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«Sally Patton UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION BOSTON Copyright © 2004 by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. All rights ...»

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Make Religious Education Less Like School The emotional issues that surround the label disabled concern us as religious professionals and lay leaders. In our ministry to children, we do not want to perpetuate the difficulties with self-esteem and emotional problems that some children experience as a result of struggles in school. Many children with learning disabilities and other difficulties are ridiculed and verbally abused by teachers and peers. Although research demonstrates that most of these children are intelligent, we live in a culture in which intelligence is usually measured by how well a person reads and writes.

Our attitudes and expectations can profoundly affect the feelings and behavior of our children.

Parents and children are often interested in a religious education program that has a structure different from that of school. Because certain language creates negative images for children, it might be wise to use different words—for example, sessions or groups instead of classes; participants instead of students; ministry or program instead of school. Freeing the church experience from images of school helps to create a safe space for children where they can discuss problems they may be having at school and conveys that church is a place of understanding and healing.

Making the religious education program less like school does not mean providing no structure, however. Start the session with a gathering in which each child is welcomed by name. It is nice to open with the lighting of the chalice or another spiritual ritual that signals that this is the time for experiencing the sacred. Next, have the group review expectations of behavior that the children have helped develop and then begin the learning activities, which should engage a variety of learning styles. End the session with a closing ceremony that acknowledges the importance of saying 32 Welcoming Children goodbye and helps the children make a transition out of the faith community. Blow out the chalice flame with a brief prayer or meditation, or quietly go around and speak personally with each child to share what he or she did during the session. The children should leave feeling that they are done for this Sunday and can take what they have learned and nurture it.

Some think that every curriculum should include an addendum that describes ideas and methods for the successful integration of special-needs children. What we really need, however, are ideas for training teachers so that they have the skills to use and adapt any curriculum according to particular needs. Sometimes, having a prepared lesson plan can save teachers who are too busy and overwhelmed to prepare properly for the Sunday session.

Other times, a prepared curriculum can keep teachers thinking “inside the box” about how to lead activities. And still other times, a prepared curriculum can provide valuable ideas that will inspire teachers to be creative with the children. Less reliance on the school model of teaching, more experiential activities, and fewer cerebral, sedentary activities can create opportunities for everyday wonder or moments of transcendence that will help our children learn about what is sacred and meaningful in their lives.

The following strategies can make religious education less like


• Mix age groups. There is immense value in having different age groups interact and learn from each other. Offer several activities or learning centers around a theme, and allow children to choose which activity or center to engage in. Each learning center can include several appropriate activities for children of different ages or developmental stages. Mixing age groups also provides a wonderful way to integrate children with developmental disabilities without having to provide a separate program for them. Having older children mentor younger children can foster their self-esteem and make the younger children feel special.

• Provide more experiential activities. The maxim “Actions speak louder than words” certainly applies to teaching children.

33 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children We all know that children learn more about the problem of hunger when they help stock a food pantry or serve food at a homeless shelter than they do through discussion alone. If you are learning about other religions, such as Hinduism, engage the children in yoga, guided meditation, or appropriate celebration activities in honor of that religion. Interesting and spontaneous conversations usually occur when children are actively involved in a handson activity that is related to a theme. Experiential learning keeps them engaged, lessens their boredom, and helps those who have difficulty sitting still.

• Engage children in storytelling instead of having them read out loud. You can always assume that at least one child in your group struggles with reading. Asking for volunteers to read aloud causes anxiety for these children, who fear that everyone in the room knows their difficulty and thinks they are dumb because they never volunteer. Teachers should read or tell the story aloud and perhaps ask for volunteers to help act it out. Doing so encourages spontaneity and engages all the children in the activity, whether or not they are acting.

Another successful approach is to have the children tell a familiar story in their own words. Storytelling is a wonderful way to help them be co-creators in events that are meaningful to them.

Some children who struggle in school find their own voice through storytelling. For children with special challenges, telling a story can be a nonthreatening, symbolic way for them to share their concerns and feelings. Doorways to the Soul, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain, is a thoughtful collection of stories from spiritual and cultural traditions around the world and includes suggestions for activities, discussion, and moments of contemplation.1

• Provide visual cues. Children who struggle with the written word or with processing verbal information benefit from having the session theme represented visually around the room with displays of words, pictures, and objects. These images remind them of the focus of the discussion or activity. Especially during a discussion, write key words on a flipchart as you are talking.

34 Welcoming Children

• Be consistent and always explain what is coming next. Some children with learning difficulties struggle with processing instructions and sequencing events. As a result, they can become easily confused if they expect one activity to occur and another happens instead. Try to be very clear about what is going to happen during the program. Always explain when one activity is ending and what will happen next, and allow for transitions between activities. Try to provide only one set of instructions at a time and keep them simple. If the instructions are too detailed, the children will be unable to remember everything they are supposed to do.

Know Your Class For any educational setting, it is essential that teachers learn who the children are. This may sound basic, but overly busy volunteers who have agreed to teach (and especially new teachers) are often not briefed about the children before they begin. The religious educator can convey this information during teacher training sessions or at individual teacher meetings.

Physical limitations and cognitive delays, such as Down syndrome and autism, are often observable, but other disabilities may or may not be recognized, depending on whether the parents have disclosed this information and it has been shared with teachers.

If the child has been in the religious education program for a while, special-needs conditions such as attention-deficit disorder, oppositional defiance behavior, anxiety and mood disorders, and epilepsy, may be apparent or the parents may inform the religious educator when they feel comfortable that their child is accepted.

Always be prepared for children who are overly active or hyperactive, a normal occurrence in any group of children. Since learning disabilities often go undetected and all children, not only specialneeds children, have different learning styles, it is always a good idea to teach to multiple learning styles. If you are having difficulty including a child, do not hesitate to approach his or her parents for help and ideas.

35 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children Create a Welcoming Environment How we structure the environment can determine how well the program will go. Set up the room so that everyone is included.

Make sure the space says, “You are welcome here.” If you are integrating children with physical disabilities, make sure the space looks like they belong there. For example, a child in a wheelchair should be able to get from one activity to the next without encountering obstacles. If all of the children are sitting on pillows on the floor for storytime, the child in the wheelchair may feel awkward sitting higher than everyone else. Discuss this with the child in the wheelchair and the other children so they can come up with solutions.

Sometimes, children with cognitive delays, multiple disabilities, or autism need an aide in order to function in the program.

Ideally, an inclusive faith community arranges for volunteer aides from within the congregation, but hiring aides is another option.

Teenage members of the congregation can serve as aides for younger children. The parents will need to explain to the aide what works best with their child.

Be sure to recruit enough people that coverage can always be provided and volunteers will not get burned out or feel guilty when they cannot be at church. If your congregation has committed to being an inclusive faith community for children with disabilities, finding aides will probably not be a problem. People will come forward in response to a request. A personal testimonial about how rewarding the job can be will help with recruitment.

Be sure all the children in the program understand the role of the aide, not only so they will feel comfortable with another person in the room but also so they will not try to divert the aide’s attention. The aide’s first responsibility is to the child with a disability. However, he or she should not be seen by the other children as a barrier to their getting to know that child. The aide can also act as a teacher’s assistant, as long as the teacher understands that the aide’s primary duty is to assist the child. Teachers should always give aides the plan for the day ahead of time. As the aides 36 Welcoming Children get to know their assigned children, they may become valuable sources of information on how to maintain inclusive programs for them.

Separate Programs Are Usually Not a Good Idea There are sometimes good reasons for involving special-needs children in parts of the church community other than the regular religious education program for their age group. For example, one congregation was struggling with how to include a girl with mental retardation in the Coming of Age group because she was having difficulty understanding and participating in the discussion activities. The director of religious education and the Coming of Age leader met with the girl and her parents and discovered that she loved being with very young children. So on Sunday mornings, she helped with the congregation’s toddlers.

In this situation, it would also be important for the Coming of Age group to find other ways to include the girl so that she would feel connected with children her own age and have the opportunity to explore her own spirituality. Perhaps her work with the young children could be part of her Coming of Age program and she could participate in other Coming of Age activities that involve church trips or social justice work, such as serving meals to the homeless. She would also need to be included in the Coming of Age ceremony and offered a way to share her work and spiritual feelings with the congregation. If she is unable or unwilling to speak, she could use artwork or another visual display to communicate.

As Herbert Lovett, an expert on mental retardation, says, We are slowly recognizing the need for people with disabilities to connect in socially ordinary ways. We have been less astute, I think, in recognizing that we also need to allow people to reconnect with themselves, with their own sense of accomplishment and dignity. At the moment, we are not doing this very well, especially for people with difficult behavior.2 The same could be said of people with different behavior.

37 Religious Education That Welcomes All Children Teaching the Anxious Child All children, not just those with anxiety disorders, experience anxiety sometimes. Within a given group, the teacher will know who is excessively shy, who is afraid to try new activities or go on field trips, who has great difficulty separating from his or her parents, who has certain routines that seem very important, and who has difficulty attempting new ways of looking at problems. Many children gain strength and resilience from overcoming their fears, but others never do.

Children with all types of disabilities are especially susceptible to high levels of anxiety because of how people react to them and what they expect of them. Therefore, understanding techniques for coping with an anxious or fearful child will be helpful for teaching all children but especially those with special needs. Many of these techniques are adaptable for the religious education

program and can benefit our ministry to all children:

• Establish clear expectations, predictability, and security. Children must know that they are absolutely safe in our programs.

Feeling safe includes knowing that they will not be belittled for strange behaviors or have their fears dismissed or denied. Teachers need to be very clear about expectations and provide plenty of warning about changes in the program.

• Develop opportunities and activities for creative problem solving. All children benefit from activities that encourage flexible, creative, “outside the box” thinking to solve problems. Creative problem solving is an important skill to be able to access during times of stress.

• Create ways for children to connect with others. In Your Anxious Child, John Dacey and Lisa Fiore suggest that we help children develop a “bank of goodwill” through helping others.3 Developing a sense of connection and compassion is an essential part of the healing process.

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