Every Sunday School classroom is neurodiverse. This is true even if you’ve never heard this term before and even if you don’t think that any of the children in your class have a diagnosis such as autism, ADHD, or dyslexia. That’s because every one of us processes and engages with information in a slightly different way; no one person alone is neurodiverse, just as no one person alone is diverse. We all contribute to a community of differences together, and we are all wonderfully made.
Definitions: A Pause
Before going deeper into what it means to create a more inclusive classroom space, we should first pause to consider the language we use on this topic.
- Neurotypical describes people without any developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disabilities. Neurotypical people learn and process information like written text, tone of voice, or body language in the ways generally expected by society.
- Neurodivergent describes people with a developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disability. These conditions vary widely. It is not appropriate to refer to neurodivergent people’s abilities with functioning labels (i.e. a high-functioning or low-functioning autistic person) or using the concept of mental age (i.e. a twelve year old who has the mental age of a six year old). The preferred terminology emphasizes “support needs”.
A lot of older language around disability is changing and it’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s also important to pay attention to this transformation and to listen to disabled adults who are working hard to dispel the idea that we are somehow broken or deficient.
Neurodiversity And Inclusion
There are many simple strategies that can help make your Sunday School or formation classroom more inclusive to neurodivergent children and adults. While this article will focus on children’s formation, it’s important to recognize that neurodivergent people are everywhere, including in leadership roles within your church! As an autistic adult, making my classroom more accessible for my students also makes it more accessible for me.
- Offer Seating Options. Even if you’re all sitting on the floor, consider offering options like wiggle cushions or self-contained seating with sides. Many neurodivergent people struggle with proprioception – knowing where there body is in space – so seating options like these can be helpful.
- Adjust Your Lighting. Overly bright lighting can be overwhelming for many neurodivergent people, especially when it’s buzzing, fluorescent lighting. Look for more targeted and less intense ways to light your space, such as by using dimmer switches, floor lamps, and task lighting rather than overhead lights. If you can’t change your space’s lighting, be aware of what you’re asking and why before asking a child to remove their hat or sunglasses; these accessories may serve a purpose for them in the classroom!
- Use Accessible Materials. Did you know that there are fonts specifically designed to improve reading fluency in dyslexic individuals? You may not be able to find an entire Bible in this font, but you can certainly type up individual lessons using the font, which is free to the public. Other examples of providing accessible materials include offering larger manipulatives and thicker writing utensils for students with fine motor skill challenges or using a visual schedule instead of a clock to help students understand what will happen during the class time.
- Provide Fidget Objects. Many more people are aware of the benefits of fidget options, but using them in the Sunday School classroom can be tricky, even if we know that everyone stims (stimming is any self-stimulatory behavior). Providing a fidget object without proper guidance or where it’s not really needed can ultimately be more distracting than not providing one at all, which often happens when leaders simply provide them to everyone. Rather than simply handing them out, leaders might look for signs of distraction and provide them as needed.
- Emphasize Strengths. It almost never makes sense to rely on a single mode of response in our classrooms – such an approach limits opportunities for Holy Creativity, and can also discourage some children from thriving in the program because they don’t feel able to participate. For example, I loved memory verses as a child and could commit huge amounts of text to memory in just a few minutes. A dyslexic child, on the other hand, could feel consistently discouraged by traditional memory verse activities, but may enjoy recounting stories in other ways, such as using a variety of sensory materials, songs, or emotional reflection.
- Encourage Outside Support And Input. Much as bright lighting can be overwhelming, a loud classroom can trigger a meltdown. As a result, some children may use items like ear defenders to mute surrounding sounds. These can be helpful when children move into breakout tasks and the classroom becomes louder. Other children benefit from deep pressure, like using a small weighted lap blanket or vest. Encourage parents or guardians to bring these items with them to Sunday School.
When we think about our classrooms, it’s important to consider who is present there and who could be – that a non-verbal child is just as capable of engaging with the stories of our tradition as the one who won’t stop talking, or that the child who has poor impulse control isn’t disruptive but simply seeking to engage more deeply. God welcomes us all equally, but unless our classrooms offer the same to our students, they may not feel the power of that invitation.
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash.
Hello! I am a Sunday School teacher on the autism spectrum, and I was so happy to find this article today. But, I was confused because it seems like you say that referring to someone “mental age” is preferred terminology, but you link to an article that explains why “mental age” is a harmful concept. Could you clarify your opinion about this term?
Sarah Bentley Allred (she/her/hers)
Carson – great catch! Those sentences were out of order. We’ve updated the post. Thank you!
“Neurodivergent describes people with a developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disability. These conditions vary widely. It is not appropriate to refer to neurodivergent people’s abilities with functioning labels (i.e. a high-functioning or low-functioning autistic person) or using the concept of mental age (i.e. a twelve year old who has the mental age of a six year old). The preferred terminology emphasizes ‘support needs’.”
Thanks for sharing. I will share the article with my Sunday School Teachers.
Juan Carlos Veloso
I am so glad to see this article. I think is need it in every church. I struggle as a pastor, about how we, as a church, could support families with a family member who has different strengths and weaknesses than most people around them.