Do you feel equipped and prepared to welcome every child into your children's ministry? If so, fantastic, but if not, I'm here to say there is a way to do it! You can create an inclusive environment where all children can participate regardless of the situation or setup at your church.
Below is a 5-step process to create an inclusive kids' church:
Step One: Create a Buddy System
Design a program that will make including special needs possible. I recommend using the "buddy system". For every child who has special needs, recruit a volunteer to help them. "Special needs" is just what the name sounds like. These children require special help in many different areas. Some might need physical help getting from place to place. Some might need emotional aid to help them work through difficult situations. Some might need behavioral help, with a specific reward system just for them. Some might lack verbal skills and need picture icons to show them what's next on the schedule or to help them make choices. Others might need exercise breaks or calming breaks.
Whatever a child's specific needs, a buddy can be there for them during a Sunday morning program. Their job will be to observe, allow the child as much independence as possible, and aid when needed. To design a program like this, it is best to have one leader overseeing the special needs volunteers and to keep things organized. Depending on your church's situation, this could be a volunteer or paid position.
Step Two: Include the Church
Include your church in creating this new program you are designing. Bring it up at church meetings, speak about it on Sunday morning, and put an informational slide on the projector and bulletin. Let the church know how important it is to have an inclusive children's ministry. Begin asking for volunteers, recruiting, and providing training on how to work with special needs. Look for good online training or ask those with experience in local schools to help train.
Step Three: Spread the Word
Make it known, loud and clear, that you have an inclusive children's church program and that everyone is invited. Design a page on your church's website, linked to the children's ministry page, that lets everyone know your ministry is also for special needs children.
Describe how the program works, and invite parents to fill out a questionnaire on your website if they would like to enroll their child who has special needs. Ask for their name, email, phone number, number of children, and ages, as well as a brief description of why they request Special Needs Ministry. Hand out information to visiting families.
Step Four: Be Intentional
Contact the parents who have requested a Special Needs Ministry for their child and set up a time you can meet with them and their child. Find out how you can best help that child and their unique needs.
Determine if the child needs one-on-one individualized aid and how much. One child might only need help once or twice with some physical challenges, while another might need around-the-clock support. Doing this will help you to see how many volunteers are necessary. For instance, if you have two children who only need a little help, you can ask one "buddy" to be there for them both.
Step Five: Get Comfortable
Set up a time for the family to meet the volunteer "buddy" and talk about more specific details. Do this 20 minutes before Kid's church or, if parents prefer, a separate meeting. This buddy system works best when you can have one or two buddies the child consistently has. When a special needs child becomes familiar with their buddy, it helps them become more comfortable, adjust to transitions better, and have a more consistent system that works for them.
With a special needs program, teachers can focus on the class instead of being pulled to give one-on-one attention. It also allows parents to feel comfortable dropping their children off when there is appropriate support in the classroom. This "buddy system" helps prevent many behavioral issues and provides all the children with what they need. Not every kid will need a buddy, but those who do will benefit from having one. It can also provide extra support for the teacher, who may be able to request help from the volunteer from time to time, depending on the level of need the child has.
Why is This So Important?
Everyone must be invited and included in our churches. God loves us all, and we can best represent this by treating everyone with equal importance. I will leave you with a story of regrets that might be familiar to some of us. This story is not meant to shame us but rather to help us learn from our past and help us see that there is a solution for the future.
There once was a small church between corn fields and house developments in the countryside. This church had an average of 75 people attending. The church hired a new young children's coordinator. She had all the creativity and couldn't wait to make that ministry fun and full of God's word. She also had much experience working with special needs, as she used to be a therapeutic staff supporter in schools and homes. One Sunday, it was her turn to teach the church's only class of 10 children of mixed ages (between 5 and 12) when a child with autism entered the room with his father. She was welcoming and told his father she was so happy he was there. "What will you do?" asked the father. "What program do you have in place?" The children's coordinator did not know how to answer. "He is welcome to join us." She said. "I have sensory toys that might be useful."
The class seemed to go well. There were no mishaps or mistakes. The child with special needs was included in the lesson, listened in, and participated in some activities… But the parent never brought the child back.
Moral of the Story
It wasn't a lack of knowledge, supplies, or a lack of a warm welcome that was the problem. A lack of support kept the father from bringing his son back. He knew that the teacher had her hands full. He didn't want to burden her with his special needs child when the teacher already had ten other students. You see, parents of special needs children aren't naive. They know their child needs extra help. When teachers try to do it all, they aren't doing anyone any favors.
This regretful story teaches us that we need to be prepared. We need to have a clear plan and make sure that plan leaves parents comfortable bringing their kids to your program. Even if there wasn't a volunteer available that first week, the parent would have been much more likely to return if the teacher had been honest and said, "We want to provide for your child's needs. Would you be willing to discuss how we can best meet his needs? We will start looking for a volunteer to be his buddy if you want to return next Sunday."
The only way to have an inclusive kids's church is to prepare for it now before any children with special needs come in. Start planning, sharing, asking for support, and inviting. Be realistic about the support necessary for special needs children to participate in your ministry. Don't be afraid to change how your ministry "does church". What's important is that everyone is included!