You’ve been asking my advice lately; now I’m going to turn the tables. A new family is moving to our area, and they plan to come to our church. They have three children. The youngest, Jake, will be in my 4s and 5s Sunday school class. I haven’t been told his diagnosis, but apparently he walks unsteadily, has difficulty with language comprehension, doesn’t speak much, and has a lot of tantrums.
Didn’t you have a student with some similar issues once? Got any tips for me? I’m concerned about managing the tantrums without setting the other kids off.
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About fifteen years ago, there was a little girl, Mary, in my first through third grade class. She didn’t really have tantrums—just some background noise and humming—but much of what I learned would help you too.
You want Jake and his family to feel like a valuable part of the body of Christ; you don’t want them to feel like an imposition or something to be feared. But I think you should ask the parents’ advice.
When Mary was about to be promoted into my class, I asked to visit her family. I played with Mary, and then her parents put her to bed for the night and we discussed her needs: things she liked, things that helped her focus. Jake’s parents could probably do the same for you. Throughout the year, contact his parents when issues arise.
Why don’t you ask around for an aide for your class, at least until everyone gets settled? The aide could always take Jake out to calm him down, if needed.
Mary loved passing out pencils every Sunday. Maybe Jake could have a special job. Also, I’ve heard that routine is comforting for people with disabilities (and for all kids that age, really). Maybe you could have a consistent greeting or high-five for Jake, and the class could always start with the same song.
Mary had trouble sitting still during the Bible story. Her mom said she loved beanbag chairs, so I bought one. Problem solved! Sometimes you’ll need to think creatively.
My kids were older than yours, so they had questions about Mary. When the curriculum took us to Jesus’ healing miracles, we discussed our Lord’s special care for people with disabilities. Mary’s mom came to class and answered questions.
I suspect Jake will present bigger challenges as he gets older. He will need the church’s care for life. This is an opportunity for all of you to grow in your service! We missed out on that with Mary because her family moved away.
There’s a big church near here that has a Sunday school program for kids with disabilities. That’s very caring, but I wonder if a separate program deprives the church of a learning opportunity. Mary’s classmates took turns being her helper when they did their worksheets. Not every kid in the church was always kind to her—we’re still sinners—but that group did develop sensitivity.
For your own meditations, I would suggest Luke 14:12–24, the parable of the great banquet. Notice how the invited guests reject the invitation, and then the Lord throws the door open to “the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” Also, in 2 Samuel 9, David welcomes Jonathan’s lame son, Mephibosheth, into his own household in a culture where people with disabilities were usually shunned. Both of these stories illuminate how the Lord cares for people with disabilities.
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You’re bringing back so many memories!
Mary didn’t seem to understand the Bible story when I told it, but she sometimes seemed to get it if I showed it to her visually. Actually, lots of kids with developmental disabilities are visual learners. So use colorful Sunday school materials. Try drawing pictures for Jake.
But remember that whether Jake comprehends the gospel is ultimately the Holy Spirit’s work, not yours. So pray!
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You’re right; this is a wonderful opportunity for our church to be sanctified together. I can’t wait!