7 Tips for Modifying Sunday School Lesson Plans for Children with Special Needs

By Jessica Wolstenholm


After studying the Beatitudes, a seasoned teacher shared, “I think there should be one more: Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape!”

Good teaching does take flexibility! This holds true in church and mid-week programs; the needs of the students may require some on-the-spot lesson changes, especially if students have special needs. Fortunately, teachers can try several ideas for quick, meaningful curriculum modifications that can create a positive experience for all students.


1. Offer choices

Some kids may struggle with following directions or trying novel activities; this can result in a child refusing to participate or having a meltdown. It’s important to remember that often, these behaviors result from inflexible thinking or anxiety. One way to help kids cope is by offering choices. For example, if a student resists participating in a game, say, “You can join this game, or you can help me to keep score.” This allows the child to exert some control while participating.


2. Question carefully

To help students gain a deep understanding of the Bible, discussion questions often require higher-level thinking. . For example, asking, “How do you think Noah felt when God asked him to build the ark?” requires students to take the perspective of a person who has experienced unfamiliar circumstances. Some kids will be able to tackle this easily, while those who have cognitive or social challenges might struggle. Offer a variety of questions that will allow all students to participate successfully. 


3. Make paperwork positive

Some children with learning disabilities might become overwhelmed when presented with a word search or crossword puzzle. These activities can be visually confusing, especially if multiple activities crowd one page. Students may become frustrated as they repeatedly erase and re-do. To remedy this, fold or cut the paper so that only one activity is visible. Also, provide a variety of writing tools. Triangle crayons, loop scissors and pencil grips can all make fine motor activities more comfortable.


4. Take a break

Sitting still can be difficult for students with certain disabilities; mental fatigue and impulse control can interfere. Whatever the cause, many students respond well to a short break. This can help them to “re-set” their minds and bodies for the rest of the lesson. Breaks can be simple–and fun! Try some jumping jacks or marching in place while listening to a favorite praise song, or play a quick game related to the lesson. To help kids calm down, try a soothing song, a favorite story, or even a short DVD.


5. Create good boundaries

What’s important in the real estate business holds true for church: location can make all the difference. If a student seems overwhelmed by a large-group activity, offer a quieter alternative. Similarly, not every child will be able to sustain attention during a craft activity or lesson while seated at a table with other students; the close proximity of peers may be distracting. By providing ample elbow room, or even an extra table, teachers can set kids up for success. No extra space? Try a placemat or tray to help students visually organize their space.


6. Go “off the board.”

Sometimes, learning or behavioral needs can make a lesson unmanageable. In those circumstances, consider offering an alternative activity that allows kids to work in small groups or independently. For example, have the kids make cards for the pastors or a missionary, or create a mural for the hallway. Involving kids in a structured act of service can help to “re-set” the mood and help kids stay calm.


7. Teach the MOST important lesson

“If I do all of these extra activities and modifications, I’ll never get to what’s in the manual,” one long-time volunteer from Ohio lamented during a special needs ministry training. She held up the teacher’s guide and said, “This is what I’m supposed to teach!” This type of dedication makes her, and countless volunteers like her, so critically important to kids’ spiritual development; we want all kids to enjoy the rich content found in the curriculum! But take heart. When we modify a lesson to meet kids’ needs, they’re still learning! Of course, they may not be mastering each objective of the lesson. That’s okay. What they are learning is that church is a place that’s comfortable and safe. Author and ministry leader Jolene Philo notes, “I’ve done my job if my students with special needs leave knowing that we love them…and God loves them, too. THAT is the most important thing we can teach.”

By demonstrating flexibility and understanding, teachers can modify the curriculum to meet the needs of the unique learners who arrive at church each week. When this happens, kids will feel nurtured and accepted, and they’ll want to return. A ministry volunteer from Maryland, reflects, “I know I’ve done a good job modifying a lesson when a child waves at me and smiles, saying, ‘Hey! I’ll see you next Sunday!'”

A ministry and educational consultant, Katie loves helping families, schools, and churches work together to make every child feel included. In addition to her consulting work, Katie is a writer whose articles have been featured on The Huffington Post, the Power of Moms blog and in K! Magazine. Katie is currently a columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine, and serves on the special needs curriculum team at Standard Publishing. Her first book, Every Child Welcome (with co-author Jolene Philo) will be published in 2015.

She lives in Chagrin Falls with her husband, Tom, and two children. You can find her online at katiewetherbee.com.