When teaching children of different abilities the most important thing to remember is that “one size DOES NOT fit all” with education. It is OK to make accommodations from a provided program to keep differently abled children engaged and included. The following are suggestions on how to structure a classroom sensitive to children with varying needs:
• INCLUDE MOVEMENT: Make it a goal to move location, stand and stretch, wiggle, take a walk or switch spots every 10-15 minutes during a lesson. This is helpful for not only young children, and children with ADHD, but also remember that humans are not designed to be sitting animals and in general it will help to keep your class focused if you incorporate movement into your sessions.
Two great movement resources are www.gonoodle.com if you have access to a computer for all students to see, or incorporating yoga stretching for five minutes into every 15 minute chunk. I recommend Yoga Pretzels by Tara Gruber as an easy resource to learn and teach some quick basic stretching exercises.
Also, allow your ADHD and young children to be mobile in their own way, fidgeting in their seats, standing at their spot, sitting on their knees, shifting in theirs spots. Young bodies are not meant to sit perfectly still.
• CREATE A ROUTINE AND STICK WITH IT: Routine is one of the best ways to support anxious children. Creating a predictable routine for class and announcing the plan at the beginning of each class will support children that can have difficulties with transition. If you create a colorful poster board with the plan for class and include pictures to help with cueing, children will know what to expect.
Announce transitions before they happen, and give a count-down to when they occur. For example, if 15 minutes into class you plan on stretching, at five minutes to, tell the class “we have five minutes until our stretch break.” Do this again at 3 minutes, and even at one minute as you establish the routine.
• CREATE A SIMPLE LIST OF CLEAR EXPECTATIONS, AND MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE, INCLUDING PARENTS: Keep rules simple and short. More than 3-4 basic rules for everyone is too many. If you have a parent meeting before faith formation sign up let your families know what the rules are and encourage them to speak to their children about the expectations.
Have a point person that parents can speak to with questions and concerns, and to be the person that reinforces the expectations. The faith formation teacher should be able to focus on teaching, so appoint a religious education director to be the central information officer and also “the enforcer.”
Encourage parents to speak with this point person if they have specific things that they know work or don’t work for their child. When children need extra support, have the point person come to class instead of having the child leave it and provide encouragement to the child.
• KEEP CORRECTIONS POSITIVE: If a child is not following a rule, remember that shouting, shaming, and blaming a child for their choice will not help them learn to do differently. For example, if a child is off task and talking to a peer, encourage them to get back on track by saying something like “Susie, you are such a smart kiddo and I am excited to hear what you have to say about our reading” instead of saying “stop talking.” Praise children whenever possible, even if its for something small, this will help children to feel valued in their class.
• SIGNS OF A MELTDOWN: Children with emotional sensitivities, anxiety issues, and even children that are simply overworked in school and activities, can meltdown if they are overwhelmed. This might look like crying, shouting, rocking in their spot, and refusing to participate.
The easiest way to deal with a meltdown is to prevent one. Know the kids in your class. Play a game with them to begin the year and talk with parents if you know a child will need special accommodations. A child that is stressed may start to talk or murmur to themselves, fidget more than usual, refuse to follow directions more often than usual, and other motions or sounds as well.
• PREVENTING A MELTDOWN: If something doesn’t quite feel right with a child, take a moment to get closer to them and quietly ask how you can help. Call your point person in to sit with and assist them or ask them if they would like to take a break by getting a drink or using the restroom.
Never force a child with anxiety issues to perform any task with which they are not comfortable or familiar. They may need to observe something several times before they are comfortable enough to try. Do not ask them to read aloud, take volunteers for choral reading or ask children to read who you know do not have anxiety issues.
• BE PATIENT: Losing your cool with a child is the quickest way to lose their trust. It takes a lot longer to rebuild a caring relationship after threatening, shouting, and disrespecting a child. Every moment is a learning experience, and children will mimic what they observe.
NOTE: This is a guest article by Kristin Ophus, former staff in the Day Treatment classroom at Intermountain’s residential school in Helena. She put this resource together as a favor for a local congregation, and it was SO good, I asked her if I could share it with everyone. –Chaplain Chris