So, how might you adapt a grade-level textbook religious education lesson for a child with special needs? Here are some handy tips to help you along the way.

Prepare

  1. Read through the Children’s Book lesson.
  2. Read through the Teacher Guide lesson that accompanies the Children’s Book.
  3. Think about what you might be able to accomplish with the time you meet with the child. Can you teach the whole lesson during one session? Do you think it might take two sessions?  Plan with your time-frame in mind.

Plan

  1. Take an inventory of all of the learning tools you have, including balls, puzzles, pictures, toys, and so on. Gather the ones that might work well as you teach this grade-level Children’s Book lesson.
  2. Allow yourself the freedom to adjust the lesson in a way that will work well with your particular student.  Imagine alternative ways to share the information in the Children’s Book.
  3. Mark up the Children’s Book and Teacher Guide with sticky notes. Record notes for yourself about what and how you want to teach this lesson. For example:
  • Children’s Book: Mark the pictures in the children’s book that you want to talk about with the child.
  • Children’s Book: Mark the articles, features, or stories that you want to paraphrase or read aloud to the child.
  • Teacher Guide: Mark the spots where you want to veer away from the book and do an activity.
  • Teacher Guide: Mark the spots where you will use learning tools to help you teach. For example, maybe you’d like to use the dolls to act out a story with the child.
  1. In advance, gather all your materials and make any physical samples of art projects that you want the child to develop during the lesson.

Teach

When you work through the grade-level Children’s Book session with the child, consider doing the following to make the most of the lesson:

  • Make learning as active as possible, but in a way that will not raise the child’s anxiety.
  • Vary your vocal tone and volume to match the message of material you are reading aloud.
  • Make your face and voice congruent and match up with the content. For example when you are discussing something happy, look and sound happy.
  • Give the child plenty of time to respond to questions. Accept all forms of attempted communication including talking, gesturing, sign language, pointing to pictures, drawing, and so on.
  • Provide exact models of what you want the child to say or do.
  • Describe everything the child does using simple sentences.
  • Take breaks as needed. If a technique is working, move on.
  • Give verbal praise when an accomplishment or milestone has been reached.

Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the honor of working with parents and practitioners who minister to children and adults with disabilities.  Time and time again, main themes emerge as potential roadblocks to working with those who require something a little different than your average presentation of the faith. Three themes follow, along with some wisdom I’ve gained along the way

Creating a Welcoming Environment
One common roadblock is a congregation or a class that doesn’t fully welcome an individual with special needs. Sadly, individuals or families may sometimes be turned away from attending services or classes or receiving sacraments. Here are a few tips that might help change minds and hearts so all of God’s children are welcomed in community:

  • Invite experts in the field of disability to speak to your audience about the importance of welcoming those with special needs. Invite speakers to emphasize that an individual with special needs does indeed have a spiritual life and should be invited to participate.
  • Help others use “people first” language in which words place the person before the disability, such as she has autism versus she is autistic. A simple Internet search can provide many positive examples.
  • Adapt spaces and seating arrangements so everyone can feel included.
  • Provide adaptive faith-related materials, such as The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit or The Adaptive Reconciliation Kit by Loyola Press.

Teaching to Strengths
Teaching individuals with disabilities requires us to look at each person uniquely, to identify his or her strengths, and to differentiate our approach. Try these ideas to help teach to a person’s strengths:

  • Talk with family members. Find out what works and what doesn’t in school and social settings. What motivates this person? What calms him or her? What causes anxiety or discomfort? What assistive materials might help this person?
  • Watch for feedback, facial, physical, or verbal. Being a careful observer can help you assess a person’s level of comfort or understanding.
  • Modify and adapt your approach. For example, if a person has a physical disability, consider presenting ideas visually or verbally. If a person has difficulty maintaining attention, make the learning hands-on and active.

Recognizing Signs of a Disability
Take some time to learn about the disabilities of those you serve. Pay attention to characteristics that might be misinterpreted as irreverence or inappropriate behavior. Chances are, these behaviors are signs of a disability. These characteristics are often signs of a disability that should be received with tolerance and compassion:

  • involuntary movements such as tics, tremors, or vocalizations
  • lack of eye contact
  • inability to give a verbal response or a confusion in providing a gestural response (such as shaking head no when the individual means yes)
  • difficulty swallowing
  • holding ears, pacing, or other gesture that signals sensory issues

So let’s remove the roadblocks and work together to help those with special needs experience the richness of a relationship with Jesus and with those who share their faith. We all have different abilities. We are all needed. We are all valued.

Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.