Special needs Sunday School
The traditional ‘Sunday School’ provides a safe environment for children of any age to learn from the Bible in an age-relevant way while their parents are taught in church.
But what happens when a child is unable to engage with their teaching because they have Special Educational Needs? How does the Sunday School maintain faithful Bible teaching which is inclusive and accessible for all? Sometimes this means supporting children in their classes, and differentiating teaching material.
But at Christ Church Fulwood in Sheffield, it was felt that a separate group was needed. And through it whole families have been helped, and God’s sovereignty and love for children with Special Educational Needs has been shown.
Kate Selby, the children’s ministry co-ordinator at Christ Church Fulwood, said that, in order to cater for every child’s needs, a separate group was needed on a Sunday morning.
‘We had reached a stage where it wasn’t possible for several of our children to access the teaching in the mainstream groups. Our new group, called Smilers, presents Bible teaching that the children can engage with. It is a forum where each child can be who they are: if they are active, or inattentive and have physical needs, we cater for them in Smilers.’
The new group came as answered prayer for mother-of-four Helen, whose seven-year-old son Ben has a condition resulting in issues including speech and understanding difficulties along with a short concentration span.
‘Before, Ben didn’t access the gospel. He might say he learned about God but it was abstract so it was difficult for him’, Helen said. ‘Now, he’s engaged, he enjoys it, he can understand it and he feels happy.’
Smilers has been running every week since September, and was made possible through a special needs teacher in the congregation being willing to use her expertise to help get the vision off the ground.
The main aim each week is to teach truths from the Bible in a way which the children in the group can engage with, in an environment which is flexible and adaptable according to the specific needs of the children. For example, Jess is a ten-year-old who has Downs Syndrome and she likes to dance when there is music playing. Her mother Claire says that Jess needs things to be visual for her to have a chance of understanding. ‘When Jess was younger it was easier, but now they are expected to listen to longer stories and talks which Jess can’t cope with or understand.’
Claire feels that the ideal thing would be for Jess to be taught alongside her peers in the mainstream Sunday School, but this is not always possible.
But an important aspect of this ministry is inclusion with the rest of the children’s programme during the ‘together time’ which happens before the separate teaching groups start. This involves singing, prayers, notices, birthday fun and it means the special needs group is not withdrawn totally from the mainstream.
The new group involves far less reading and writing, and much more opportunity for visual teaching aids. It may involve singing, a craft activity, some miming, puppets, lots of repetition, the use of a flannel graph; anything which is not too complicated or difficult to understand.
The age-range of the group is as flexible as the programme: one attendee is a young adult with learning difficulties called Heather. She is there as a helper, but is benefiting hugely from the style of teaching and the attention from the leaders. Her mother Brenda says that before the group existed they were unable to go to church as a family. ‘The church service is too long and complicated for Heather to take in and she cannot concentrate for the length of the sermon. Now, going to church is something she likes to do and she is remembering what she has learnt. A few weeks ago Heather came home and re-enacted Jesus calming the storm.’
But there are many challenges involved in forming such a group, says Kate Selby, children’s co-ordinator. ‘You need a small amount of leaders because a rota of ten is too many different faces — yet they need to be good communicators who are flexible, as things might not go to plan. Each child ideally needs dedicated one on one help, and it’s very important to talk with the parents.’
She also recommends that churches use the services of the local education authority. They may be able to offer training sessions in teaching and leading activities for children with special educational needs. Obviously this is unlikely to include specific Bible teaching help, but skills used in schools and other places can be easily transferred. It may also help to contact the child’s teacher, if they attend a special school, to find out what the child best responds to in that environment.
When considering a group for children with special educational needs, it is important that at all costs the parent and child are kept at church without compromising the experience of other children. And it is vital that in all things we remember that every single child is made in the image of God and should be given the opportunity to know God.