After the success of the first Certificate of Christian Disability Ministry (CCDM) module in August, 31 October 2020 saw the start of the second module in the CCDM programme. This second module, entitled “Sowing the Seeds of Faith: Including People with Special Needs in Christian Education”, had 44 participants –even more than the first module!
The module began with a session on a “Theology of Sunday School” led by Pastor Leow Wen Pin, the President of the Koinonia Inclusion Network (KIN). Pastor Wen Pin challenged the participants to think carefully about what Christian Education was about – was it simply about transferring “head knowledge” about God and the Bible to students? To answer this question, Pastor Wen Pin directed the class to Ephesians 4:1-6, and argued that Christian unity and inclusion were the core goals of Christian Education. As such, persons with special needs should not be regarded as “obstacles” or “problems” in the Sunday school classroom, but rather, their very presence provided an opportunity for everybody to practise Christian love.
Following this, the next session was led by Ms Teo Sue-Lynn, a psychologist who helped the class understand how to identify children with special needs in their classroom. For example, she pointed out that teachers often misunderstood behaviours characteristic of autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as being rude and lazy respectively. Instead, through a series of case studies, she helped the class recognise how to spot key signs and symptoms that were characteristic of more common disabilities.
Thereafter, Ms Janice Ho, a paediatric occupational therapist and seminarian, helped the class to think about how to develop faith in people with special needs. She argued that there was a need to form a biblical culture of inclusion between parents, teachers, and children. She observed, “Faith practices at home must include allowing children a safe space to ask questions and time to process the information … We need to bring awareness of disability; [and] talk about inclusion and ways we can love children with special needs more.”
Then, to round of the first day’s webinar, Mr Norman Kee, a lecturer at the National Institute of Education and an experienced trainer of special education teachers, took the class through a tour de force examination of how neuroscientific insights on disability could help Sunday school teachers better tailor their instruction for people with special needs. For example, he noted that persons on the autism spectrum were often “brainier” – that is, their brains were often enlarged in specific areas, which could lead to hyper sensory sensitivity or difficulties in managing their emotions. In this way, Norman provided much practical advice on how to teach children with special needs.
The second day of the module (on 7 November 2020) began with a much-requested session on managing meltdowns by Dr Eunice Tan, the head of the special needs programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. She explained the differences between temper tantrums and meltdowns, and laid out a practical approach for how to prevent meltdowns as well as how to manage them when they occurred. Participants were given time to practise what they had learned through group discussion of case studies in Zoom breakout rooms.
Following this was an important session about how Sunday school teachers could partner with other stakeholders to improve educational outcomes for people with special needs. The trainers, husband and wife pair Bernard Chew and Chin Hsiao Yun (both special educators), challenged the participants to embrace empathy for families with children with special needs rather than giving token sympathy. Moreover, they sought to go beyond mere lip-service to the idea of inclusion. They challenged the participants, saying, “We live in a society that values knowledge and capability. We need to revisit these values. Every child is created by God. A human’s worth and dignity is given by God … [Therefore, when we think about inclusion, the question we must ask] is not: What do we have to give up if we were to include them? But rather, what do we lose if we do not include them?”
A special highlight of the module was a dialogue session with three special needs Sunday school superintendents. This dialogue session was characterised by many practical insights drawn from the panelists’ many years of experience teaching people with special needs. For example, Mr Peh Eng Kiat, who leads the Rainbow of Hope ministry (a Sunday school ministry for persons with autism at Chapel of Christ our Hope), noted that sometimes Christians are too fixated about whether persons with intellectual disabilities can come to faith. Rather, he argued that “our job is not to convict. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Our job [as educators] is to make an environment where Christ is clear.”
Dr Dominique Phang, the chairperson of Ohana Ministry at Seng Kang Methodist Church, argued that inclusion meant treating everyone as family (“Ohana” means “family” in Hawaiian), and that meant developing a caring and inclusive church where “no one gets left behind”. Ms Grace Lim, who leads Jesus Club Singapore, cautioned the participants not to obsess too much about syllabuses and programming. Ultimately, she said, “we don’t serve ministries. We serve people.”
The concluding session saw two trainers (Mr Reynard Lye and Ms Betty Lee) from Wesley Methodist Church’s Praise Special Community (a special needs Sunday school ministry) unpack their process of syllabus planning. They shared about both their struggles and success stories, and provided many concrete examples of how they adapted various classroom activities for each child’s learning needs to tailor the classroom to each child who was unique and precious. This was a fitting end to a rigorous yet enjoyable module which constantly focused participants on the inherent value and dignity of every single one of God’s children. Indeed, as Psalm 139:13-14 says:
“For you created my inmost being,
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made,
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”