5 tips for modifying your Sunday school curriculum for diverse learners

Zoe Sunday SchoolThis Friday (April 17th), Shannon is moderating a panel titled “Tips, Tweaks, & Tune-Ups for Sunday School Curriculum & Classrooms” at the 2015 Accessibility Summit at McLean Bible Church in McLean VA, sharing the stage with Barb Newman, Amy Kendall, and Vangie Rodenbeck. If you’ll be at that session or any other part of the conference, please let us know! Shannon would love to connect with you there.

I don’t like change.

If you know anything about my family and the number of changes we’ve had in the past few years as well as some on the horizon, you’re probably laughing. But it’s true. I really like the status quo. A lot.

Often, churches operate in the same way. Change seems too different, too threatening, too counter-cultural to the community we’ve created. But just as God has stretched our family in gloriously beautiful ways through change, He might just be leading your church to similarly good things through change.

One change needed in many of our churches is modifications to Sunday school curriculum to include diverse learners. In this post, I’m primarily talking about children and youth with disabilities, but most of these tweaks can benefit the entire class. In fact, they all do, because the inclusion of children with disabilities enriches your classes, displays the works of God in a unique way per John 9:3, and demonstrates God’s design for different parts to form the whole of His church according to Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.

Since I know the idea of change can be scary to many of us, here are five tips for making positive and (mostly) painless changes by modifying your Sunday school curriculum for diverse learners…

  1. Understand that everyone modifies Sunday school curriculum. Maybe your church’s classes are grouped by age differently than the curriculum you use assumes they will be. Maybe your class is too big to complete the given activity as written, or maybe it’s too small. Maybe the wording is awkward. Maybe you’re from the South so you say y’all instead of “all of you” in the teacher’s script. Whatever the case may be, no one uses their Sunday school curriculum exactly as written. So modifying it to meet the needs of diverse learners isn’t all that different from what you’re doing already.
  2. Know your kids. Some churches use forms to help with this. (Here’s ours for respite nights, which we also use for Sunday morning support, but including a “any special needs or allergies?” at the bottom of a much more basic form can be hugely helpful.) But you don’t need a form or question if that’s not what works well in your church environment – you just need to know your kids. Here are some questions you’ll want to be able to answer about each of your regular attendees: What do they enjoy? What do they do well? What do they struggle with? How do they learn best? What do they dislike?
  3. Create a multi-sensory environment. If the lesson includes a lot of talking, consider how you might add in other senses to teach more holistically – visuals? music with dance or other movement? hands-on activity or object lesson? a meaningful craft? a snack that ties into the lesson?

shutterstock_65015896Then consider specific senses some kids do well with or struggle with. A lot of kids, especially many with autism, benefit from visual aids, like picture schedules to set expectations or illustrations to show Bible stories. That’s just one sense, though. Consider how does a welcoming environment feel for kids who learn well through touch? How does it smell for kids who are sensitive to odors? Does it offer safe tastes, especially for those with food allergies? Since you know your kids (see #2 above), are any sensitive to noises, either seeking them out or made uncomfortable by loudness? If a game or activity involves movement, how can a child in a wheelchair or with other movement-based differences still be part of the group? Kids learn in different ways, so thinking about multiple senses – both in planning and in being sensitive to kids’ unique strengths and challenges – can help everyone.

  1. Physical inclusion is good, but that’s not our stopping place. Can we all agree that our goal for any kid at church is more than just being present? Obviously, that’s a good starting place, but I go to church for more than just attendance. I want to belong, I want to be a part of everything, I want to grow with others, and I want to be missed if I’m not there. That’s what our kids and youth want too. (This article isn’t about adults with disabilities, but the same holds true there too.)
  2. Expect it to be hard sometimes. When we’re teaching about many aspects of our faith, we’re trying to make intangible concepts – like grace, hope, love, and faith – tangible. Even God himself isn’t tangible. Young kids are concrete learners, and intangible concepts are hard to understand. Continuing to view the world in concrete ways is part of several common disabilities, so that can be a challenge. Another challenge, presented this week by a church leader’s email to me, is figuring out how to approach violent Bible stories when a child who has witnessed or experienced violent trauma is in the class. When you hit a hard place, don’t be scared away. Those will come. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (That last sentence isn’t my words; it’s Galatians 6:9.)

One definition of modification is change. So, yes, I am advocating for an openness to change, knowing that’s a bad word to some churches. Instead of being resistant to these changes, though, let’s view them as opportunities to create a rich tapestry displaying God’s good and diverse creation. Isn’t that what the church is meant to be, after all?


shutterstock_24510829Key Ministry is pleased to make available our FREE consultation service to pastors, church leaders and ministry volunteers. Got questions about launching a ministry that you can’t answer…here we are! Have a kid you’re struggling to serve? Contact us! Want to kick around a problem with someone who’s “been there and done that?” Click here to submit a request!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to 5 tips for modifying your Sunday school curriculum for diverse learners

  1. NickyB. says:

    So many churches need to do this. Thank God for online church because I had to do that for years…About 7 years…Now we are able to go and my son will stay in children’s church…I still have a two hour limit with him.


  2. Alice Jones says:

    Offering different learning ways for believers with diversity is a great way to involve everyone in church services. Like you said change can be considered as an act of God, so changing a learning curriculum to match a diverse audience can bring good things as a product. I believe that making church understandable to all patrons will help unify a congregation.


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