I began my journey, of initiating a special needs ministry, 23 years ago when my son was born with Down syndrome. As active members of a church and because he was a tiny infant, most of our church members were supportive and rallied around our family. But although he had certain special needs at that time, the more significant challenges presented themselves as he grew older.
It has been my experience that most families with special needs children remain unchurched because there is no support system that will allow them to attend a typical Sunday school or children’s church setting. Although it may seem an insurmountable task, or something you hope God is not calling you to do, I must ask you, if not you, then who? It is not only easier than you think it is also more rewarding than you can ever imagine.
I often hear from parents, how lucky I am that my child “just” has Down syndrome. While there are many families who have more significant disabilities to deal with and while recognizing that each child will have unique educational and emotional needs, since Down syndrome is one of the most common causes of intellectual disability, allow me to use this as our example.
Most of the time the difficulty begins as the child ages and becomes school age. Pretending that the need doesn’t exist and promoting a child based only on their chronological age is not a good idea. For example, Zachary at seven years of age was intellectually closer to a preschooler so he remained in the early primary grade classes for many years. That being said, it is important that if the elementary age child is in a regular Sunday school class, that an extra adult assistant be added specifically to support the needs of that individual student.
Don’t be afraid to tell your other students what the child’s situation is. You can handle it simply by saying for example, “Zachary was born with Down syndrome which causes him to learn differently than you do.” Be careful to explain the situation without the disabled child being within ear shot.
As an adult our son fits into the average of a typical young adult with Down syndrome, and has an average IQ of 50, or equivalent to the mental age of an 8 or 9 year old child. As much as I love my son and would like to think that he could fit in with peers of his same age, it would not be in anyone’s benefit to place Zachary in the young adult class nor is it appropriate to “leave” him with the youth.
A special needs class for those with intellectual disabilities can be easily started using a typical early primary to 2nd grade curriculum. My suggestion would be to begin this class when your students reach middle school. This means that specific classroom would be geared for them. Since most students have special needs friends, don’t be surprised if your class grows more quickly than you imagine. If you begin with one student I would recommend one teacher and one assistant. This should be sufficient for now and also prepare you for later growth.
Enlist support from teachers in your church that can offer suggestions and help based on their experience working with developmental delays and/or learning disabilities. However, teaching this class does not require a special education degree. Rather, a committed spirit, patience, acceptance and the ability to love the individual child is imperative. After all, they are individuals with the ability to learn and they have a lot to give. I believe that you will be blessed more than you can imagine.
You can also see a list of all of Kim’s blog posts here.