10 Tips for Teaching Sunday school to Children with Special Needs

Top 10 Tips for Teaching Sunday School to Children with Special Needs

In Luke 14, Jesus speaks about a banquet that He has prepared for all those that are invited to His table. If you read the passage carefully, you will notice that the first attendees at His banquet are the poor and disabled. When I teach Sunday School, I like to think that I am preparing a spiritual banquet for all who gather at my “table.” (I also have the awesome privilege of preparing a banquet for those who will likely get a first seat at our Lord’s table.) I want the lessons to have a little bit of everything- appetizers to awaken their palates, a main course that nourishes and satisfies, and dessert to end on a sweet note. The question becomes, “How do we prepare a spiritual banquet that children with disabilities can ‘eat’?” Here are my top 10 tips you can use today in order to start to prepare nourishing spiritual food for your Sunday School classes, regardless of ability level.

1. Use a visual schedule (and visual timers)

All of us- regardless of age and cognitive abilities- all like to know what is coming next and how long we have to complete an activity. However, for children with special needs- in particular those on the autism spectrum- their need for control over time and being made aware of what will come next in any given situation- can be satisfied with the addition of a visual schedule in the classroom and/or at their table. (If a student is old enough and can read, then a schedule with words may be sufficient.) Posting a schedule with visual indicators of what will be happening in the time that they spend with you may be one of the best ways you can help your students to be less anxious and more attentive during class time. This schedule would be created ahead of time, so from an educator’s perspective there is nothing additional to “manage” during class time. Although it will take extra time and effort outside of the Sunday morning class, once it is created, it is a very effective and “passive” form of classroom management. 

In addition to using a visual schedule, I would also highly recommend using visual timers during class time as an effective way to transition into and out of activities. The iPhone has a built-in visual timer that is very effective for showing the passage of time visually and indicating to young people how much time is left for an activity. There is also a Countdown App which has sound as well as a fun picture that is revealed once the timer finishes, which can be motivating for children as well. 

2. Make the Bible story as multisensory as possible

Most Bible lessons include some method of story-telling or explanation, which is traditionally spoken or read out loud- utilizing a verbal approach. Anytime you as the educator can add another sensory element, such as a visual representation and/or a hands-on method of storytelling, you will be increasing the likelihood of retention of verbal information for all children, but especially for students with disabilities. Examples of this could include, but are not limited to, the following: figurines, puppets, felt boards, pictures to show each part of the story, acting it out (either with volunteers or students themselves), and/or videos. Making the “meat and potatoes” of the lesson as multisensory as possible increases the impact and impression that the lesson will have on the students. This is one of the main areas in which Sunday School teachers must really stretch their creativity, however it can make the difference between whether or not the children are able to attend to and take in the content of the lesson. 

3. Use interactive books

Another wonderful way to make any lesson multisensory is to use interactive books with children. This can be done as a follow-up activity to the Bible story or it could be used as the main part of the lesson, since children are reading God’s Word in a child-friendly format. They are also using their hands and eyes to manipulate the pictures, making the information come alive to them in a personal way. Research has shown that the use of interactive books in the classroom increases comprehension and retention of concepts- both for neurotypical children as well as children with disabilities. 

This website has an ever-increasing library of interactive Bible stories to print and use in your Sunday School class or in the home environment. You can utilize a simple cut-and-paste method, which simplifies preparation for you, the teacher, or you can prepare a laminated book in order that the book may be reused over and over again. Complete directions for using these resources are included with every download. Interactive books place children in direct connection with God’s Word and engage them in the story in a fun, hands-on manner. These books can even be sent home with the students in order that their parents can re-read the story with them, thus doubling the concept exposure and comprehension time. 

4. Create crafts that are simple

While not all children enjoy coloring, it has been my experience that most children enjoy making crafts. Crafts are a fun, hands-on experience that allows the main idea of the lesson to penetrate the hearts and minds of young people. Crafts also provide an important vehicle through which the children can show their parent(s)/caregiver(s) what was taught in the lesson, even if they cannot communicate it verbally. If you do not consider yourself to be a “crafty” person, and you have volunteered to teach Sunday School or you want to teach your children God’s Word at home, there are many craft ideas online to help get you started. For children with special needs, try to strike a balance with making the craft simple and “do-able” for them while not making it so easy that they are finished too quickly. If a craft seems challenging, but you would still like to have your children/students complete it, you can always prepare the complicated part of the craft ahead of time so that the rest of the craft can be completed more independently. It is ok if the students need assistance with the craft as long as they can do the majority of the craft by themselves. Here is where familiarity with students will make a big difference. For example, if you know your students really enjoy playdough, then you can try planning crafts that involve playdough or modeling clay. If they struggle with coloring, but they like dot markers, then you can print worksheets that involve dot markers instead. If your students do not like getting their hands messy with glue, then you can look for crafts that involve peeling and adhering stickers onto a scene. Remember to keep things fun for yourself and for the children you serve. The more fun we make learning about God’s Word, the more children will look forward to coming to church and/or spending time with us at home doing these activities and learning about God. 

5. Learn as much about the student(s) as possible

This tip is mainly for Sunday School teachers, although I will touch upon how parents/caregivers can apply this tip at home, even though you already know your child well. As I briefly mentioned in the last point, it is important to learn as much as we possibly can about the children whom we will teach, especially if they have any type of learning challenges or language difficulties. I highly recommend that you ask parents/caregivers to fill out a registration form that includes specific questions in order to be prepared to meet that individual child’s needs. If your church does not currently have a form like this, or you would like a more complete form to use with your classroom, please download the registration form that I have created. It includes information about communication needs, toileting, behavior, fine motor skills, and more. Having parents fill this out will give a great wealth of knowledge as you prepare for and plan to welcome a student with a disability into your class. 

For parents/caregivers who already know their child well, you can take this tip a step further by taking a game, TV show, toy, movie, or other interest that your child has and applying it to the lesson. Sometimes we can weave in a situation from a show or movie through giving the children examples of a Biblical concept. Another way is to take a favorite game that the child already likes to play and adapting it to reinforce the concepts from the lesson. The key here is to take an interest that already exists in the child’s life and using that interest to our advantage in order to engage the student in the Bible lesson. One word of caution, though, is that if your child has an obsession with an object or toy that would become a distraction, opt for another interest that is not as strong so that you are not taking away focus from the targeted concept. 

6. Use a first/then board

A first/then board can be a very useful tool for a teacher or parent when a student is less interested in the task at hand. It is a simplified version of a visual schedule, with two clearly indicated events: what is happening first and what will happen next. If you have a student who really wants to play or do something other than the desired activity, rather than give in to their demands, using a first/then board gives a clear explanation of what is expected of the student before they can have their preferred activity. For students who are unmotivated to participate, you may have to be a detective and figure out what would be highly motivating to put on the “then” side of the board. This where the registration form provided can really help by giving you information about the child’s interests. If you have not had the parents fill out a form like that, simply ask the parents for some examples of what would be a highly motivating activity. I still recommend utilizing a visual schedule for the entire class, however individual students may need this additional support to keep them on track. 

7. Teach memory verses with sign language

One of my primary goals in teaching my own daughter the Word of God was to make sure that she was storing God’s Word in her heart. I knew she couldn’t read the Bible yet, and I knew that even though I was teaching her concepts and events from the Bible, I would be remiss if I never got the Bible’s actual words into her heart and mind. There is power in the Word of God, and therefore there is something powerful about the actual words of scripture being stored in a person’s memory. Many Sunday School teachers and Christian educators who instruct neurotypical children will expect their students to commit scriptures to memory. I wanted this for my child as well, yet I needed to add a visual element in order to engage her interest. Using sign language with scripture not only adds this visual element, but it also uses movement by engaging their whole body in the words themselves. Sign language memory verses have been an invaluable addition to my approach for teaching the Bible to my own child and others with special needs. I have enhanced this aspect of my lessons by creating illustrated sign language worksheets with puzzles and other matching activities that reinforce the memory verse(s). If you have a child who cannot yet read, these worksheets will help them tremendously as they can see the illustrated sign on the page even if they cannot read the actual words yet. Eventually they begin to learn to read the words and match them to the illustration of the sign. I hope you will consider adding sign language memory verses to your Sunday School or homeschooling Bible lessons. Check out the growing library of memory verses on this website- you will not regret adding this component to your teaching toolbox! 

8. Involve children in hands-on worship music

The Bible tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and over and over in the Book of Psalms we read about how good it is to sing praises to the Lord. Children can bring praises to the Lord with purity of heart, and it is our duty and privilege to give them opportunities to sing praises to the Lord as regularly as possible. If the children whom you serve do not have the vocal ability to sing, they might be able to use other parts of their body to praise the Lord. As mentioned in the last point, utilizing sign language for learning scripture is a powerful way to integrate God’s word into the hearts and minds of young people. Likewise, using simple hand gestures and signs along with songs also fosters a whole-body approach to worship that children naturally enjoy. If you have the opportunity to incorporate hand motions into your songs for the children, I encourage you to do so! This is also a wonderful element to add to any song that children may sing in front of the congregation on a special Sunday. 

Another great way to involve children in hands-on worship is to give them their own instruments to shake, tap, or beat. Maracas, rhythm sticks, bells, hand drums, triangles, or other simple instruments are great ways to involve children in making their own music. If you cannot afford to buy instruments for your children’s ministry, you can even make your own shakers with empty water bottles by adding dry rice and/or beans to the water bottles and sealing them tightly. You can get creative with hands-on worship, and children will enjoy the variety of ways in which they can make a joyful noise unto the Lord!

9. Start and end well

I began this post by comparing a Sunday School or homeschooling Bible lesson to a banquet. For me the most interesting courses to any banquet are the appetizers and desserts. To start the meal, I enjoy the small, tasty morsels that awaken my senses without overwhelming my stomach. To end the meal, I enjoy a light sweet note that does not weigh me down, but leaves me satisfied and delighted with the meal as a whole. It is important for any restaurant or catering hall to start and end the meal well- these are arguably the most memorable parts of the event itself. The same is true for us as Sunday School teachers: we must focus on starting and ending the lesson well. What does that mean for a Bible lesson? It could mean different things for different groups of children, so we can experiment and try to figure out what works best for the young people in our lives. 

What I have found works well for me is to start the lesson with an independent sensory experience and to end the lesson with an easy culminating activity plus the all-important bubble machine. For the beginning of the Sunday School time, the independent sensory experiences I am speaking about can be working with Playdough to mold something related to the lesson, playing with sensory bins and finding hidden clues to the day’s lesson, or a simple dot marker page that introduces today’s topic. As far as a culminating activity, this may depend upon how long the craft takes, but we can use the craft to summarize what we learned in the lesson or the children can complete a coloring page that is related to the Bible lesson. Ending the class with a few minutes of Bubble machine time is always a big hit with children from pre-k up to elementary age. They always look forward to it, and the best part is that when the parents pick up the children at the end of the lesson, they see their children having fun and it leaves the children wanting to come back the following week. 

Starting and ending well- a must have for catering businesses as well as Bible teachers! 

10. Utilize technology

Perhaps it goes without saying that children today are drawn to any input that involves screens. If you have access to technology in order to bring a particular story to life for the young people whom you serve, then you can absolutely use that technology to your advantage in a Bible lesson. Examples of this can be video-based worship songs from YouTube or other platforms, animated Bible stories, interactive games on popular Bible apps, and/ or videos to enhance a particular aspect of a lesson. If your students are drawn to a particular TV series and you know of a particular episode that highlights a Biblical concept, you can take that clip and show it in the lesson in order to apply a high-interest outside medium to everyday Bible lessons. The possibilities with technology are endless. Even if you do not consider yourself “tech-savvy,” consider starting small and learning about one aspect of technology that you can incorporate into your Bible lessons. It could be as simple as a DVD that you show your students or a YouTube video of a song that you use during worship time. Start with baby steps and you will find that technology is a great teacher’s assistant, especially when it comes to serving the special-needs population. Since children with disabilities learn visually, you will find that utilizing technology is a great way to harness their natural gravitation towards screen-based methods of learning. 

Don’t feel overwhelmed…

If you have read this article and feel as though you are not up for the job of teaching the Bible to children with special needs, please do not be discouraged. The content of this article was meant to give you as many options as possible for beginning to meet the needs of children with disabilities, but do not feel as though you need to incorporate every suggestion at once. Start with one idea and see if you can work that tip into your Sunday School lesson or your homeschooling Bible lesson with your own child. See what works and what does not work for you and the young people whom you serve. After you try one strategy, then perhaps you can slowly introduce another one. This website has easy downloadable/printable materials to help get you started so you do not feel overwhelmed. And always remember, that if the Lord has placed a student with a disability into your classroom (or family!), then He has equipped you with what you need to serve and teach them with the help and power of His Holy Spirit. The more you plan and prepare for teaching each student that comes into your classroom (or that you have the privilege of raising at home), the more delicious and satisfying the banquet will be for that child. May God bless you as you obey the Lord in carrying out this all-important work of feeding His lambs!

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