By Ashley Belknap.
One of my seminary professors repeatedly told his students, “There is no value to be placed on the redeemed personality in the classroom.” His encouragement was simple: it is always a better option to have a real-life Christian teaching real students in a real classroom. And it is true—the teaching-learning process is most successful in a real-life, in-person context. And while this is still my preferred way to teach children with special needs, the coronavirus has significantly impacted the ways we gather and teach, and the way students learn.
To develop your ability to teach unique learners online, I recommend the following steps.
STEP ONE: DEVELOP GOALS
As you consider teaching your students with unique learning needs in an online platform, it is extremely important to spend time in prayer developing your learning goals. Talk with your students’ families and ask them to share what they really want to see happen during the next quarter. Goals should include:
- Spiritual Growth. What topics, Bible skills, or interests would help my student grow?
- Relational Growth. Is my student well-connected with others? Perhaps lonely? How could I help my student grow relationally?
- Serving Others. What avenues are available now that might encourage my student to connect with others through serving?
Teaching students, whether in-person or virtually, should include evaluating their progress in spiritual growth, relational growth, and access to serving the church and others. Each of these is crucial to developing disciples who love the Lord, love others, and love the church.
Teachers, as you move into an online platform, it would be very easy to make teaching the content your focus. It is extremely important to teach content in an accessible and gospel-centered way. But, it is just as important to remember that our students need relationships with us and with each other. Think about practical ways that you can encourage relationships during unique seasons where hugs and high-fives are impossible.
STEP TWO: DEVELOP PREDICTABILITY
Children with unique learning needs thrive on predictable routines and rhythms. As you teach and interact with your students online, it is very important that you build predictability into your time together. Consider these ideas:
1. Open every lesson time with an activity that is easy to repeat, such as “Show and Share.” The activity might be related to the lesson, but it does not have to be. The difficulty level should depend on your learners. Here are some examples:
- Easy. Have students bring an item every week that they can show on-screen and talk about.
- Medium. Email parents ahead and ask them to find an item on a certain theme, such as something from a vacation or that the child recently made.
- Hard. Email parents ahead and ask them to find items that relate to the lesson. For example, bring an object representing a sword (toy sword, straw, stick, etc.). Work on true/false questions related to the lesson. If the statement is false, students should wave their swords to teach that God’s Word is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17).
2. Include music that repeats each lesson. I like to be intentional with the songs I choose for my students. I look for songs that teach truths applicable to the season of life. For example, Ellie Holcomb’s “Fear Not!” or “Wide, High, Long, Deep” provide rich theology and practical encouragement during COVID-19. I also look for songs that teach a skill, like memorizing books of the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Disciples, the Ten Commandments, or a Bible verse. Here are some tips:
- Use the song week after week until your children are singing along by heart or swaying in enjoyment to the music.
- Find a music video of the song. Many great children’s Bible songs have been turned into animated or real-life music videos. Screen share with your students so that they can watch the song and sing along. This visual reinforcement keeps everyone interested and engaged and is especially helpful for students with limited language.
- Be sure you share your sound. Many screen-sharing programs have a default mute setting and sound must be toggled on.
- Mute the kids and yourself. Otherwise, everyone will hear a slight sound delay or echo since sound travels at different speeds to different computers.
- There are several good sources of purposeful music with excellent video options: Seeds Family Worship, Slugs and Bugs, Rain for Roots, and Ellie Holcombe’s albums, Sing Creation Songs and Sing to Remember.
3. Include memory work. Allow the online platform to enhance memory work by making it fun and accessible. Here are some options:
- Put your memory work into PowerPoint or Google Slides and share your screen with your students.
- For pre-readers and all learners who enjoy visuals, consider putting pictures or graphics into the place of key words on the screen. For example,
- Screen share with your students and give them mouse control. Allow one student at a time to select the picture that represents a missing word in the verse. For example,
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my ____. You could offer a choice.
You can also hide fun pictures, pop-ups, or animated graphics of their interests on the next slide after the slide with the memory work. For example, a student who loves volcanoes would find an erupting volcano gif on the slide after the memory verse. You want your kids to stay motivated. Using things that they love will increase motivation and affection for learning.
STEP THREE: CREATE AND TEACH THE LESSON
As I have tried teaching special-needs children across a variety of contexts, it always seems to go best when I can share my screen with my students and use engaging slides to accompany my lesson. I would again encourage you to use PowerPoint, Google Slides, or a similar tool to create your presentation. Here are some tips for creating and teaching:
1. Put the Bible verses on the screen, especially if you are going to ask kids to read. It is very challenging to support and help with finding Bible passages when kids are at a computer by themselves and you are on the other end of the virtual platform.
2. Have visuals to accompany each section of your lesson. Allow children enough time to soak in each illustration in front of them but not so long that it becomes boring. In general, I try to advance my slide once every 1-2 minutes for children under 5 years old and every 2-4 minutes for children ages 6 and older.
3. Include sound effects in your presentation. If you are teaching the Triumphal Entry passage with Jesus riding on a donkey, you could include the sound of a horse walking on the road. Pause for some fun interaction: “What sound do you hear? Who do you think is riding on that donkey? Where do you think he is going?”
4. Include reinforcers in your lesson. Some kids might need you to embed a picture of an item they love on various slides to keep them focused and attentive. Some kids might take great delight in periodic slides that reveal a picture of something they love. Some kids might love knowing that they get to sing their favorite songs from preschool years at the end of the lessons.
5. Incorporate movement into your teaching. Your creativity and comfort level will grow as you experiment with this. I have had students wielding swords, holding up a plastic character each time they heard the mention of a certain king’s name, and blowing paper trumpets in the air when they hear a certain repeated phrase that reinforces the lesson. Movement does not have to be “out of their chairs.” Think of ways to include whole body movement to keep brains and hearts engaged.
STEP FOUR: BUILD FELLOWSHIP
An important component of online instruction is building relationships and encouraging fellowship. Consider the skills your children have and ways that you can engage them in fun, shared experiences. Some ideas are:
1. Log on 15 minutes before and/or stay on 15 minutes after for students who want to talk. You will be surprised how many students will log on early or stay late to talk or listen. Consistency is key.
2. Share things about yourself with your students. Make sure that you bring a show-and-share item or two. Make a list of things you encounter during the week that you know your students would love to hear about. Even better, take a photo with your phone and include it on a slide you share with the group.
3. Consider a separate time for fellowship. This could be a special one-on-one fellowship time with a student when you log on and play a game together for ten minutes. Or this might be a separate group fellowship time with your students where you help guide conversation.
4. Think creatively about ways to fellowship. I have invited my students to online concerts for artists who were playing our beloved Sunday School songs. I typically pay for their tickets, send candy in the mail for the after-party, and send a Zoom link to log on after the concert and debrief together. Slugs and Bugs has regular online concerts. I have also encouraged families to watch online events such as the Getty Family Hymn Sing each Tuesday evening. I provide a Zoom link to my students so we can talk about the hymn sing for 10 minutes afterward. Experiences you can share together and then talk about together can deepen relationships and encourage perseverance in online teaching.
STEP FIVE: STAY FLEXIBLE
At the end of the day, remind yourself that the virtual context is challenging. There will be days when you are doing your best to navigate technological challenges. Remain flexible, optimistic, and positive. You can acknowledge the challenges and even pray for them with your kids. But laughing through difficult moments is the best way to show your kids that you love them and do not mind the problems because you get to spend time with them. A lot is communicated through a smile, a kind word of encouragement, or a handwritten note in the mail.