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Special Needs: Developmental Disability

Sally Castle

Developmental Disability

Years ago I had a developmentally disabled child with dwarfism in my classroom. The other fourth-grade boys in my classroom learned important biblical principles as they adapted a game of kickball so he could participate. Those boys will never forget this little boy who taught them so much about how to show and model God's character qualities to others.

What is a developmental disability?

Developmental disability is a term that's sometimes referred to as an "umbrella" category covering many different disabilities. To be characterized as a "developmental disability," the disability must involve a mental or physical impairment or a combination of mental and physical impairments; be present before the person reaches the age of 22; result in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the areas of major life activity: self-care, receptive/expressive language, mobility, self-direction, capacity of independent living, and economic self-sufficiency; and reflect the need for assistance or services lifelong or for an extended duration.

Some of the characteristics of a developmental disability that may limit a child in your Sunday school classroom include inability to use information due to problems with remembering or "executive functions" such as making decisions. There can be problems with ability to acquire and use language appropriately. Sometimes children with a developmental disability have a problem with acquiring emotional and social skills; they can manifest deficit social skills in sharing, smiling, and following directions.

What are practical ways to help children with a developmental disability?

• Make your classroom as consistent and predictable as possible. Children need to feel secure and have a feeling of some control with their environment.

• Present information visually as well as orally. This way you open up doors to understanding by using two of the most important avenues.

• Help parents know what you're teaching their child so they can reinforce the important biblical principles at home.

• Adapt your classroom environment. Are there simple things you can do to help the child? An example might be to have the child sit closer to you or pair the child with another child.

• Watch children for cues as to how you can help.

• Remember that this child that God has placed in your classroom is more like the other children in your classroom than different. Also, the child can teach the other children important life lessons of compassion, acceptance, and service.

[Q]: In my first-grade Sunday school classroom, Taylor can't do what other children do. I've asked her mother how I can help; her response is, "There's nothing wrong with Taylor!"

[A]: Parents of a child with special needs grow through stages of grief until they reach final acceptance of their child's disability. The stages include denial (shock), numbness (a buffer against reality), anger (at God or even at you), bargaining (an attempt to fix things or bargain with God), depression (helplessness, loneliness, floundering), and final acceptance (hope). Note that denial is the first stage and can last for a long time. Just love the parents in their coping process. Be supportive, compassionate, and caring. Pray for the entire family. Parents go through this lonely walk through the stages to acceptance in their own manner and time frame.


Sally Castle is associate professor of special education at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio.

Friendship Ministries

This organization provides help with starting a Friendship program for people with cognitive impairments. They also publish high-quality, reusable Bible studies and life studies that are geared specifically for this special population. Prices vary; Friendship Ministries; 800-333-8300; www.Friendship.org

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