As a speech-language pathologist, my training has allowed me to help countless children develop verbal speech or alternative communication methods. I have listened to families express their desire to hear their child communicate or participate in their family routines. I know how these families feel, because I have experienced it myself.
My own child with special needs was nonverbal for years and is currently minimally verbal at age 13. My background has given me insight into ways to help her in areas that aren’t typically addressed by other professionals, prayer being one of them.
I had an ambition to teach my daughter to pray even though her spoken vocabulary was limited to a few words. I broke down the act of prayer, employed some well-known speech therapy techniques, and began helping her develop her own prayer life. Like many other skills we have worked on in the past, this took time and repetition, but my daughter learned to pray.
Here is what I did to help her:
Teach the prayer position.
The physical position of prayer is a good beginning, especially when speech is limited. A bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands is an act of contribution to prayer that a child who is nonverbal can make. When an adult prays out loud while modeling a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands, the child should be encouraged to take the same position. This will help the child link those actions with prayer. Don't undervalue this posture. This can be a way for the child to indicate the need for or desire to pray, in addition to joining in with an actual prayer.
This was the first and easiest step in the process of teaching my daughter to pray. As she got older, she recognized when other people were in prayer too. During church, she would say, “Mama,” while folding her hands as if to tell me or ask me if people were praying. She caught on to the act of prayer, and it was exciting.
Pause for the amen.
Generally, prayer ends with the same phrase or word. In our family, we tend to end prayer with, “In Jesus name we pray, amen.” Ending in a familiar phrase can lead to the child saying a predictable word.
At the end of our bedtime prayers, I paused and waited for my daughter to contribute an amen. Pausing gave my daughter the opportunity and the expectation to say the word to end the prayer. My husband and I paused and waited for her to say “amen” for weeks, maybe months, when we prayed with her out loud. She had never said the word before, but we continued to pause in hopes she would learn the word. One day, she said something that resembled the word amen! It felt like a miracle. From that point on, her job during the bed time prayer was to say, “Amen!” The more she said it, the clearer the word became.
Incorporate any spoken words into prayer requests or prayers.
Often times, the words "mom" and "dad" are part of a child’s early spoken vocabulary. If names of people are said by the child, then you can encourage prayer requests. Ask the child who they want to pray for in order to give them a chance to name a person. Another option would be to pause and cue the child to say the name of the person they are praying for in the middle of the adult’s prayer. This allows the child to interject a word within the prayer.
Early on, we asked my daughter who she wanted to pray for. She didn’t respond to the question at first, because answering questions is quite difficult for children with severe language delays. By offering choices, she was able to provide an answer. We asked, “Do you want to pray for momma or dada tonight?” Then, she could respond to the question and further her involvement in prayer. When I prayed for her dad, I would call him “dada” in the prayer, since that is how she pronounced the word. I wanted my daughter to hear her version of that particular word in my prayer.
Take turns praying.
Once single words—or signs or pictures, if needed—are incorporated into prayer, it might be time to encourage more independent prayer from the child. Even if the child isn’t yet saying many words, jargon or silent prayers can be encouraged using the “my turn” and “your turn” approach.
During bedtime prayers, I told my daughter it was her turn to pray after I prayed. At first, she didn’t respond at all. I waited a minute, and then kissed her goodnight. This went on for weeks. One night, she opened her mouth and prayed with babbling and jargon. At the end of her prayer, she clearly said, “Amen.” Eventually, we could hear “God” at the beginning of her prayers as well. Years have passed since we have started this technique, and it continues to be successful. While the majority of her prayer is not understandable, I do hear some real words nestled in her prayer. This has shown me that my child is developing her own prayer life despite her significant delays in speech and language. Hopefully, one day she’ll be able to put full sentences together in prayer. For now, she doesn't have that ability. However, she has developed a prayer life.
Prayer is a fundamental part of our faith. Even if children have limited speech and language skills, a prayer life can be encouraged and developed. We found success with these strategies, and I hope they help you too.
Evana is a wife and mother of two children. Since becoming a parent, Evana has spent many hours driving to specialty appointments, praying beside a hospital bed, and learning about her children’s diagnoses. Evana is also a pediatric speech-language pathologist and serves children with autism, feeding disorders, and other developmental delays. You can connect with Evana on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog, A Special Purposed Life.You can also read more about her family’s story in her book, Badges of Motherhood: One Mother’s Story about Family, Down syndrome, Hospitals, and Faith.