Each year, children enter our classrooms with learning disabilities or cognitive delays. Other students deal with challenges that are less obvious. Some are socially awkward, have food allergies, or are dealing with the recent loss of a loved one.
As teachers, we’ve learned to accommodate a variety of students’ needs in our classrooms. We model inclusion which in turn helps our students be more accepting and compassionate.
But, what about the child who is not allowed to be participate in activities that most children take for granted?
A few years ago a new student enrolled in our school. She was a petite, long-haired girl who worked diligently on all her assignments. It was soon apparent that although a bit shy, she was respectful, smart, and friendly– a teacher’s dream. These same qualities quickly won her many new friends. I was thrilled how smoothly this new student made the transition into our building.
Within a few days of the start of school, the student’s mother called to make an appointment. During that meeting, the mother told me that she and her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The mother politely explained that her daughter was quite good at knowing what she could and could not do, but that it might create some uncomfortable moments unless I was also aware of these limitations.
I learned that those who practice this religion must refrain from many common activities. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses may not say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing patriotic songs. They are not permitted to join the Girl or Boy Scouts. And, they can’t celebrate birthdays or holidays.
Out of respect for the family’s beliefs, I wanted to work out guidelines for managing these situations. Planning ahead also helped avoid any awkwardness for the student.
1. The student stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, but she did not place her hand over her heart or recite the pledge. This showed respect, but did not contradict her religious beliefs.
2. I made sure that the specials’ teachers also knew about my student’s religious beliefs. All of us either avoided holiday and patriotic activities, or the student was given an alternative activity. For example, while the group made ghost pictures, my student made a fall leaf design. And, any holiday-themed packets were given a generic cover. That way, the pages inside could be switched out as necessary.
3. During birthday celebrations, the student would refrain from singing Happy Birthday. While the treat was being passed out, I would quietly provide an alternate treat from the cabinet. Her mother provided snacks for these situations.
4. Classroom parties were a bit challenging. Before each one I made contact with the parent and we problem-solved. Most often it was agreed that the parent would pick up the student right before the party start time. Whenever my student left early, I collected non-perishable goodies from the party and sent them home the next school day. This gave the student’s parents an opportunity to decide whether or not the contents were appropriate for their child.
5. Finally, I established a secret signal with the student. Any time the child thought an activity might conflict with her religious beliefs, she could either come up and let me know, or just silently alert me with the secret signal. By empowering the student, we were able to quickly resolve unexpected situations.
Working with several Jehovah’s Witnesses families over the years, I’ve learned to check in with the parents early on and keep communication open. Every situation is different. What’s acceptable in one family, might not work for another. In the end, it’s about making sure that all students have a safe and nurturing learning environment.
Other ideas? I’d love to hear about your experiences!
LOOKING FOR HOLIDAY-NEUTRAL ACTIVITIES?
Click the links below. These packets use familiar seasonal graphics and words, yet have no direct references to specific holidays on the student pages. These kid-friendly printables contain fun and educational activities that can be enjoyed by the entire class!