Teaching the Special Needs Child
By Mary Lou Rosien
I discovered a wonderful special education catechism program out of St. Michael’s Church in Bedford, MA. Polly Herz was kind enough to provide me with an overview of their amazing program. I was going to tell you the high-lights, but she has written such a comprehensive description that I am going to include the entire thing.
Saint Michael’s Religious Education
Children with Different Learning Abilities
By Polly Herz with Pat Marks
Our class consists of 8-10 students who vary in age from 9-18. Each of our students has special needs, most typically, but not exclusively, cognitive delay and/or autism spectrum. There are two catechists who rotate responsibility for teaching each week. Each class is 45 minutes long. We are assisted by high school students, parent volunteers, and other adults from the parish. Generally our ratio is 1:1. This has been an important feature of the program, because much of the real teaching takes place via the connection between the assistants and the students.
The tables are arranged in a u shape. There is a small prayer table in the center, and an easel with a nyloop-covered poster board.
We begin each lesson with a prayer. Next, we sing “He’s got the whole world in His hands” and with each verse, we present a picture of a student. The student whose picture is held up comes to the front, takes his or her photo, and places it on the nyloop board. The board has Mayer-Johnson Boardmaker symbols (picture communication symbols) affixed to it, and the student places the photo next to the symbols for “Jesus” and “loves”. Everyone applauds and we continue with the next photo. After the students are greeted, we greet the assistants and the teachers (no photo or song, just names).
After the greeting, the theme of the day’s lesson is introduced. Themes are derived from the year’s curriculum. Lessons have included beatitudes, commandments, and sacraments, generally following and adapting the themes in the St. Mary Curriculum by Cathy Boyle. We may use Mayer-Johnson symbols to illustrate the lesson if appropriate.
We try to present themes in practical terms. For example, for a lesson on prayer, we may talk about what prayer is, namely, talking to God. When we talk, we may ask for help, say thank you, say we are sorry, etc. For a lesson on the Holy Spirit, we may talk about how the Holy Spirit is our helper, helping us to live the way Jesus wants us to.
We then read a book that supports the theme. Pat Marks has a wonderful library, and we use the public library as well. We read certain favorites every year for holidays.
Next, we have a craft related to the theme. This can vary from making a poster, painting an ornament, creating a book, sewing a scene, gluing a model of the Nativity, completing a puzzle, making candles out of tubes, etc. The teacher who is responsible for the lesson organizes the craft in advance, so each student has a kit with all pieces and supplies. An assistant works with each student to complete the craft and reinforce the lesson.
Craft time is followed by snack time. Finally, we say a closing prayer together.
Our overall goals are to share an awareness of God’s love and His gifts with our students, and to teach the principles and beliefs of our Catholic faith. We strive to provide a positive, lively, and meaningful environment. We enjoy great support from Pat Marks and from our students’ parents.
For further information:
Stone Soup by Heather Forest (Classic about sharing, read at Thanksgiving with props)
Santa’s Favorite Story by Hisako Aoki (Santa himself retells the story of Jesus’ birth)
God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (appropriate for Martin Luther King Jr. Day)