Riding in a chariot through the desert, the Ethiopian court official met the apostle Philip. Philip heard the Ethiopian reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah and asked if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian expressed his confusion and asked for help in understanding. Philip used his own knowledge and skill to explain the passage to the Ethiopian, who responded to the Gospel message by asking to be baptized.

A particular challenge for religious educators has been how to approach the catechesis of children whose learning differs from that of their same-age peers. These differences in functioning may be due to a developmental disability such as Down’s syndrome or autistic disorder. Or they may be somewhat subtler, making the child appear to be a “slow learner,” or causing particular difficulty with reading, writing, or completion of classroom crafts.

Students with special intellectual needs or learning disabilities are provided for in the public education system through federal legislation known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. IDEA makes provisions for such children to be tested by a team of experts from various disciplines (speech and language, educational psychology, occupational therapy, etc.) so that the specific nature of their learning difficulties may be identified. Some children have specific learning disabilities (e.g., reading disorder or disorder of written expression), while others have more global intellectual challenges (e.g., individuals with mental retardation).

If significant learning problems are identified through this assessment process, an individualized education plan (IEP) is developed so that the child’s education may be structured to meet his or her special needs. One key principle behind the development of an IEP is the goal that the child’s needs be met in the “least restrictive environment.” In other words, the child’s special needs should be met in the way that involves the least possible separation from his or her typically developing peers.

There has recently been a growth of interest in providing special accommodations for children with special needs within our parishes. After all, Christ’s Church is for everyone, and this sentiment is echoed throughout the Gospels and other New Testament Scriptures. In the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, Philip is sent out by God to the one who is having difficulty understanding. Philip approaches the Ethiopian and asks if he needs help, rather than waiting for the Ethiopian to ask for assistance. Still, in the religious education classroom, we have at times been unsure about how to approach children who have learning difficulties, and parents of children with special needs are sometimes reluctant to enroll their children in programs they are not sure will accommodate them.

Some parishes have responded to this dilemma by creating special “adaptive religious education” classes for such children. However, this may be problematic for two reasons. First, many smaller parishes may only have one or two children with special needs in the religious education program. Second, the Church is designed by God as an inclusive community. Placing children with special needs in a separate classroom may not be consistent with the inclusive message we as a Church are called to send. We would hardly wish to be less inclusive in our local parishes than the local public school, which strives to educate special children in the “least restrictive environment.” Finding a way to meet the needs of special children in our “regular” religious education classrooms also benefits the other children by exposing them to individuals who are different, although equally loved by God, and it sends the message that our Church is a place where all are welcome.

Attempt to quickly identify any children who may be in need of special help. Children who are mentally retarded or have specific learning disabilities sometimes look different from other children (as is the case with Down’s syndrome), but many times they will not have any unusual physical features. Parents may not immediately make the catechist aware of their child’s special needs, either out of fear that the catechist will be unwilling to make special accommodations for the child or because they lack insight about how learning problems may also impact the child’s progress in religious education. A thorough knowledge of developmental norms (what children typically do) in the age group you are teaching will assist you in identifying children who are struggling. Reading a book that covers typical milestones in cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills development may be helpful for a catechist who has not taught that particular age group for a long period of time.

Talk with the child’s parents about what you are observing. Keep in mind that parents may be somewhat defensive in discussing their child’s difficulties, so this topic may need to be approached gently. Begin by stating something good you have noticed about the child, or a reason you enjoy having him or her in the class, then discuss the situations in which you see the child struggling. Make it clear that, rather than complaining to the parents, you are seeking their input about how to help the child succeed in class. You may wish to ask what accommodations are helpful in the classroom at school. Some parents may be willing to share a copy of the child’s IEP with you if you express an interest in implementing similar accommodations in the religious education classroom.

Consider pairing the child with special needs with another student who can provide assistance in completing classroom tasks. This can help promote tolerance of individual differences and altruistic behavior in the “helper,” while making the “special” child feel more a part of the group.

For children whose behaviors may pose safety risks or cause significant distractions for the other children, consider a one-to-one “educational assistant.” The educational assistant is an adult whose sole duty in the classroom is to shadow the child with special needs and help him or her maintain safe behavior and get as appropriately involved with the rest of the class as possible. If it is necessary to move the child to another part of the room or into the hallway for a brief period of time, the educational assistant handles this so that the primary catechist can continue with the rest of the group.

For children with specific learning disabilities, strive to accommodate special learning needs in the presentation of the lesson and in the projects used as a response to the lesson. Multisensory presentation of key concepts can help compensate for special learning needs. Some innovative curricula use a variety of three-dimensional visual aids during the presentation of the lesson. Such methods are especially beneficial to children who have language disorders or difficulty with abstract thinking. Allowing children some options in completing classroom “work” in response to the lesson may also be helpful. Rather than using traditional worksheets — which may be especially problematic for the slow learner or the child with reading or writing disabilities — consider presenting the worksheet among several options that also may include further work with the three-dimensional lesson materials, verbal discussions with the catechist or educational assistant, or open-ended art activities related to the lesson (e.g., “Draw a picture of what you liked best about our story today”).

Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your work with children who have special needs. God will honor your efforts to make all children feel welcome in your parish’s religious education program. It was Christ himself who said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:16). When you welcome a special child in Jesus’ name, you can be sure God is there with you, and he will bless this challenging but important work.

Excerpted from Catechists for All Children, by Joseph and Ana White.