BY LAURA YEAGER
Children are a gift
“Special needs children are a gift to us. We have to do the best we can to help them,” states Diane Hurtuk, director of religious education, of Holy Family Parish in Stow, Ohio.
Holy Family’s team does its best to accommodate its special needs children. I know this firsthand. My son, Tommy, who is on the autism spectrum, has been in the religious education program since kindergarten. He’s now in sixth grade. If it weren’t for the teachers and assistants who are trained in working with children with special needs, Tommy wouldn’t have the deep faith in Jesus that he has now.
Hurtuk states that this year (2016-2017) there are 10 special needs children enrolled in their program that serves 246 students in grades K-8. The children have a variety of special needs: autism, behavioral problems, ADHD, developmental delays, limited verbal ability, and emotional issues such as anxiety disorders.
A plan of action and involvement
Holy Family’s team approach has helped the children become well-versed in Catholic teaching, to the best of their abilities. In making decisions as to where children should be placed, Hurtuk talks to the parents of each child, and honors their wishes. Parents know their children and their learning styles the best and have input into their learning environment.
A special needs classroom
Holy Family is equipped with a special needs classroom, directed by Mary Ellen Roszkowski, a retired special education teacher. This classroom is for the children with more severe special needs. Currently, there is one student in the classroom, but in recent years, there have been up to eight in this special class. Classroom topics include the Stations of the Cross, prayers such as the Hail Mary, the Sign of the Cross, good and bad choices, and the works of mercy. Prep is also given for First Communion and First Penance and Reconciliation.
The rest of the children with special needs at Holy Family are mainstreamed into grade level classes.
Another accommodation is an adaptive curriculum. According to Hurtuk, “We recently changed our whole curriculum so that we could have a program that meets the needs of all our children.” Holy Family now uses Finding God, The Adaptive Curriculum, produced by Loyola Press. The adaptive program comes in a big box, full of supplies such as stick puppets, a music CD, a Jesus plush figure, foam puzzles, picture cards, flip books — interactive tools that make learning about Jesus fun.
Loving catechists and assistants
Finally, the Holy Family religion program accommodates children with special needs by having the proper personnel on their team to work closely with this group. There is an adult assistant in every classroom. This trained assistant works directly with the those with special needs who are mainstreamed.
Beyond all the formal accommodations, Holy Family instructs its students with extra love and patience. For instance, one third-grade girl was afraid to go into her classroom. The problem was solved by slowly transitioning the girl’s place from the hall to the classroom. She was first allowed to put her chair in the hallway looking into class. Then each week that the class met, her chair was slowly moved into the room, inch by inch. Eventually, the little girl successfully transitioned into the sophisticated learning environment.
Jesus came for all of us. What a wonderful, inclusive program Holy Family Parish is creating for all of God’s children.
Laura Yeager, M.A., M.F.A., has written for Aleteia USA, Busted Halo, The Liguorian, Canticle Magazine and Guideposts Magazine. She is an adjunct writing instructor at Kent State University.
Image credit: Courtesy of Holy Family Parish, Stow, OH.