Teaching Children with Special Needs How to Pray.
As a parent of a child with special needs, you know that prayer is your lifeline with God! Sometimes it is your minute by minute cry for help to God to just make it through the day and stresses of life. Prayer is a vital part of our lives and needs to become a vital part of our children’s lives, including our children with special needs! It is our job as parents to teach our children how to pray as it is an integral part of developing and enjoying a rich and fulfilling relationship with God! The prayer habits that last a lifetime are usually formed in childhood.
To start, we need to show our children (and perhaps remind ourselves) that prayer is simple! Prayer is simply being with God and having a conversation with Him. Explain to your child that just as they can talk with mommy or daddy, or a friend or sibling, they can talk with God. God is there and always listens to them. For your child with special needs you can explain it is like leaving a message on voicemail where God always gets the message and responds. Children need to know that they can tell God anything they want to and that they can talk to God any way – they just need to be themselves. If they are nonverbal, that can say it in their head or they can use their PECS board or communication device. They can pray with other people or by themselves. They can talk to God anytime, day or night, and know that He will never be too busy for them; they can talk to Him anywhere, at home, school, the ball field, and church. God loves your child! He WANTS them to spend time talking with Him! He will ALWAYS be available for them and will ALWAYS listen to them!
My favorite parenting Bible verse is Deuteronomy 6:7 and I can’t help but think about it in the context of prayer. Impress (prayer) on your children. (Pray with your children) when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. It is a great reminder that we must actively be teaching our children how to pray. As with most spiritual disciplines, prayer is caught more than it’s taught! Just as Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples in Luke 11, we must take time to model prayer for our children. This can be simple! One of the first ways children learn the importance of prayer is hearing their parents pray. Pray as a family before your meals, whether you’re at home or going out. One of my greatest honors is sitting on the edge of the bed with my kids and praying with them before they go to bed. I would pray for God’s protection over them, that one day they would ask Jesus into their heart, I would pray for their future, and that they would share God’s love to others. Pray a blessing over your child, as this can bring comfort, reassurance, and hope to your child’s heart. Thank God for something specific (a talent or quality) about your child. You can also pray scripture over your children such as Psalm 5:12. Let your children hear you pray as often as possible; especially if you have a child who is nonverbal. Don’t just pray at mealtime and bedtime, but at all of those other opportunities, like thanking God for a beautiful sunset while you are out on a family walk. The more you model prayer (repetition), you help establish the habit of prayer, which will make your child with special needs more likely to rely on it themselves. I also pray for my kids when I drive them to school, help them pray when they have a problem or a test at school or even a doctor’s appointment. This helps reinforce that they can pray about anything at any time.
If your child has a short attention span, keep your prayers short and to the point. This will help make prayer time enjoyable and manageable. I will frequently use “text-message” prayers, like “God, please help me now!” These are very short, abbreviated prayers that God completely knows what your heart is and what you need! When you are praying with your children, make sure you use words that are a part of their normal, everyday vocabulary so they can completely understand what you are saying and feel more comfortable praying by themselves. You will also want to relate your child’s day-to-day experiences in your prayer, as this helps them see that God cares about what happens on a daily basis. For instance, to help Johnny with his chores, you could pray, “Dear God, help Johnny to learn how to serve our family by feeding the dogs each day.”
Share with your child a time you had a problem and how you prayed and God answered your prayer. You can also share how you have prayed for something and God either didn’t answer it the way you wanted or He hasn’t answered it yet. This helps our children know we don’t get whatever we want, but God has a plan for us that is better than we can imagine! It is just as important for our kids to hear us give prayers of thanksgiving. An essential part of a prayer is simple saying, “Thank you God.” Look around the house and find things you are thankful for and thank God for it in prayer. It could be as simple as a place to live, your sight, the weather, or having a friend. Make a family prayer journal in which you keep track of the prayers, even adding the date and way they were answered. You could also keep track of all of the things that you are thankful for! This journal could become invaluable on those hard days when the world seems to be crashing in (IEP didn’t go how you wished, several meltdowns, high stress, typical life of a parent of special needs), use the journal to stop and remind yourself of all the amazing things that God has given you to be thankful for and look back and see how God has answered prayer repeatedly in your life. This journal can also be a great way to show your child that God truly hears their prayer, as you can show them exactly when God answered their specific prayer. You won’t only teach your child how to pray, but you will teach yourself!
There is never an inappropriate time to pray. This is one of the main things our children need to learn. It doesn’t matter how long the prayer is or the words they use, instead that it comes straight from the heart! Whether our children have special needs or they are neurotypical, that’s all they need to know to communicate with our loving God who is always listening!
As a family application, take your family out for a prayer walk in your neighborhood. As you walk around your neighborhood, first thank God for what you see, the beautiful trees, sunset, clouds, and birds. Next, ask for God’s blessing and salvation on each family as you pass by their house and you can pray specifically for the children in each home. This is a great way to teach our kids to thank God for things around us, and to become outward focused! It helps them think of others instead of themselves, become concerned for the salvation of others which then directs them on their path to salvation.
— Doc Hunsley