This is part 2 of Cindy Spencer’s guests posts about welcoming children with “invisible disabilities” into our faith communities. Cindy’s son is on the autism spectrum so she has first-hand experience with the adjustments and accommodations required to be hospitable to all children.
A wise pastor once told my congregation that we weren’t called to beat the bushes to create new ministries, but rather to be faithful to what God is dropping into our laps. When 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, and many, many more children are impacted by ADD, ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder, sensory-integration issues, hearing and vision loss, chronic illness and more, I believe that God IS dropping this issue into our laps. Will we be faithful?
How can we support our teachers in including all children? There are many resources available, and some of my favorites are listed at the end of this post. There are also some basic principles which may be helpful to think about as you think about the specifics of your own community.
- Children with special needs require as much consistency as possible, both in the classroom environment, in the teaching team, and in the structure of the class time. Actually, all children benefit from this kind of consistency. So do the teachers. This doesn’t have to call for an model where the same two teachers are present every week, but do strive to have some continuity week to week. A teaching team of four teachers allows for two teachers each week while still asking each teacher to commit to being present for only half the sessions. If one rotates in and one out each week there is always someone who was present the previous week. Or perhaps you might find a person or two who would be dedicated “shepherds,” not teaching, but being a consistent welcoming presence in the room.
- Start where you are – gather the teaching team to assess the needs of the children in your current situation. Is someone new coming into this setting? Every time a new child (one with a disability or not) comes into your community, there is a shift in the circle. Take the time to think with others about the situation. Identify needs (this is different than complaining). To do this you need to assume that difficult behaviors have a purpose and try to look behind the behavior to see what the needs are. A great book for thinking about this is Children who are not yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom by Donna Bryant Goertz, a Montessori teacher.
- Expect differences. Think of variations on the lesson or activities to make them work for each child. For example, offer different kinds of art responses – ones that don’t all have to look like the teacher’s. Fidgets (small hand held items that a child can manipulate quietly during circle) can improve the ability of some children to focus and attend to the story.
- Consider how you communicate with parents. “We hope that your child will be back next week. How can we best support her in the classroom?” is better after a difficult first week than “Will your child be back next week?” Provide opportunities for parents to share helpful information with you through a space on your registration form, or through a follow-up phone call from the family ministries coordinator, but be respectful, and allow the parents to give you information. If a disability is given, ask the parents for tips on things that work for their child at school or at home. And always ask the parent what their child enjoys, excels at, or is interested in. Having a disability doesn’t mean a child doesn’t have interests or skills. Remember that the parents have already gone ahead of you in welcoming a child that was different from the child they were expecting. (For more insight into this, check out the essay, “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley, available at http://www.our-kids.org/Archives/Holland.html.)
- Remember to pray for all the children in your care, and for their families. We don’t always see the challenges that each one is facing, but God knows and is with them on their journeys.
- Know that not all children will be able to function in an inclusive classroom. Consider carefully whether your church is called to offer “self-contained” type classroom or worship service, such as the model presented in Rhythms of Grace: Worship and Faith Formation for Children and Families with Special Needs by Audrey Scanlan and Linda Snyder.
Ministry to and with children with special needs is rewarding, enriching, and very much appreciated by the children and their families. More is possible than you might think with a little creativity, cooperation, and ingenuity.
- Key Ministry website (includes a “toolkit” for churches) – www.keyministry.org
- Let all the Children Come to Me. Malesa Breeding, Dana Hood, Jerry Whitworth. 2006. Cook Communications.
- Children who are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom. Donna Bryant Goertz. 2001. Frog, Ltd.
- Autism and Your Church. Barbara J. Newman. 2006. Faith Alive Christian Resources.
- Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities. Barbara J. Newman. 2001. Faith Alive Christian Resources.
- The Special Needs Ministry Handbook: a Church’s Guide to Reaching Children with Disabilities and their Families. Amy Rapada. 2007. CGR Publishing.
- Learning Disabilties and the Church. Cynthia Holder Rich and Marth Ross-Mockaitis. 2006. Faith Alive Christian Resources.
- Rhythms of Grace: Worship and Faith Formation for Children and Families with Special Needs. Audrey Scanlan and Linda Snyder. 2010. Morehouse Education Resources.