The Special Education Board has provided a room for special needs students in the West Michigan area at Heritage Christian School since Heritage opened its doors in 1985. This history began in the 1980’s with the forming of the Special Education Society. The purpose and goal of the society was (and still is) summed up in their constitutional mandate: “The purpose of this society is to provide God-centered education for those who cannot at the present time receive instruction in our present schools because of mental and/or physical handicaps.” These students have needs, and it does not matter what “label” they were given by the educational or medical community; their needs are great enough that they are not able to function in our general education classes independently. These are not students who need support in a few subjects, but they need total support. Through the years these students have had a variety of teachers, but the goal of including special education students in the general education classes as much as possible is a priority. This is called inclusive education, and one of the main points of educating these students is to give them an opportunity to be a part of our covenant schools. Heritage has found that all parts of the body of Christ can benefit from inclusion, both special education and general education students. Inclusion gives the general education students opportunities to interact with students whose needs differ from the average student.
At Heritage, even though many students have the opportunity to work closely with the students in special education, not all the students have this chance. In addition, students are curious about differences and have many questions about the students with special needs and their disabilities. Through the years these questions have been addressed several times at Heritage with chapels and days devoted to teaching about special needs. However, with so many children seeing, working with, and helping students with special needs, the Discovery Center staff wanted to find a consistent way to address some of the questions and give the students an opportunity to “experience” certain disabilities. This led to the implementing of a school wide program named “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” to educate and inform the students on a yearly basis.
“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” is a volunteer based program that begins by planning with the volunteers for activities to present to students from kindergarten to ninth grade. It concludes with follow-up volunteers with various disabilities visiting the classrooms at some point. The actual day begins with chapel, which gives an opportunity to spiritually address how we all are truly fearfully and wonderfully made by God. These chapels have also been an opportunity for the student body to hear the talents of our special needs students, or former students, through special numbers. The students are always amazed when Ross Van Overloop names the Psalter numbers by memory. Singing is a favorite for many of our students, so it is wonderful to watch classmates volunteer to surround our special needs students to sing praises to God. Once chapel is over, each class spends approximately ninety minutes learning about different disabilities or topics with a group of volunteers. The goal is for every student to learn and also “experience” various disabilities, so that by the time they graduate from Heritage they will have been exposed to a variety of disabilities. Following is a summary of the disabilities covered for each grade along with a sampling of the simulations to help the children “experience” a disability.
Kindergarten begins with an overview of special needs to help them grow in their understanding that differences are the way God has designed his people. The kindergarteners learn some sign language and even learn to color shapes by “seeing” the lines with their fingers. They also experience the frustrations of a fine motor disability when they must pick up and eat small Cheerios with their hands covered with socks and plastic bags. They figure out very quickly how slow and frustrating even a simple task can be! Singing Psalm 139, “I will praise Thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” is a wonderful ending for their day.
First grade focuses on understanding the experiences of people who are visually impaired and demonstrates how they cope with everyday life. The students get to experience blindness by walking blind-folded through an obstacle course with a cane and taking a trust walk with a volunteer. They also learn to pour water, guess objects and identify smells while wearing blindfolds. They even have a chance to learn about Braille using a Psalter written in Braille, and they have fun “trying on” a prosthetic eye.
Second graders participate in simulation exercises and discuss the causes of hearing impairments. They learn how God designed the ear with intricate parts, and then they each get to “become” a part of the ear. As they pass a coded message through their hands, they find that all parts must be working or the message is lost. They also learn all hearing impairments are not the same; some can not hear because the sound is not loud enough, while others do not hear the sounds clearly. Learning some sign language, trying to read lips and learning about hearing aides are also part of the second grade experience.
Third grade covers developmentally delayed or cognitive impairments where students learn about the different ranges of abilities. The simulation activities are designed to help the students experience fine motor impairments by buttoning a shirt and finding small objects in a bag with sock covered hands. Students also have the opportunity to experience the frustration of very difficult tasks and then being treated as a baby. An especially important message in understanding others’ feelings and helping all those in the body of Christ is emphasized in third grade.
Various forms of motor and orthopedic impairments are introduced in fourth grade to teach an understanding of and respect for the people who cope with these disabilities. Students use adaptive aids to dress themselves and do everyday tasks such as eating and opening cupboards. Walkers and wheelchairs are used to experience mobility difficulties. They also complete an art project that involves cutting with hands covered with socks to experience the trouble and time it takes to do simple tasks when hand muscles are weak. These students learn in their everyday life to empathize and help older adults and those with motor impairments.
In fifth grade students discover the causes and types of learning disabilities. Copying math problems with mirrors frustrates the students with a simulated visual motor integration disability. Reading a text that is mixed with nonsense words simulates a reading disability. Following directions and being forced to work quickly to the point of frustration is another simulation. Students end with a discussion of ways to help those with these difficulties and that fair does not always mean equal in the classroom. They discuss why some students have accommodations to help them with reading or writing difficulties, and how accommodations can help those with different learning styles. They learn God did not make all children’s brains to work the same…. each child is God’s unique design with differing strengths and weaknesses.
Sixth grade covers developmental delays or cognitive impairments along with review of past sections. Students participate in a fine motor relay race that is set up to favor one team and are faced with the question, “What is fair?” Treatment of people with vision impairments using a Seeing Eye dog is also addressed. This grade finishes with Ross Van Overloop reading his book How I Learned to Ride a Bike and answering some of the sixth graders questions about his life as an adult with Down syndrome.
Seventh and eighth grade both have presentations by parents who have experienced personally or vicariously through their children either a serious illness or chronic condition. Tourette’s syndrome, diabetes, hirshsprungs, anorexia/bulimia and treatment of peers with sicknesses are some of the topics covered. These topics give the students opportunities to have conversations about peer pressure and self esteem along with gaining some knowledge about medical conditions that some of their own classmates deal with every day.
Autism is the final session in ninth grade where students learn about the characteristics of autism and experience sensory overload. Tasting some surprises in the delicious chocolate treat or taking a test with sound and light distractions are just two sensory experiences in which the students participate. The students are encouraged to volunteer in the Protestant Reformed special needs group that meets one time each month called “Special Needs Friendship Club.” This group combines two groups that do not have many opportunities to mix in fun, social outings. Getting our young people involved in a life long commitment to be a friend to those with disabilities would be a wonderful culmination of “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.”
A program such as “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” can be implemented in any school, whether they have a special education classroom or not. The goal of the day is to educate and increase awareness of the different disabilities, so that the students are more comfortable interacting with all members of the body of Christ; not just at school, but also in the church and in the Protestant Reformed community. This program is only possible through the work and expertise of the volunteers who are willing to give their time and wisdom to the children. Heritage is always thankful for the individuals who come to help and share their experiences, and it is our prayer that addressing these topics will prepare our children to be active members in the body of Christ.