In order to meet the specific learning needs of our children, we need to understand impairments that prevent the children from paying full attention during class time or communicating effectively with their peers and catechists. Children with speech or language impairments can struggle with oral materials and presentations. These impairments include stuttering, aphasia (speech impairment from a physical injury), dysfluency (stammering), vocal impairments (hoarseness, breathiness, or sudden breaks in loudness or pitch), cleft lip and/or palate, and articulation problems. They may have mixed receptive/expressive language impairments and have difficulty understanding spoken language and producing speech. Autism and phonological impairments also fall into this category.
Whatever the cause or specific need, these children may demonstrate frustration and sadness with their inability to contribute to the energy of their peers. They may try to be invisible and hide their impairment. These children need to demonstrate confidence in their verbal expressions of faith.
The task of the catechist is to provide a learning environment that enables every child to reach his or her full potential. The catechist is entrusted with the responsibility to help each child embrace a particular facet of his or her personality and nurture its spiritual growth so that, as an adult, he or she may participate in the traditions of the Church with confidence.
The teacher and the child’s support team often serve the child within the school. The child’s parents can share effective strategies with you. If available, engage the parents’ support to team-teach with you. Their insight and sensitivity will enrich the group’s experience. These parents can sit alongside their child and facilitate adaptations when necessary without disrupting the group.
Children with communication impairments appreciate your attention and guidance, just as you would offer attention to any child. Here are some suggested strategies:
- Meet with the parents before the child begins classes. They are your best resource. Ask for permission from the parents to consult with the speech/language expert in your school system concerning the child, so that you are able to learn appropriate strategies.
- Encourage peers to support the child with communication problems.
- Use a peer-buddy system when appropriate.
- Be a model of good speech. This will indicate to all that good communication is desirable.
- Children with communication impairments respond more quickly to language if there are visuals that accompany the discussion.
- An atmosphere conducive to easy interactive communication should be established and maintained in the room.
- Give children with speech impairments opportunities to speak in class. But be patient. They may need more time to think and compose their thoughts before they speak. Give them time to express themselves and do not interrupt, try to fill in the gaps, or complete sentences for them.
- Speak to them naturally and in a clear but not loud tone.
- Maintain eye contact with the child.
- If appropriate provide an interpreter, such as one trained in American Sign Language, for those who require another form of communication.
The American Hyperlexia Society counsels us to remember that most children with communication impairments see the world only from their own point of view. Symbolism that is so rich and so much a part of our religious heritage needs to be introduced in relation to the children's experience. All children need to see and hold a chalice, feel the lines and textures of a crucifix, and turn the pages of a Bible so they can relate to the stories presented. Role-playing Bible stories, actions of the Mass, and other liturgies or prayer rituals not only benefits the child with a language or speech impairment but also enlivens everyone's experience. Guided meditations may be very difficult for a child with a language impairment. You may want to meet with the child beforehand to prepare him or her. The child will be better able to transition from class time to prayer time with this prior knowledge and understanding of what is expected of him or her during the guided meditation. When introducing new songs, express them in American Sign Language as well as sing them. Choose your symbols carefully and consult with parents or other parishioners who are hearing impaired. The story the music tells is beautiful when enhanced with the art of sign language. Patience, kindness, and willingness to work with children who have special needs is grace in action and stewardship at its best.