Teaching Students with Special Needs

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Pope Francis has called the Catholic Church to be a welcoming Church. As we welcome our students into our religious education classes, it’s important that we see each one as a child of God with special talents and special gifts. When we teach a student with special needs, we may need to adapt our instruction or materials to help that student know the love of God.

The following are a few suggestions on how best to instruct a student with special needs.


✱ Send a welcome letter to all parents. In this letter, ask if the child has any special requirements you should be aware of. These could include such things as having an EpiPen on hand, adapting classroom space for a wheelchair, or adjusting written work assignments. Assure the parents you will hold this information in the strictest confidence.

✱ Prepare the classroom and materials so they are functional to meet any special needs of the students.

■ If a student will be in a wheelchair, measure the door to see if it is wide enough. Check if the tables are high enough for a wheelchair to slide under. If not, bring a TV tray for the student to use as a “desk.” If a student needs enlarged worksheets, print them in a larger size on 11×14-inch paper.

■ If a student needs adapted assignments, go through his or her workbook and write in the adjustments as needed. For example, instead of writing an answer, ask the student to draw a line to the correct answer from a short list of responses you’ve developed or ask the student to create a drawing of his or her answer. For multiple questions, pick the one or two which are most important and cross out the rest.

■ If a student has fine motor skills difficulties, have pencil grippers and larger crayons available.


Pope Francis hugs a participant of the Jubilee for the sick and disabled in the Pope Paul VI Hall on June 10, 2016.

✱ Let the students know what is planned for class each day. Write a schedule on the board and discuss it. For special activities, such as a visit from the pastor or going to the church, discuss appropriate behavior.

✱ Assign another student as a friend to help the student with special needs.

✱ Use a timer to alert the class a few minutes before a new activity will occur. Students with special needs often have difficulty in transitioning to new activities; it takes them longer to process the behavior needed to move to the next activity.

✱ If you are giving directions to the whole class and your student with special needs doesn’t seem to respond, stand by his or her chair. Quietly say his or her name and repeat the directions using less words and more concrete words such as, “Tom, pencils down, line up, please.”

✱ Allow students to respond at their own pace. A student with a sensory processing disorder will need extra time to discern what the instructions are and how to follow them.

✱ Incorporate as much music, art, and physical movement as possible into the lessons. Develop songs to memorize Catholic prayers. Make accordion booklets with drawings of the Ten Commandments. To reinforce the names of the sacraments, play Seven Up: Have each student who is a “thumbs toucher” holding a sign with one of the sacraments written on it. As the students guess who touched their thumbs, they say the sacrament written on the sign instead of the name of the person.

✱ For students with ADHD, appropriate physical activity is vital. Allow them to take the attendance sheet to the office, pass out materials, grasp a stress ball, lean rather than sit in their seat, and color as you speak. The physical activity seems to help some students retain the information more effectively

✱ For students with autism, group activities may pose a problem. Allow them to choose between participating in teamwork projects or to work independently. Let them sit at the back of the room if they wish. Don’t call on students to respond in class unless they volunteer.

✱ Build the self-esteem of the student with special needs by giving specific praise: “That was great how you pushed in your chair, Bill” or “I like the way Mary is paying attention.”

✱ Model treating everyone with dignity and respect. Don’t show irritation when working with the student with special needs. Expecting them to work as quickly as the rest of the class is like expecting a nearsighted student to read an eye chart without glasses.

✱ Do not require any student to read aloud.

✱ If the situation becomes counterproductive to the religious education of any student in your class, discuss the matter with your religious education director.


✱ Communicate with parents frequently.

✱ Realize this is a challenging time for them. Be affirming of them and of their child.

✱ State any problems in a positive way. Begin with a strength the student has shown in the class, such as willingness to be class helper or showing kindness to others. Then discuss the problem you are seeing in class and ask the parents what works best and what doesn’t work for their child.

Teaching religious education is a splendid opportunity to share your love of God and the Catholic Church with your students. When welcoming students with special into your class, remember that you are seeing the face of Jesus.


For Students with ADD or ADHD:


Search for ADD or ADHD at WebMD.com 

For Students with Autism



For Students with Speech and Language Difficulties

Search for “Speech and Communications Disorders” at MedLinePlus.gov. 

For Students with Sensory Processing Difficulties



Pam Schiffbauer has an endorsement in religious education and a doctorate in educational leadership. She is author of The Catholic School Principal and School Children of the Great Depression. She co-teaches a religious education class of second graders.

This article was originally published in Catechist, March 2017.



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