Religious Education and Special Needs

In this month’s blog I am going to reflect on the time I have spent with special needs teachers looking at RE and share some ideas they have for making RE for children with special needs a hugely important and enjoyable subject.

In Hampshire I have been facilitating RE and special needs networks for some years now. The group meets once a term and consists of teachers from mainstream and special schools. They also email each other when they can’t meet and share ideas and experiences with each other. The teachers come from right across Hampshire, Southampton and the Isle of Wight and the mix is very helpful because planning and learning for RE can be shared and adjusted based on the experience of the group. This type of format can be used in RE network groups anywhere, as every teacher will have children with special needs in their class. I have learnt the benefit of  taking 5 minutes in any network meeting to consider all the learning from the point of a child with special needs. As the number of children with special needs in mainstream schools is growing, many of you may face similar issues with planning and reaching those children who cannot always access lessons that easily.

In our Hampshire network, RE is based around concepts which form the key focus for teaching. Many syllabi in England have a similar approach and a clear focus, which is very important for special needs. Teachers have commented that real learning occurs when children begin by expressing their point of view or experience of a concept and then listening to the views of others, before learning about the concept from a religious or non-religious point of view. This is a very important approach, as many children with special needs are not always easily able to give their ideas or experiences, but if they can relate the learning to their own life they can often then go on to see the relevance in the learning from a religion. For example, during an RE unit on the concept of emotion in the Easter story a child with autism and attachment needs in my own class freely talked about his own feelings of sadness about being apart from his birth family. This was the only time in his 3 years at school that he had spoken about this in school. He went on to consider the concept in the Easter story with real insight and sensitivity. Other teachers in the group have similar stories. The subject itself and the freedom from writing and grammar outcomes (I appreciate these may well be picked up later in the lesson) can really help children with special needs express themselves in a profound, unique way.

Teachers say that the concepts that worked especially well in their RE were:

  • Belonging
  • Celebrating
  • Change
  • Precious
  • Remembering
  • Ritual
  • Specialness
  • Story
  • Symbol
  • Imagery

All of these are concepts that all children will have an experience of and therefore will be able to access the learning more easily. If teachers were using concepts that were far trickier in class, they went on to consider how to adjust their approach for those with special needs.

When planning RE, all the RE Managers identified the need to clarify the key learning for the children and to make it as interactive and sensory as possible. An example is through using sensory stories or puppets to narrate a story, rather than just reading from a book.

Successful learning always began with something based on the children’s own experiences and feelings.

This was identified by teachers as the key to the children’s understanding and without it, the rest of the information was not understood. The examples below from a School show the depth of the children’s thoughts on the concepts of Birth (made concrete by emphasising what happens on someone’s birthday) and Celebrating (again emphasising the actual experience of a celebration that the children have been too). This learning was then used to introduce learning about how Christians celebrate Jesus being born.

Another area the group commented upon was the importance of changing and adapting planning for children with special needs.

A special school shared an example of their Medium Term Planning for RE based on “Bread as a Symbol”. They changed their planning to meet the needs of their children by offering as many practical and sensory experiences as possible for the children to gain deeper understanding. For example, they made their own bread and considered how bread was used in their own families as well as acting out stories with bread in them. When they then considered how Jews used bread as a symbol, the learning was much more meaningful for them because of the practical actitvities used first.

Another special school was teaching about “Change in Christianity” and decided to adapt planning which told the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector (which they felt might be hard for some children to understand) to the gospel story about Jesus calming the storm because children would be able to actually experience stormy weather (recreated through water and sound activities and making boats to sail in different waters on trays in the classroom) and then see the contrast with calm weather.

When you next meet as an RE network group or take part in NATRE’s monthly twitter chat #REChatUK online, take a few minutes to consider what the subject might be like for a child with special needs – does the approach need adapting? Can you make the learning more practical and how can children record their thoughts (for example through signs, speech, drama or music)? It will really help all the children in your class enjoy the RE and learn through fun. Enjoy the discussions!

Written by Justine Ball, Regional Ambassador for the South East. Justine Ball also works for Hampshire County Council as a Primary RE Inspector and Advisor. Find out more about Justine on her Ambassador profile page. You can follow her on Twitter on @justineballRE.

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