and really want to come to church.

2.  What parts of your lesson will be difficult for the child to either participate in or understand? Does your class require a lot of reading and writing and several of the children are struggling readers? I actually know one woman who stopped coming to church when she was young because she was embarrassed when asked to read in class (she was illiterate). Are you trying to teach a concept that is too complicated for a child to understand? Or is the subject matter too juvenile for your students? I have seen literature at both extremes and it frustrates most of the children in some way or another. Does your lesson require motor skills or some other skill (think verbal, auditory, processing, etc.) that may mean one or more of the children won’t get anything out of that lesson?

3. What can you do to adapt the lesson so all of the children in your class learn as much from the lesson as they possibly can? I know this step scares a lot of people, but it doesn’t need to. Usually I have found that if my lessons are hands on experiences, that I make sure the Bible story is understood by everyone and that I help the children understand the practical application behind the lesson – most children will come away having learned something they will remember. Often this means throwing out the workbooks. Let’s face it, I doubt many of you enjoyed those yourself or learned much from those fill-in-the-blank activities. There are a lot of websites online that can give you ideas on how to add hands on experiences to many Bible stories and concepts. Hopefully as time goes on this website will add more of those resources. (Now you can access some fun activities for learning about some of the Biblical Feasts and how they were fulfilled by Jesus and a study on baptism. Just look in the sidebar for additional resources.)

4. What extra resources do you need to make your lesson successful for every student? For some students, this may mean they need a special adult helper to come to class with them and give them the extra assistance they need. Please do not ask the parent to fill this role. Instead try to find an educator or someone who loves children. Have the child’s parent train them in how to help their child, but then let the parent attend adult classes. Try to have Bibles at all reading levels in your class if you require Bible reading. The NIrV is written on a lower grade level but contains all of the verses. I am not generally a fan of some of the versions that aren’t direct translations, but they may help a child understand what they are reading better (if they are mainly accurate). You may need to find a children’s Bible with pictures for every story (there are a couple out there) so a non-reading child can at least look at the pictures. Bi-lingual Bibles might be necessary for a child for whom English is not the language spoken at home. Have advanced study materials for your gifted learners. We lose a lot of these potential leaders as they become bored to death in the average children’s Bible class.

5. Ask the children periodically what they have learned or what they like or don’t like about your class. You may be very surprised at some of the answers. There are some lesson series I taught over thirty years ago that those now adult “kids” still talk about whenever I run into them! The most interesting thing is when you think you have made one point abundantly clear and the children have taken something else entirely away from what you said! We don’t want to encourage children to develop a critical spirit, but we do want to make sure they are learning.

6. Never assume a child cannot learn what God needs them to know. We really have no idea what these children can accomplish for God’s Kingdom. I always assume that if someone follows God, He has an amazing plan for them. It helps me to value every child and their strengths and weaknesses. I try to help them build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses. This may mean I help them with the “academic” part of learning and understanding God’s Word or it may mean I help them discover the gifts God has given them and how they can use them to further God’s Kingdom.

I hope this post encourages to take a second look at all of the children you touch – whether they are your own or your students. Start assuming that each one of them could be the next missionary, teacher or encourager the church needs. Analyze what you know about each child and develop a plan to help them reach their full potential in God’s Kingdom. They need to somehow learn and understand as much Bible as they possibly can. Then they need to find out what they can do in the Kingdom. I know this process is time consuming, but think of it as helping build a foundation for the church of the future.

I had a friend who worked with the most extremely disabled children there are. Normally most of them would have been in institutions, but their parents decided to keep them at home. Do you know my friend was able to find jobs for everyone of these children? Many were in wheelchairs, with little or no muscle control and IQ’s that were unbelievably low. Yet there was something they could do of value for the business world. I have to believe God can use them to further His Kingdom as well. If God can use a fisherman, He can use all of our children, no matter how “normal”, “special” or “gifted”. Let’s all work together to help them find the path God has laid for them!

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Thereasa Winnett

Thereasa Winnett is the founder of Teach One Reach One and blogger at Parenting Like Hannah. She holds a BA in education from the College of William and Mary. She has served in all areas of ministry to children and teens for more than thirty years and regularly leads workshops for ministries and churches. She has conducted numerous workshops, including sessions at Points of Light’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, the National Urban Ministry Conference, Pepperdine Bible Lectures, and Lipscomb’s Summer Celebration. Thereasa lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Greg, where she enjoys reading, knitting, traveling and cooking.

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