Learning Disabilities in Your Sunday School Class

Suzanne DeBoer

If you are a Sunday school teacher, you see how your children are different. But one in five children has a “hidden disability” (a learning disability) and will be struggling to learn in the same way as the others. That child may be fearful of coming to class each Sunday, but you may never know this because:

  1. Learning disabilities are not visible to the naked eye,
  2. The parents have not informed you (and may not even know) that their child has a learning disability, and/or
  3. You have no idea what a learning disability looks like.

In order to help these children have an opportunity to love learning about God’s Word, a basic understanding of two things is needed:

  1. What learning disabilities look like, and
  2. How you can adapt your instruction to ensure a high level of comfort for those with these disabilities.

Our responsibility as Sunday school teachers is not only to enable the child with a disability to feel comfortable in the classroom, but also to enable that child to shine brightly as a reflection of God’s light.

It is important to understand that learning disabilities are neurologically based processing problems that interfere with reading, writing, and math, as well as organization, planning, abstract reasoning, memory, and attention. The learning-disabled child is an “inefficient” thinker, not a “deficient” thinker. He (or she) receives information into his brain, but once there, it becomes jumbled or misfiled, and he has great difficulty making sense of it.

The Major Learning Disabilities

For simplicity’s sake, the major learning disabilities may be placed in the following classifications:

  1. Auditory processing disability: difficulty understanding and/or remembering what is heard.
  2. Visual processing disability: difficulty discriminating symbols, coordinating with motor skills, and/or remembering what is seen.
  3. Written expression disability: difficulty expressing on paper what is understood and remembered.
  4. Language processing disability: receptively, difficulty attaching meaning to spoken words, sentences, and stories; or expressively, difficulty expressing with the spoken word what is understood or remembered.
  5. Dyscalculia: difficulty understanding numbers and learning math facts.
  6. Dysgraphia: difficulty with handwriting and fine motor skills (cutting, pasting, etc.).

Children with learning disabilities may go undiagnosed at school, may not qualify for services, or may be too young for services. Therefore, it may fall to you to be vigilant and intuitive to ferret out the difficulty a child may be having, and, armed with the brief information given above, to adapt your curriculum to the special needs of this child. The bonus is that the adaptations you put into place for this one child are just good teaching techniques and will make your teaching for the whole class more effective.

Instructional Adaptations for Specific Disabilities

Adaptations are specific to the special needs of the child as defined by the disability. The adaptations below reference the disabilities listed above:

  1. Auditory processing disability adaptations: Use visual cues to augment your spoken words. For example, using a whiteboard or large tagboard paper, draw whatever you are discussing. Stick figures work, and you can have a student draw for you if he or she is fast.
  2. Visual processing disability adaptations: Let the parents know by email during the week the passage that you will be reading in class the following Sunday; ask them to practice a certain verse with their child, and when class comes on Sunday, have him read that verse. No one will know that he has practiced it. You can even give the parents the entire lesson for the following week; they can study it all week, and the child will be able to answer all your questions.
  3. Written expression disability adaptations: If worksheets require the student to write an answer to a question, allow the child to tell you the answer orally, rather than writing it out. If students have homework, ask the parents to assist their child by writing out their child’s exact answers.
  4. Language processing disability adaptations: Direct questions to the child that set him up to give just a one-word answer when you truly believe he knows the answer.
  5. Dyscalculia adaptations: If there is a math-type question or situation, you can say, “Who wants to solve this while the rest of us get to watch?”
  6. Dysgraphia adaptations: If this is a serious difficulty, have a portion of the motor-skills activity already prepared and help the child complete it. (For example, you cut it out before class and he pastes, or you write the answers he gives you.) Meanwhile you can give the child a responsibility (e.g., hand out the papers), so he is busy and helpful.

A Few Additional Hints

Here are a few additional helpful hints for establishing a positive atmosphere for all students and especially your learning-disabled student:

  1. Call on children when you believe they know the answer, rather than to get their attention.
  2. Children who have auditory, visual, or language processing disabilities often appear to have an attention deficit problem, due to their inability to process the information they are receiving. Try to experiment with the adaptations to discover their learning strengths.
  3. Keep track of Bible memory achievements in such a way that individual students can see only what they have done.

As a Sunday school teacher, you are responsible to take the hand of the child and lead him or her gently to a better understanding of the precious Savior through his Word. The best way to do that is to reflect his acceptance of each of his children with all of their needs and make your classroom the haven of learning that they may not experience anywhere else.

The author developed and directed two special education programs for Christian schools in Modesto, Calif.


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