For years, secular educators debated the best placement for students with special needs in schools. While mainstreaming is common in most American schools now, it’s still hotly debated in church and ministry Bible classes for kids and teens. Often this is based more on the wishes of staff and volunteers rather than what is necessarily in the best interest of the child.
So what is the best placement in Bible classes for kids and teens with special needs? There is no one right answer, but there are definitely some factors you need to consider before making a decision.
- The majority of people with special needs have the ability to reach the age of accountability and make an informed decision about becoming a Christian. Someone estimated that as many as 80% of people with special needs will eventually reach the age of accountability – albeit at possibly much older ages than the average child. Unfortunately, few are taught enough Bible to have the knowledge base to make an informed decision. We need to teach every child with special needs as if they can one day make that choice. Some may not, but all need to be given the same opportunities as any other young person in learning about what God wants from them and for them.
- Non-verbal does not necessarily equate to cognitive issues. Speech or the lack thereof is a reflection of the brain’s ability to control the muscles involved in speech. Those areas of the brain may be damaged or underdeveloped, while cognitive areas are actually operating normally or even in the gifted range. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to assess the cognitive abilities of someone who cannot communicate, meaning many children who are cognitively within normal ranges are being treated as infants cognitively. Those who work teaching young people how to use assisted communication devices say that often the first thing nonverbal young people communicate with their device is how frustrated they are at being treated as though they are “stupid”. Don’t assume a child who cannot speak, cannot learn.
- Including young people with special needs in “regular” Bible classes means using special strategies. Lessons and activities may need to be adapted. There may be a need for extra volunteers. Peers may need special training in how to include and serve those in their class with special needs. Special classroom management strategies may be needed. This is why children with special needs are often ignored or isolated. We need to put in the extra effort though, because…
- Inclusive Bible classes are a gift to everyone involved. Young people with special needs have opportunities to make friends with peers who are hopefully more likely to be friendly than perhaps children in their schools. Children without special needs learn how to love and minister to people who are different from them. They learn how to be patient, kind, and gracious. They learn how to communicate so others can understand, not just to be heard. They have an opportunity to learn how to truly love like Jesus did.
- Sometimes your ministry will need a dedicated space for use by children with special needs. There are times when children with certain special needs need an area where they can calm themselves if they become overstimulated without disturbing others. Some children with special needs are immune compromised and may need to avoid close contact with peers during certain times. Young people should be mainstreamed as much as possible, but having an area or a dedicated room available can be helpful.
- Try to place young people with special needs as close to their chronological peer group as possible. A teen with special needs does not need to be in a class with two year olds – even if his parents were told he has the cognitive abilities of a two year old. While developmental delays can at times translate into interests more in common with younger children, there are social and safety issues involved. If the decision is made to place a child with younger peers is made, the age difference should not be more than a couple of years.
- Children with special needs should never be placed to the side and ignored or given coloring sheets when everyone else is engaged in a meaningful, fun activity. The goal should be for every child with special needs to participate in the lessons and activities as much as possible. As mentioned earlier, this may require special strategies, art supplies, a dedicated volunteer or adaptations.
- Young people with special needs are also gifted by God to serve others. Want to empower young people with special needs? Help them find the gifts God gave them to serve others, develop them and use them to serve God. According to scripture, everyone has at least one gift or talent to serve others. Don’t underestimate the value of a smile, a warm greeting, a listening ear or other unique gifts.
For too many years, young people with special needs have not been truly included and engaged in our ministries. It’s time to change that dynamic, because they have precious souls, too. They need to be as loved and included as any other young person in your ministry. They also need to be respected enough to teach them what they need to know to be the person God created them to be. We need to make changing unhealthy dynamics a priority in our ministries and help these young people grow to their godly potential.