Michele Portlock is a wife and mother of four children, two of which have been previously diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Michele is a graduate of Brigham Young University and recently received her master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in behavior therapy from Arizona State University. After completing her master’s program, Michele launched a business called Navigating the Spectrum, LLC. The main goal of her business is to help provide parents and families with the necessary tools to create a successful at-home environment for themselves and their children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. If you would like to contact Michele, please view her website or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also the host of a podcast called Navigating the Spectrum with Michele Portlock. Michele’s podcast includes interviews with various specialists within the autism community, as well as conversations with parents currently raising children on the autism spectrum.
If you have served in the Primary or in our youth programs, chances are you have been given the opportunity to love at least one child with special needs. I personally have served in multiple Primary presidencies and have attended presidency meetings, discussing how best to meet the needs of our special needs children. And quite honestly, it is a challenge. Most adults are not properly educated on how to effectively support special needs children. I think the biggest challenge is that each child with special needs is unique. There is no “one size fits all” approach. But there are specific things you can do.
Communicating with the parents of the special needs child is an important step in effective teaching. Asking parents specific questions such as: What motivates your child? Does your child have extra needs that I should be aware of? How best can I meet those needs?
Knowing what motivates a child with special needs is helpful in many ways. If this child is misbehaving, you can use their motivations or reinforcements to help redirect the child. For example, a child diagnosed with ADHD may need to take a physical break to get some movement out and refocus. If you have this information, you can incorporate a physical activity into each lesson plan. Maybe you teach for 3 – 5 minutes and then have everyone stand up and do jumping jacks for sixty seconds. Using a timer helps to keep things more organized for teachers. When the kids sit down, have them breathe in and out slowly five times and then place their hands in their laps.
If you learn that a child does not want to be called on in class, remember to honor that child’s feelings by not calling on them. Give everyone opportunities to participate, but do not single that child out. My daughter who has autism spectrum disorder was asked to share her thoughts in her classroom setting. She said, “No thank you,” and the teacher continued to encourage her to share. Because we had not effectively communicated about her severe social anxiety, the teacher did not realize that he was building anxiety for our child. She eventually ran out of the classroom in tears. Both the teacher and our daughter were embarrassed by this interaction. Had I communicated this to her leaders, this event could have been avoided.
Taking the time to get to know your special needs children will help to create an environment of comfort. Visit them in their homes and get to know them. Tell them you want to ask them five questions about who they are and what they love. Some examples may include: What is your favorite thing to do and why? What is your favorite treat? Is there something that brings you comfort and helps you feel secure? What would you like me to know about you? Who are the people you love most in your life? Why do you love them? Are you okay with hugs or would you prefer a fist bump?
Some children with special needs do not like to communicate or cannot verbally communicate. If this is the case, find ways to connect that are meaningful to them. Ask their parent if they have a favorite book and then take that book with you on a home visit and read it to them. Take them their favorite treat and tell them you are so excited to have them in your class. Give them a hug if they are okay with hugs, or a fist bump, or air high five when you see them. The point of bonding is to build a connection. Children with special needs are more likely to feel misunderstood or alone, so finding ways to connect can help calm some of those feelings of loneliness.
Showing love for special needs children helps us to remember the account found in 3 Nephi 17:21 that reads,
“He wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.”
The Savior blessed the children “one by one” and, in doing so, he showed us the worth of individual souls. Taking the time to love our special needs children and youth helps us emulate the love of the Savior in our own lives, and in turn, allows these children to better understand how the Savior loves.
3. Being Consistent
Try to be consistent. Children with special needs want boundaries just as much as children without special needs. Create class rules together with your class. Consider writing the rules down and even adding pictures as an example of each rule. Post the rules at the front of the classroom each Sunday. When a child misbehaves, pause and remind the class of the rules.
Try not to single out the child with special needs as they may be acting out in order to gain attention or escape the current classroom environment. But make sure that you reinforce the rules every time. You could even use the same phrase each time behavior becomes challenging–such as, “Time to stop.” And then tell them what you want to see and immediately reward those behaving appropriately. That reward could be as simple as positive feedback in the form of praise. After the appropriate behavior has been rewarded, wait until the class is focused before you move on.
Children with special needs also need consistency in relationships. As leaders, we must work to place teachers that will show up each Sunday, so that the child knows what to expect. If you create a list of substitute teachers for an organization, an effective tool would be to ask those on the substitute list to take the time to sit in with classes that have children with special needs. Showing up to class with a new adult who is unfamiliar to the child can trigger misbehavior and insecurity.
If you are changing teachers in a class that includes special needs children, ask the incoming teacher to sit in on a few classes. The incoming teacher could introduce themselves and share some fun facts about themselves to the class. Transitions can be tricky for special needs children. Work to make those transitions as seamless as possible.
Try to positively reinforce the children when they are behaving appropriately. Give them praise and positive feedback. Follow the adage of “catch them being good.” If stickers are reinforcing, bring fun stickers and every time you notice positive behavior, silently give that child a sticker and a smile.
5. Thinking Outside the Box
I want to share an experience we had with our oldest child. She was previously diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and grew up struggling with severe social anxiety. We learned that her anxiety increased whenever she went to her Sunday School class. She often sent us texts full of anxious thoughts and would even meltdown if we forced her to attend. After much thought and prayer, we felt that we needed to provide her with alternative options.
We spoke with the Primary presidency and asked if she could be an assistant teacher in Primary when her anxiety kept her from going to Sunday School. We also received permission for her to help in the nursery. And sometimes we would even sit in the foyer and listen to the other ward’s Sacrament Meeting. It was important to us as her parents that she attend church, but we also needed to help her meet her own unique needs.
6. Recognizing Worth
Learning to meet the needs of our special needs children and youth aligns with the scripture found in Doctrine and Covenants 18:10:
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.”
Our church congregations are often referred to as our ward families. Each member of this family is deeply loved by our Father in Heaven. Finding ways to connect and meet the needs of the individual takes time and extra effort, but that translates into love. And loving our neighbor has always been part of the Lord’s plan.
The book of Matthew teaches us this lesson in chapter 22 verses 37-39. It reads,
“Jesus said unto him, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
7. Meeting Them Where They Are
This is perhaps the most important aspect of teaching children with special needs and can only be successful after leaders have taken the time to get to know these children and youth. Leaders should look for ways to include special needs children in their planned activities and events. Planning an activity per quarter solely based on the needs and or interests of a special needs child or children is one way to help meet their needs. But just as important is the idea of allowing these children the space to reside exactly where they are. Accept them for precisely who they are.
Remember that change and growth is individual, and it happens when these children can reside in that space intellectually and emotionally, in their own time. Take the time to ask the Lord, “How can I show love and acceptance to this child?” And then follow the promptings you receive and the guidance of those you have counseled with.
Maya Angelou said,
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
I believe that knowledge is power. It allows us to open doors to a better understanding. Taking the time to get to know our special needs community and study their individual diagnoses allows us the opportunity to know better and do better. May we all follow the leadership of our Savior and bless the children “one by one.”