8 Ways to serve children with special needs in your church
1. Remember that every child is different, and every family is different.
Partner with the parents and make a plan that works for their child. As the child develops and gets older, the plan will probably need to evolve, so be sure to keep the communication with the parents fluid. Make sure the plan is communicated to your volunteers so everyone can take ownership.
Get to know the family also. In previous generations, Sunday School teachers would make home visits. Take the time to do that if necessary. Find out what the child’s strengths and interests are. Don’t focus on their deficits. Everyone has deficits, and no one wants to spend their life focusing on them. Find out what they love and think of ways to incorporate them into your lessons. That will help the child learn how to serve using their unique gifts.
2. Be aware of your building, and make adjustments if necessary.
Create a welcoming environment that is exceedingly hospitable to people with disabilities and make adjustments that accommodate everyone. Most churches have a plan for welcoming visitors already, so think through all possible attendees. Prepare in advance so the guest with special needs can be easily and conveniently accommodated in the warmest and most welcoming manner.
For people with sensory processing disorders, be aware of the environments you expose them to. Most preschool areas can be over-stimulating for many people with special needs, so think through alternative routes or meeting locations if necessary.
3. Try starting a buddy program.
Pair up a child with special needs with a volunteer that can be their buddy. Make sure the volunteer understands their specific needs and briefly train them in general skills that work across the board. A buddy can be anyone at the church from a peer to an adult. College students going into education are also a great resource. Allow them to take walks if they need to or go into a quiet room where the child can recalibrate if they have been over-stimulated.
4. Don’t be married to a schedule.
Although it is wise to have a plan and routine for when the child arrives, it is important to be able to pivot. Ask parents how the child is doing when they arrive. Many children are on attention deficit medication or possibly a strict diet to help them while they are at school, but some parents may give them a break on the weekends and during the summer. Knowing how their day is going when they arrive can help you make adjustments to the plan for your time together.
5. Have a quiet place for them to go.
Provide them a place where they can still hear the sermon if they begin to get sensory overload. Sometimes that may just mean space for them to pace in the back, headphones if the music is too loud, or a beanbag for them to sit in during church. Sometimes it may mean a quiet room with age-appropriate and mentally-appropriate toys or games.
6. Validate every child.
Don’t shy away from acknowledging the child. Even if they may not speak to you or look at you, it is important to speak to them and validate them as a person. Assuming they are fine can be harmful. They are often so removed from everything already, but they are much more aware than we think. Be sure not to talk about the student in front of them like they are not there, but make them feel as involved as possible. Be sure to never define them by their deficiencies, and always put the person first. For example, a child with autism should not be referred to as an “autistic child” because their disability does not define them.
7. Don’t be too hard with discipline.
The main role of the church is to disciple, not to discipline. Your goal is to partner with the parents to best disciple their child. Church should be a fun, loving environment a child looks forward to attending and learning more about God. Be gracious, and work to make church the highlight of the child’s week.
8. Remember to minister to the entire family.
Validate the fact that it can be hard to raise a child with special needs. Be mindful that it affects the entire family and engage with them. Don’t be distant. Help the family out when they come to church. If it is raining or they are having a hard time getting in the door, look for ways you can make their church experience easier.
This article was written in collaboration with Garth and Patty Leno, Kristin Crosby, Deana Troyer and Taylor Rodden.