When teaching the faith to children with special learning needs, begin with Bible stories depicted by the most beautiful illustrations you can find. Bible stories introduce us to God who is fiercely holy and righteous while also merciful, compassionate, and true to His promises. Bible stories are the bedrock of biblical literacy. Before a child can read the Holy Scriptures for himself, he can hear stories. Before a child can comprehend doctrine, he can hear stories. Before he can express his faith with eloquence, he can hear stories.
Biblical literacy begins with the very personal names, places, and events of biblical historicity: Creation spoken into existence in the Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve cast out due to sin and promised a Savior; Noah and his family mocked by others but preserved by the Lord in the Ark.
We encourage multiple readings of Bible stories. In our home we sought reliable texts from Holy Scripture or with wording as close to the Scriptures as possible. Then we read each version from start to finish. We desired realistic sacred art within the volumes. It was important to me that my children did not see frivolous depictions, but instead that any illustrations conveyed the comforting assurance that these stories are as real as any other we teach from history.
At Memoria Press we introduce children to Jesus through age-appropriate books and simple, daily lessons. We begin with Jesus, for “He is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:17).
Older Students and Teens
In a Christian school, Sunday school, homeschool group, or confirmation class you will find a mix of students with varying degrees of biblical literacy and faith instruction. A pastor recently asked me if I had any suggestions for teaching catechesis or confirmation class materials to a young person with special needs.
It breaks my heart that with as many as one in five children facing significant learning challenges, many churches do not yet have confessional materials available to them for teaching the faith to young people with special needs.
I told the pastor that one-on-one tutoring may be needed for some things, but that he should consider including the student for group instruction whenever possible. I offered him suggestions in several areas.
Acceptance: At the beginning of each class, set the tone by praying with thanksgiving for every student present. Acknowledge that each is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Give thanks that the Lord desires all to come to salvation. Give thanks that the Church is a body made of many and varied members. Pray for all to have patience, wisdom, and forbearance with fervent love toward one another.
Memory Work: If necessary, require that the student memorize only one key verse per tenet of the faith or catechism. Provide memory verses in advance. Even if a student’s memory work must be abbreviated, lead group recitations with full verses displayed in large manuscript font on flip charts or on the board for all to hear and see, as “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Bible Stories: If biblical literacy is lacking, read sequentially through one or two Bible stories at the beginning of each class period. Send home readable versions for students who need them.
Prayer: During corporate prayers, encourage all students to pray along silently. Do not call on your struggling student to pray aloud extemporaneously if he is not adept at oral expression. You might assign him a brief prayer to practice at home if he must pray aloud individually.
Hymns: When students learn new hymns, teach the refrain first. Teach stanzas through call and response. Discuss meanings of words. Focus on one or two hymns to learn thoroughly by heart. Think multum non multa (much not many). When teaching additional hymnody or liturgical elements, encourage all students to listen, sing, and follow along to the greatest extent possible.
Visual Aids: Display wall maps. Supply flashcards of key memory verses. Provide printed outlines for taking notes in class or send home questions for completion prior to class to allow for improved attention during class. Display select sacred art posters for teaching about the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, and the Church. Display posters of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer for daily group review if any student does not yet know these.
Reflection: Use resources for directed reflection (such as My Thankfulness Journals) to encourage devotional reflection. Especially for students with special needs, the teen years can become fraught with destructive self-pity if not guided toward more suitable, edifying, and hopeful thankfulness each day. Allow oral or scribed responses if necessary.
Support: If a parent, aide, sibling, or grandparent is available to take notes or otherwise reduce obstacles for a student with special needs, consider allowing the support person to attend classes quietly.
Fellowship: While a tutorial approach for catechizing and practicing at home may work well, even students with social challenges will appreciate being part of a welcoming class for Christian fellowship.
Freedom to Adapt
Do not fret about providing accommodations for a student who needs them. If the student were in a wheelchair, we would build a ramp to the church or we would carry him to Jesus! Your “ramp” will be of threefold construction: teaching one-on-one where needed, ensuring biblical literacy, and welcoming the student with any necessary supports to impart the eternal, communal benefits of the Christian faith.
Embrace the challenge. Students with special needs help us sharpen catechesis to the essentials. Let this refresh your teaching as you lead all students toward what is needful for forgiveness and fortification in Jesus Christ.
Nothing is more important.
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“Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).