Unification Sermons and Talks
Teaching Sunday School: Special Needs Children also have a Right to Religious Education
by Vicki Henry-Minneapolis Sunday School Director
The issue of special needs children in our church is a very important and person one to me. When my second child, Matthew, was born, he couldn't breathe. Consequently, he ended up having a tracheotomy and lived with a trach tube for the first 6 1/2 years of his life. When he was still a baby, I went through so many "ups" and "downs"-mostly "downs". I found myself questioning my entire religious and life path. But then I had a dream in which all the Unification Church members were gathered in an auditorium. Father was on the stage. He brought all the Blessed Children who had been born with Downs Syndrome up onto the stage. They were all teenagers by that time. Father then said, "These children have paid the indemnity." I didn't know for what particular thing(s) this indemnity had been paid, but I assumed it was for something very important and significant in the growth of Heavenly Father's Kingdom. This dream was the first step in my slow realization and revelation as to the extra specialness of these children, who were also chosen by God, to be the beginning of a world filled with His love.
For so long in our church, it was silently understood that only "able- bodied" and "able-minded" individuals are what Heavenly Father needed. The role of the special-needs individual was glossed over as a tragedy in God's Providence. But I might add here that working for God's Providence is the way of restoration. We have many things to restore, from our own personal lives to our ancestral heritage, our nation's history, etc. Incorporated into that is a series of attitudes towards special-needs individuals, of special-needs individuals and about special-needs individuals which also need to be restored. The reasons for this restoration are varied and many. The point is we must respect and value these special-needs persons as well as their unique course and the course of their families. Special-needs children and adults have a right to a religious education the same as anyone else. They are also God's children.
Inclusive vs. Exclusive
The benefits of Sunday School inclusion for special-needs students is quite obvious. First, they will be getting the same education and attention to their spiritual lives as all the rest of the children. Their families will also feel hope for their child to be able to understand Divine Principle and God's love, as well as hope for their child's Blessing.
For the "normal" child, having special-needs children in their classes will help them learn compassion, patience, understanding and acceptance.
If we want our church to grow, if we want others to be able to experience and know God and His love on a daily basis, if we truly want the entire world to be Blessed, we have to be a church which is inclusive of everyone. This means adapting building structures, room arrangements, buying proper equipment and supplies, and also adapting our teaching methods.
True inclusion doesn't mean making exceptions or excuses for those children with special needs. If a child is to be truly included in every aspect of what happens in the classroom, he or she must be allowed to fully participate in every activity. If all the children are sitting on the floor and you have one child sitting in a wheelchair, that child is being excluded. He is not doing the same thing as the rest of his classmates. If the dress code is that all the boys wear ties, what happens to a little boy who has a trach tube? To make exceptions is to make their differentness stand out in a negative way. It also does not allow acceptance to happen. The meaning of inclusion is to include.
Note: Personally, I feel requiring a certain type of dress for Sunday School is creating an exclusive environment for all children and adults. Neat, clean and well-groomed should be the only standard. If we start requiring dress shirts, suits, patented leather shoes, white gloves, fancy dresses for the children in Sunday School, we will be excluding a lot of families who may not be financially able to meet those standards. Not to mention that it puts an "elitist edge" on the church itself. What really matters is the internal heart. Remember, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," not designer suits and dresses.
Classroom Strategies for Inclusion
For as many learning styles as there are, we must have corresponding teaching styles. You will find that this will benefit all of your students, not just those with special needs. Certain classroom strategies are essential for true inclusion. They are:
1. Hands-On Center Teaching: These are called "stations" or "learning centers." This arrangement sets the stage for small groupings of children. If you are faced with the dilemma of having 10 children ages 5-12 years in your class, this is an excellent style to incorporate. It also frees the teacher to move around the room to each center to assist, maintain control and have extra time to work with those students who need it.
2. Child- and Teacher-Directed Activities: This is where the teacher incorporates the children's ideas into the curriculum. Idea boards or suggestion boxes are in this category. When ideas come from children, you are automatically setting the stage for the children to be enthusiastic, cooperative and creative. A special note: children who are non-verbal should also help make choices. Find a way to help augment their communication.
3. The Teacher as Facilitator: This style throws the lecturing format out the window (which is where I feel it should go, especially when teaching young children). Facilitating education involves 5 steps: planned activities (fun, hands-on, open-ended), presenting material and information (sharing knowledge, not lecturing; can be done through Q&A), grouping children (to allow peer teaching and assisting), monitoring behavior (to make sure children stay focused, materials are used correctly and no one is left out), helping children come up with the answers (asking open-ended questions to help children think, create and problem-solve).
4. Cooperative Education: This is peer tutoring; it helps in socialization.
5. Multi-Aged Classrooms: This allows children to work at the level which is best for them but still not feel left out or different.
6. Individualized Education: An education plan which is best for each child individually because we all learn in different ways, at different speeds; this is for all children, not just special-needs children.
7. Low Child-to-Teacher Ratio: Small group size is very important for quality education and absolutely necessary for individualized education. Pre-school should be a ratio of 1 teacher to 10 students, elementary classes should be 1 teacher to 12-15 students at the most.
Some resources which are excellent on inclusion are as follows:
Making School Inclusion Work: A Guide to Everyday Practices by Katie Blenk
Opening Doors: Strategies for Including All Students in Regular Education by C. Beth Schaffner and Barbara E. Buswell
Adapting Early Childhood Curricula for Children with Special Needs, Third Edition by Ruth E. Cook, Annette Tessier and M. Diane Klein
That All May Worship: an interfaith welcome to people with disabilities by Ginny Thornburg
All the Special Children, VHS video, Dr. Leo Buscaglia, narrator
I also have made a compilation of what I considered the best and most pertinent information necessary for Sunday School teachers. It is called, simply, A Guide for Inclusion of Special Needs Children: excerpts and is $15.00 plus $3.50 shipping and handling. You can write me for it at: 827 6th Ave. N., St. Cloud, MN 56303. Make checks payable to: Vicki Henry.
While attending the National Sunday School Teachers' workshop in NY in August, I talked briefly on inclusion. In doing so, I talked of Matthew and my other son, Sean, who is autistic. After we broke for lunch, two other members approached me saying they had autistic sons as well. This has inspired me to want to establish a newsletter for our church members who have all types of special-needs children.
Even though there are non-church related support groups of various kinds. I feel our church members go through some things that other people do not and that it is, perhaps, easier to "talk" to a church member about their circumstances.
If you would be interested in receiving this newsletter and/or contributing articles or tidbits, please write me at the above address. Please include the name of your child, age and what their special need is. This will help me in putting together a relevant and useful newsletter.
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