4 Ways to Teach Nonverbal Kids in Sunday School

Dec 12, 2019 9:21:00 AM / by Kathryn Watson

My son is five years old, and he doesn’t really talk. He’s trying, and we’re hearing a few words pretty clearly. He likes to repeat the words he hears, and sometimes he will use a single word to let us know what he wants. He understands the words others speak—although it is very hard to tell how much he understands when he can’t talk back.

That’s the long way of saying that my son is functionally nonverbal. He does not yet use language to communicate.

Teaching and connecting without words

In education—at school and at church—we rely on words. We give information with words. We check for understanding with words. Even our most active, out-of-the-box lesson plans have space for processing with words. So how can you include a kid who doesn’t speak?

Today I’m putting forth a few simple techniques you can build into your class when working with functionally nonverbal kids in Sunday school. As I’ve written about before, you don’t need a background in special education to work with kids who have learning differences. Neither am I’m not expecting you to rewrite your whole Sunday school lesson. These are ways to work with what you’ve got.

So, pull out your curriculum, and see where you can adjust your plans to include some nonverbal communication.

Four ways to work with nonverbal kids in Sunday school

Use picture cards

Instead of asking for a verbal response, ask for a photograph. I have a set of photos that show a variety of people, emotions, objects, and settings that I use when communicating with my son. You can purchase these online (mine are from the Visual Faith Project) or make your own with pictures from magazines. Look through your lesson plan for questions that could be answered with pictures. Lay a handful of cards up on the table and let the class pick pictures to give their answers. Verbal learners can explain the pictures they have picked. Nonverbal learners can show their picture and let the group talk about why they might have picked it.

Mark the movements

As you read through your lesson plan each week, circle one helpful action for your nonverbal student. For example, when we were dividing the Ten Commandments into rules about loving God and loving people in my class, a nonverbal elementary student collected the resulting papers. He held one set in his right hand, and one in his left. This was a visual and physical activity for the whole group, and our nonverbal student got to be in the center of the action.

Strike a pose

In my experience, kids who don’t speak much can be very good at communicating without words. Ask your group to respond to a question with a facial expression, or by striking a pose with their bodies. There’s no need to single anyone out—quite a few of the talkers in your class will enjoy making faces too!

Word of the day

You can tailor this technique to the strengths of your nonverbal learner. The whole class can also benefit from the extra emphasis on a major theme. Encourage a kid who repeats words to repeat a key word of the day. Look up a key word in sign language and teach it to the class. Or ask your class to yell and cheer every time they hear the word of the day.


Without words, my son brings toys to us when he wants to play and signs for food when he is hungry. He tells jokes by mimicking scenes from TV shows, scowls in protest when something isn’t fair, and gives the best hugs to tell us he loves us. Functionally nonverbal kids in Sunday school have stories to share. Look closely at the kids in your class and you’ll hear them.

This post previously appeared on the Sparkhouse blog in April of 2018.

Topics: Children Ministry, Sunday School, neurodiversity

Kathryn Watson

Written by Kathryn Watson

Kathryn Watson encourages faith formation in families through her work as a Sunday school director at Plymouth Congregational Church UCC in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  She and her husband have two sons with very different learning personalities—and they inspire her to keep finding ways to make the church more accommodating.


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