News Story

Teaching the Gospel to Children With Disabilities

When 4-year-old Kate settles into Primary — the organization for children in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — each week, she hugs her teachers, smiles broadly and then immediately sorts the silver bracelets on teacher Sue Perkins’ right arm.

It’s not the normal routine for Primary reverence time, but it is the routine that Kate — who was diagnosed shortly after her birth with Prader-Willi syndrome, a complicated genetic disorder characterized most significantly with an inability to control appetite — has come to expect each week as she adapts to the structure of Primary.

“It’s very important that we establish predictable routine and structure in our Primary class,” Perkins explained. “I purposely wear my bracelets every week; they provide some measure of routine to Kate, and they seem to help her sit through the hour of lessons and singing before class.”

Kate is one of thousands of Mormon children who attend Church meetings regularly but require additional attention and unique classroom adaptations.

Unique classroom adaptations fall into the prescribed guidelines for teaching special needs children. Doug Hind, manager of special curriculum for the Church, reminds leaders and parents that “special needs kids can be integrated into a classroom setting. The other children begin to understand needs and help those with disabilities or become peer tutors, allowing camaraderie to develop in the classroom. In general, we all want to help and do the best that we can, but we are fearful because we don’t understand the behaviors.”

When Kate began Primary at about 18 months of age, the ward bishop met with the Primary leaders to assess her unique needs. Teachers were asked specifically to work with Kate and to learn details and manifestations of her disability. Perkins and her team teacher, Diane McKean, even attended a conference of the Prader-Willi association to gather additional insight.

For Perkins and McKean, class time is based on routine: only a short lesson with a single topic and lots of pictures to illustrate the idea. The teachers spotlight each student at the beginning of class, giving each one an opportunity to share an experience of the past week. Snack is also a part of the class, but only a 100-calorie snack, based on Kate’s strict calorie restrictions.

“There are many kinds of disabilities, and they are of various degrees of severity,” Cheryl Lant, president of the Primary organization at Church headquarters, told a group of local Primary leaders. “These precious children need the blessings of being in Primary, and their families need our love and support.”

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