How Primary Leaders Can Help Children with Developmental Disabilities

Children with disabilities can be found in every Primary. How can we meet the needs of all the children in our ranks? Here are a few resources, with insight from those with experience, for members looking to help.

Sundays at the Staples’ home were anything but restful. As soon as 6-year-old Jon realized it was Sunday, the crying, tantrums, and pleading started. During Sacrament Meeting, Jon, who was recently diagnosed with a developmental disability, fidgeted and squirmed. At Primary, he rocked back and forth, swung his feet, poked his friends, or got up and walked around. Occasionally, he became so frustrated that he had meltdowns or lashed out at friends and teachers. The Primary leaders and teachers were patient and loving, but they wondered how to help Jon while still meeting the needs of the other children in their large Primary. Heather Staples, Jon’s mom, recalls, “By Sunday night, we were exhausted and discouraged.” 

Most Latter-day Saint parents have experienced some of these feelings after a long day of trying to help children be reverent at church. Sundays are particularly challenging, though, for parents of a child who has a developmental disability. For children like Jon, Sunday is often the most difficult day of the week. 

Many children with developmental disabilities have difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes. Primary lessons may lack the visual cues or stimulation needed to keep a child who has autism or attention deficit disorder engaged. Small, overcrowded classrooms are often overwhelming to a child with a sensory processing disorder. Primary teachers and leaders may lack the necessary knowledge and skills to deal effectively with these children.

Yet, meeting the needs of all children must be the first goal of any Primary. Seek for understanding first, and then actively look for solutions. Consult parents, priesthood leaders and church disability resources for information and support.

Observe the Child

Become aware of all the children in your Primary. On average, between 12 and 17 percent of the children in a ward Primary may have some type of disability, according to Disabilities that display physical symptoms, such as Down’s syndrome or cerebral palsy, are fairly obvious, but identifying and meeting the needs of children with developmental disabilities is more difficult. These children are often labeled as “naughty” or “difficult” and may not receive the help they need. 

Objectively observe a child who is struggling. Take note of the child’s preferences, as well as situations that seem to trigger challenging behaviors. Try to see the world through the child’s eyes and gain an understanding of what motivates behavior.

For example, a child with a learning disability may be disruptive in an effort to hide the fact that he can’t read. A child with a sensory processing disorder may seem withdrawn, or, conversely, may continually touch his friends as a way to master his environment. 

Communicate with Parents

Schedule a time to talk privately with the parents. Express your love for the child and your desire for the child to be happy and successful in Primary. Describe the behaviors you have observed, and ask for the parents’ input in finding effective solutions. 

Leaders often feel nervous about approaching a parent or worry that they will offend the parent. Parents may initially respond with defensiveness but will appreciate your sincere expressions of love and a desire to help. Many children with developmental disabilities and behavioral disorders aren’t diagnosed until age five or older; Parents may be struggling to find information and help, just as you are. Together, though, and with the inspiration of the Lord, you can implement changes that will benefit the child. 

Heather Staples met with her ward Primary president to uncover possible reasons why Jon was so unhappy in Primary. As the Primary presidency spent more time observing Jon, they noticed that he had no friends. The Primary president said, “We can start by fixing that.” 
Jon’s primary teacher made a concerted effort to develop a relationship with him and help him form friendships with the other children. Although Jon still finds Primary challenging, he no longer dreads Sundays. 

Strengthen Relationships

All children respond positively when they feel loved and accepted. Seek to develop genuine love and appreciation for each child in the Primary. A child with a behavioral disorder or developmental disability may not always be able to control his behavior. However, when she feels loved, she is more motivated to try. A child who feels disapproval or disdain from others will likely become discouraged and give up. 

Visit the child at her home or invite her to your house with a classmate to make cookies or play a game. Help her develop strategies to relate to the other children. 

Make a Plan

In partnership with the child’s parents, develop a plan based on the child’s strengths and needs. Think creatively and be willing to make adaptations to the schedule and lessons. For example, if a child has trouble sitting through sharing time, allow him to come a few minutes late. Go for a walk or provide some physical outlet. If a child seems overwhelmed by the noise of a large group, allow him to wear headphones. 

Experienced teachers know that a productive, effective lesson time is the result of careful planning. The following strategies can help not only children with special needs, but all Primary children, participate more successfully.

Look for opportunities to utilize the child’s strengths.
A child with a learning disability may not want to read aloud, but he may have a vivid imagination and love acting out stories. Shawna Hodges, whose son Grady has Down’s Syndrome, stresses the importance of making small efforts to help each child feel included. She says, “Children with special needs or disabilities have feelings like we all do. They want to be involved. Allowing them to hold a photo or pass something out or answer a question will build their self-esteem and help them to really know that they are a part of the group.”

Maintain a predictable schedule, and give advance warning of schedule changes. Many children with special needs have difficulty with transitions. A predictable schedule helps them feel safe and secure.

Prepare the classroom ahead of time. Put away extra chairs and keep the classroom uncluttered, since a cluttered space can be overstimulating. Bring small posters or pictures to make the classroom more inviting. 

Use visuals, music and actions to engage children and keep their interest. Use the most active, hands-on method possible to teach a concept. For example, rather than just retelling a scripture story, bring pictures, props, or best of all, act the story out. 

Provide variety. Although some repetition can help children master concepts, children become bored when the same game, song, or activity is repeated over and over. Plan for a new activity every 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the ages and needs of the children. 

Making adaptations for a child with a developmental disability may seem like a lot of effort, but leaders and teachers who take on this challenge are richly rewarded. Primary leaders who effectively meet the needs of their most vulnerable children gain a greater understanding of Christ-like love, develop an increased capacity for empathy, and deepen their ability to effectively teach. Children with developmental disabilities often have unique and interesting perceptions of the world and can contribute in many ways to Primary. 

This article was originally published in 2012.
Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content