Children who are developmentally challenged or have other developmental impairments present unique challenges to catechists. Therefore, good communication between the child, the catechist, and the child's family is perhaps the most critical factor when meeting the child's special needs. These children need to feel important and to know that they can make a contribution to the class.
For example, Clarke is a student in a religious education program, and he has Down syndrome. In spite of his challenges, he has been a model of discipleship in his class, in part because his parents have been involved with his religious education. They understand Clarke's command of language skills, his grasp of key information, and how he embraces his Church experience. In addition, one of Clarke's parents attends class with him. The parent sits close by to help him transition from one lesson to another. The parent also paraphrases or rephrases key information to help him get the most from the class experience. Clarke participates in every grade-level special event or liturgy, and he has sung in the choir.
Children with special needs like Clarke should be welcomed into their religious education programs with open hearts and minds. Engaging the parent's expertise and assistance benefits everyone in the program. If a parent or family member is not available to help you during class time, seek volunteers who might work with a catechist to help the child during class.
Encourage families to inform directors of religious education of developmentally challenged children at the time of registration, so that the children's needs may be met in a timely fashion. Meet with these families as soon as possible, to learn about the child, and engage the family's support and help.
Methods for teaching developmentally challenged children can vary greatly and will depend on the needs of the individual child. However, some general guidelines can be followed.
Ensure that the classroom behavior and language is direct, positive, consistent and inclusive of all children.
Plan nonverbal prompts, such as a tap on a shoulder or other signals, for the child to help him or her return to attention.
Encourage peer/sibling partnering when applicable. Siblings or peers of children with special needs can be effective mentors and demonstrate discipleship at its best when they participate in the child's religious education.
Plan on augmenting all teaching material visually, with as much “hands-on” experience of the concept being taught as possible.
Encourage everyone's response to the class experience. Often the child with special needs will latch onto the very heart of the emotional response to the message of the lesson. Acknowledge and reinforce this most basic expression of comprehension.
The families of children with special needs appreciate deeply the inclusion of their child in all areas of faith formation. The catechists and the other children in the program, with patience and a willingness to learn about the individual gifts and talents of all people, are able to make a real difference in the community and can make real God's presence in their religious education setting.