All children are unique and have individual challenges. In children’s ministry, we try to meet those needs collectively whenever possible. Creating an environment that is conducive to the needs of ALL the students is a great way to start. For example, some triggers that special needs children deal with are loud noises, bright flashing lights, and an overabundance of decorations. These triggers can cause overstimulation. When a child is overstimulated, it can lead to anxiety and classroom interruptions. Being aware of these kinds of issues is essential for choosing what does and does not go in the classroom or large group settings. However, there are particular needs that can’t always be met collectively and depend upon individual attention from volunteers. For instance, a child whose parents are separated may require some additional emotional support. In the same way, a child with special needs benefits from extra attention in certain areas.
Below are 7 tips for helping students with special needs in children’s ministry.
- Be Ready!
As you prepare your classroom and large group gatherings, be prepared for special needs students even when your church does not have any yet attending. When a visitor arrives and finds you ill-prepared for their child, because they have special needs, it gives them the impression that they and their child are a burden to you. This is not the message we want to send in children’s ministry. Welcome these kids expectantly with proper tools, experienced volunteers, and a positive attitude. This gives the parents the confidence they need to drop their child off with you just like any other child would feel welcomed.
- Ask for Additional Help
Children’s ministry teachers should reach out for additional help when a student with special needs is joining their class. Individual attention is often needed and this will free the teacher up to work with the kids as a whole. Take it case by case as one child might need a full-time helper while another may just need occasional breaks or physical aid. Determine how many volunteers you should have based on the current needs of your children’s ministry.
- Be up-to-date
Seek out training and teach up-to-date information about how to manage special needs well. Https://www.keyministry.org/training, https://abilityministry.com/disability-ministry-training-videos/, and https://www.joniandfriends.org/ministries/church-training-resources/irresistible-church-training-series/ are just a few online trainings that are available. Topics to be on the lookout for include: making your classroom handicap accessible, dealing with diet restrictions, handling behavioral issues, handling overstimulation and under-stimulation well, tools to help with special needs students, and more. Reach out to your congregation for anyone knowledgeable in this field who would be willing to teach and train.
- Make a Clear Schedule
Children thrive when there is a structure in place. Provide a visual schedule that clearly establishes what’s next on the agenda. Give verbal reminders of what to expect next a minute or two before you transition. Encourage children by talking about what they enjoyed in the last activity and what might be fun in the next. If a special needs child finds it challenging to stay on task, try redirecting them back to the activity at hand. Sometimes this is enough to engage them again. If there is difficulty during activity or transition times, allow the child to take their time joining the rest of the group with a volunteer’s help. It is possible the special needs student is feeling overstimulated and needs a moment of calm and peace before they can successfully join again.
- Use Tools
Provide fidget tools to help manage under-stimulation and allow children to keep their hands busy. Sometimes this also helps keep a child happy while sitting with the group. Take breaks when possible that give the special needs student time to do gross motor activities such as running in place, rolling on a large ball, or pushing on a wall. In a lot of cases, having a volunteer working with kids one-on-one can help the child take a break while the rest of the class continues with the lesson. Working these gross motor games and activities into the lesson plan is also recommended so that all the kids can participate together. When you do this collectively, special needs kids are less likely to need a break.
- Be Consistent
Repetition and consistency are crucial for children. The more you can have the same volunteers working with a kid, the faster trust and relationships are built. The more you can have a typical routine schedule, the easier it will be over time. Special needs children and children without specific needs often benefit from a structured and reliably consistent environment. This is not to say you should never add new creativity to your lessons. Just be aware that change can cause struggle and the more you prepare children for a change to come, the less complicated the outcome will be. Avoid surprises, as tempting as they might be. Being surprised is not something everyone enjoys.
The importance of accommodation is often overlooked. Children with special needs are unable to do some of the things that other children can do. Many diet restrictions can keep them from being included in snack time. Kids in wheelchairs or with other physical restrictions struggle to join in certain games and activities. Taking into account what modifications, accommodations, and creative ways of including all the children in each activity will send the critical message that everyone matters. Proverbs 3:27 says, “Do not keep good from those who should have it when it is in your power to do it.” (NIV) If it is within your ability to accommodate a child with special needs, dietary restrictions, and more, do your best! This will have a lasting impact on their hearts because you took the time to make them feel loved and included.
Working in children’s ministry is a blessing in so many ways. Special needs children are no exception. Being prepared and recognizing the sensitivities and challenges these children have set the stage for a successful ministry. The main objective in working with special needs kids is NOT to get them to be different from who they are, but to find ways to work with them in spite of their differences. The length of one child’s attention span might be shorter than another. The ability to sit without moving might be more challenging for one child than for another. Being aware of these contrary behaviors allows us to make realistic lesson plans, have more flexible ideas, and provide more well-rounded activities that meet everyone’s needs.
Involve parents in the conversation about how you can best meet their child’s needs. They can give you tips on what works at home, which may need modification but can prove to be valuable information. Parents are the most in tune with their kid’s individual personality. The more you get to know the parent and form a positive relationship, the easier it will be to ask the tough questions and provide the best possible service for their child.
Our goal is to help special needs students share a part in children’s ministry! All kids have a very important role in our churches. As we look toward future changes in our classrooms, curriculum, and overall ministry, let’s keep these students’ needs in our hearts and in our minds.