Classroom Worship With Children With Special Needs


Develop a sense of the sacred in special moments with children.

Children with cognitive and other impairments grow, change and develop spiritually. They get it! They may just get it in a different manner and on a different time schedule than others. It’s the same for all of us: God discovery is a lifetime project. Teachers become partners with the Holy Spirit in the spiritual formation of children with disabilities who bring with them a variety of barriers including over-activity, pain, mobility appliances, and inabilities to hear, see, concentrate, move or stop moving. Without focusing on the barriers, look for dominant ways of learning and the gifts of each child.  Many children with disabilities do not attend corporate worship with parents, so classroom experiences of worship including moments of awe help a child with spiritual discovery and build a framework for future worship experiences.

There is sacred flow in the discovery of the gifts of children.

It is a very special gift for a teacher to make it possible for a child to have a passageway to worship as he helps a child who is blind encounter God without reading words, and as he nurtures the child with autism who may use a sign board or parallel worship. Along the way, the teacher learns the gifts brought to the classroom as students offer enthusiasm, sing, read, hold a book, encourage, cheer, lead the group and express awe. A buddy or mentor to a child with a disability in a typical classroom especially needs to understand the importance of enabling worship on the child’s level using the child’s gifts. Leaders communicate the love of God with children, and they are called upon to be a presence that is familiar, understanding, and loving. Thus they become part of the sacred stream in relationships in a safe and loving atmosphere, and they exchange their gifts with children.

There is sacred flow in the discovery of God in moments in the classroom or other event.

Moments of God discovery in the classroom MAY BE LIFE OPENING TO A CHILD as the child learns to see and hear God everywhere. Listen and look for teachable moments that can bring about the sense of the sacred in simple but powerful events.  Sacred-moment dialogue may include: “Let’s say thank you to God, the creator, who planned for us to have this beautiful flower.”  “Wow! That was kind! Let’s say thank you to God for helping Austin pick up Cherrie’s crutch.” After a Bible story: “Thank you God that Alison now knows that Jesus was a real person.” For a person who is blind: “Thank you God for this soft furry animal,” or “Thanks for a nose to smell the cookies, flower, etc…,” or waving pom poms to cheer for God: “Yea, God!”  Help each student know that God is a part of everyday life. These moments teach a concept of God and are part of the individual’s pattern of spiritual growth.

There is sacred flow in the sameness and the liturgy of worship with children.

Children love the familiar so, in addition to sacred moments, have students stand or sit at a special place at a same scheduled time to say or act familiar worship words. Non-verbal students might use body movement or other expressions to make a repeated pattern that is comfortable. These might include clapping, ringing bells, puffing, touching water, tapping on a table, holding or swinging hands with someone, saying zoom-zoom or playing musical instruments. A special note of safety: never use candles with children with special needs. Ceremonial lighting can be a jar with scented chips  and sparkle lights in it, or simply a string of lights placed around a Bible surrounded by sea shells. The place of worship can be a corner, a sit-in-a-circle on the floor, a wheelchair round up, whatever space can become sacred space in your situation. The space can best be experienced through aroma, human contact with a significant person, singing, humming, or gestures such as hands in water, dancing, waving scarves, touching the Bible. Sara sits propped on a floor mat, and students wanted to be near her to pray. They sat by her to touch her hands and sing. She likes it when they use tamborines or hold up a flower for her to smell. If a person with cerebral palsy can move only the eyes or mouth, let the entire group experience that as, “Let’s move our eyes to say, ‘Yea God.” If the person has a voice mechanism, let a parent help program the scripture verse to be read that day, and the student can puff the mechanism into action.  A group can be taught to shout or whisper, “That’s incredible” as a God moment happens. Bells rung in random or in musical themes express joy, and can also express the occasional grief that occurs in children’s groups. Music, the great communicator and teacher, can become a part of every group along with rhythmic swaying, dancing or wheeling.

There is sacred flow in parallel worship.

In some cases, parallel worship occurs when a student cannot join the group but continues to sit separately or zoom a push car around the room. By listening, or in some intuitive way, this child participates.   Walter’s sensory stimulation disability keeps him from touching or being touched, and too many words confuse him. He continues to play while others pray and enjoy a flower next to the Bible. Later, he goes to the table and smells the flower and smells the Bible. Sometimes he says the first words of the Lord’s Prayer. The child with social and other problems really wants to be part of the group, and, in an unusual and seemingly separate but parallel way, becomes part of the group.

There is sacred flow in the Holy Spirit who transforms.

One of the most important things church leaders can do is train classroom workers to recognize the significance of all spiritual acts no matter how different they may seem. Curriculum is everything that happens here, so God-recognition moments become more important than completing a craft project or game. Helping children affirm their spirituality  and celebrate it together is a transformational partnership with the Holy Spirit, and you may be part of the introduction to transformation. What a great opportunity!