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Posing Open-Ended Questions in the Special Needs Ministry Environment

December 5, 2012

I’ve been working on a project to modify curriculum for the special needs setting.  I’ve learned so much after a speech pathologist has provided feedback on the scripts written for Bible stories and adapted activities.  One of the first proposed changes the speech pathologist sent back was the advisement to remove and alter open-ended questions.  Posing questions is a great way to capture the attention and creativity of children.  But for kids with processing disorders and communication challenges (so common to the special needs population), answering open-ended questions may be difficult if not impossible.  I’ve since learned better ways to ask questions and engage kids with special needs –  and to avoid using open-ended questions.

Pose a question that has a specific and short answer.  Kids who struggle to process information or to verbalize their thoughts can better respond when the answer can be offered in a single word.  And better yet, a “yes” or “no” response may enable a non-verbal individual to participate with a nod of the head.  This is the reason the app Answers: YesNo HD is so popular.  And this is also why I recommend Yes/No Sticks for ministry environments (typical kids love this tool as well.)

Watson w yes no sticks

Ask a question immediately after the answer has been given.  For example, asking “What do you think happened next?” may actually be confusing and ambiguous to listeners with a learning disability.  Instead, wait to pose a question until right after the correct answer has been given.  For example:

Mary & Joseph spent the night inside the stable.
While they were staying in the stable, Baby Jesus was born.
What happened when Mary & Joseph spent the night in the stable?
That’s right!  Baby Jesus was born.

To make this easier, you might ask a question where a single word can be offered:

Who was born in the stable?
That’s right!  Jesus.

And for a yes/no question, ask something like:

Was Jesus born in a hospital?
If the answer is yes, hold up your green “Yes” stick.
If the answer is no, hold up your red “No” stick.
Very good, I see lots of “No” sticks in the air.  
If you are holding up your red “No” stick, you are correct.

Provide Alternatives to Questions  Because some kids with special needs (and many without!) are not great communicators, find other ways to engage participants.  Rather than asking questions, provide three or four objects representing parts of the Bible story.  Allow the children to hold the objects during the Bible story and invite participants to raise their objects for everyone to see as they are referenced by the story teller.

After the Bible story is over, invite children to place the representative items in the sequential order of the story.  For example, when reinforcing the Christmas story, you might hide a three or four figures from the Fisher Price Nativity set inside a tub of dried beans.  Encourage students to fish for the buried objects.  After they have all been retrieved, have the student place the nativity figures in the order they appeared in the story.  Many kids with special needs, e.g. autism, have an uncanny desire and ability to place things in sequential order.  Undoubtedly a child who does not communicate well verbally will enjoy demonstrating their knowledge through an activity like this one.

Fisher price nativity set 120412

Nativity pieces in dried beans 120412

nativity 4 figures

Amy Fenton Lee

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  1. Do you mind if I pass this email on to my list of Christian educators? I think these are very good suggestions!

    Delia Halverson

    915 Santa Anita Drive

    Woodstock, GA 30189


  2. Delia – Yes, I’d love for you to pass along this post to others who might find it helpful. ~ Amy

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 4 Tools to Engage Kids with Special Needs in the Christmas Story | The Inclusive Church
  2. Creating a Special Needs Ministry Budget | The Inclusive Church

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