Update: Special Needs in the Sunday School

We held our Sunday School Teachers Meeting with our new Special Needs Consultant this weekend, so I wanted to post an update to one of my first posts, “Special Needs in the Sunday School”.

As you may recall, our parish Philoptochos held a fundraiser for local groups working with children with a variety of special needs, and they set aside part of the money for our own Sunday School to be outfitted and equipped with resources to ensure that we are fully addressing the needs of all of the children in our community.

A parishioner who is a professional in the field agreed to serve as our volunteer Special Needs Consultant, and spent a number of weeks¬†observing classes and speaking with teachers about the various situations that arise in our classrooms. ¬†She spoke with us at our teacher meeting this weekend.¬†Because our¬†teachers aren’t aware of what sort of resources might be helpful,¬†our consultant began by offering us some options.

She suggested that more use of visual schedules in our classrooms would be an excellent way to help our students focus and exercise self-control, and she showed us a YouTube video describing how they work. ¬†When we know what is coming next, we are better able to control ourselves and focus, because we know that there is only a finite amount of time left in the activity. ¬†If I can just get through story time, there’s a snack waiting for me…

For the younger classes, she’ll create a velcro timeline on which we can stick pictures of the various activities that will make up our routine: ¬†prayer, story time, lesson, play-acting, snack time, craft time, etc. ¬†We’ll refer back to the timelines as we work our way through the class period, helping the kids to recognize the rhythm and adjust their expectations and behaviors.

We decided to invest in some weighted calming pillows and animals from a company named Calming Hugs. ¬†They make weighted stuffed animals, star pillows and snake pillows which students can hold in their laps. ¬†Students with sensory issues sometimes find it calming to be weighted down, and holding a pillow or draping a snake over their shoulders can help. ¬†She also noted that after a while, they won’t want the weight anymore, so we’ll be watching for nonverbal cues and removing the pillows as needed too.

We also discussed ‘fidgets’, small items that can keep student’s hands busy quietly while class is going on. ¬†Some students find that keeping their hands busy ‘fidgeting’ with something helps them to focus, calm themselves, and even to better absorb the lesson they’re learning. ¬†Many of our classes offer paper and pens for just this reason, so that kids can doodle while they listen, but we decided to experiment with some other fidgets as well, including stress balls (including homemade ones — simply fill balloons with rice or oatmeal!), plastic chain links, pop blocks, scented play doh and wikki sticks. ¬†(If you’re interested in more fidget ideas, check out this list I found online.)

In our Sunday School we try to ‘team teach’ which means that each class has a pair of teachers who share the load. ¬†We’re not exactly taking turns — both teachers attend each week, but they might split up the teaching responsibility. ¬†In many cases, one teacher will lead the discussion while the other acts as¬†‘crowd control’, watching which kids need some help and managing the little behaviors and issues that crop up. ¬†With this model, one teacher can teach while the other quietly hands out weighted pillows or fidgets, updates where we are on that visual schedule and puts out fires, as needed.

One of the really problematic issues that arise when students have special needs is that teachers don’t know how to discuss it with parents. ¬†We have seen disasters when Sunday School teachers have approached parents with questions about a child’s diagnosis — especially when the teacher, well-intentioned but unqualified and unsolicited, has attempted to diagnose a child. Sunday School teachers are in no position to approach parents with such statements, and not surprisingly, the situation almost always ends badly. ¬†Teachers shouldn’t overstep or ¬†make assumptions, but they can¬†benefit from the parent’s own wisdom — they just don’t know how to ask.

At our meeting, our new consultant gave us some excellent advice:  know the limits of your objective, and state them.

Sunday School teachers are not here to diagnose children, nor to train parents on how to handle their children, nor to identify the needs a family might have. There are other educators who will encounter the family and work on those needs with them. ¬†Indeed, parents¬†are hearing input from more qualified educators, as well as from friends and family members and even random strangers. ¬†They may be working with someone already, or they may not yet be ready to hear a diagnosis and begin that journey. ¬†While the Sunday School teacher may feel that their intervention can lead to a better situation for the child, in general, our unprofessional, unsolicited commentary is not likely to¬†help. ¬†It’s¬†best to allow families to set their own timelines.

Our objective is clear and finite: ¬†to teach children the faith for less than one hour per week in the Sunday School classroom. ¬†All we really need to know is how we can maximize¬†the child’s classroom experience. ¬†How can we make him feel comfortable and respected? ¬†How can we reach her? ¬†How can we connect with him, and help him connect with a loving, supportive peer group?

So how can we talk to parents? ¬†Well, it’s easier than you may think — because as a Sunday School teacher, you are hereby liberated from the need to worry about diagnosis, which you aren’t qualified to handle anyway, and you are now free to ask just what you want to know:

How can I maximize what your child gets out of my class?  How can I best serve him or her?

That’s it. ¬†It’s actually very simple — stick to what you really need to know, and you’ll be ok.

I’ll post an update to let you know how it’s going after we bring in some of these ideas and products in our Sunday School. ¬†We expect that some will work better than others, and we’ll let you know what we learn. ¬†We look forward to hearing what’s working in your Sunday School in the Comments section below!

In the meantime, here are a few things you might find interesting…

More Resources from the Wonderful Internet:

The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta is hosting an Orthodox Family Camp for those with Special Needs.  This promises to be a wonderful weekend of fellowship, where resources can be shared and the family can refuel spiritually:




If you haven’t seen them yet, here are two great blog posts from an ASD Mom on how to connect with an autistic person¬†you may know at church:

Five Ways to Reach Out to an Autistic Child at Church


Four More Ways to Reach Out to a Parishioner with Autism



About Elissa Bjeletich Davis

Elissa Bjeletich is the mother of five daughters, and serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, Texas. Find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com


  1. I’d love to hear if your consultant has any thoughts on Sunday School and the gifted side of the special needs spectrum. I appreciate the resources!

    1. That’s a good question, Tess. That’s certainly another challenge in the Sunday School, and it’s one I’ve dealt with in our school district. I’ll do some thinking and some researching there — learning differences come in many shapes and sizes!

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