“The good news is that fostering spiritual growth for children with developmental challenges is both easier than most people realize and one of the most gratifying life experiences offered inside a church.”
Special Needs in Church
The most rewarding experiences for any Christian parent, Sunday school teacher, or youth leader happen in the moments they catch a glimpse of a young person’s spiritual growth. Unfortunately, we often fail to recognize and aid in the advancement of the spiritual development for the child with special needs. Few children, youth or adult ministers have significant exposure to individuals with disabilities or the teaching strategies for helping them develop in their own faith. With a growing U.S. population of individuals classified with a disability, currently the size of a combined population of Florida and California, the opportunity and urgency for reaching this people-group is escalating.
Many children with a high capacity for learning lose out on the Bible education experience. Behavior challenges associated with a diagnosis or the requirement for a higher level of personal attention often deter acceptance, let alone ongoing success in the average Sunday morning or vacation Bible school setting. The good news is that fostering spiritual growth for children with developmental challenges is both easier than most people realize and one of the most gratifying life experiences offered inside a church.
Understand the Individual
Tonya Langdon, Special Needs Facilitator for Skyline Wesleyan Church (Rancho San Diego, CA) underscores the need for educating the ministry team in order to create an environment of patience and love. “Well meaning church programming volunteers often see a child with one of a number of diagnoses emerge into a perceived behavior problem. An adversarial relationship can easily develop between the teachers and the child where there is a lack of understanding for the neurological drivers fueling the odd or even defiant behavior.”
Langdon goes on to explain that when the ministry team allows the child to operate on their own terms and feel like he or she is “winning,” the dynamics often change dramatically. “Children with special needs tire of being forced to conform. Already difficult behavior is more likely to intensify when the child is given further reason to rebel. Instead, when we pick our battles carefully, allowing the child to make non-disruptive choices, we often see the individual warm to our volunteers and actually want to engage constructively.” Skyline Wesleyan Church places special emphasis in teacher training on understanding each child, even providing a manual with common special needs diagnoses. Skyline currently hosts thirty-five children with various disabilities in multiple settings across the church’s children’s programming.
Langdon shares the story of how the Skyline children’s ministry turned a challenging and negative experience for one child and her teachers into a tolerable and even thriving education environment. The elementary aged student who we will call Taylor (*names changed) reacted strongly to most direction inside the Sunday morning classroom. Taylor’s diagnoses were never formally disclosed to the staff although signs were frequently exhibited commonly associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, and other diagnoses under the umbrella of mental health disorders. Annoying behaviors quickly escalated to unacceptable conduct, consistently wearing down the volunteer team and disrupting the other children’s learning experience.
Langdon was called in to observe and develop a course of action. “I had a sense that Taylor needed respect. While she was demanding it an unacceptable and unconstructive fashion, the fact remained that she was trying to communicate her needs and desires to her leaders.” Langdon began shadowing Taylor, taking responsibility for her during church programming. Langdon largely ignored Taylor, giving the child the impression that her independence was allowed and that her negative behavior wasn’t worthy of additional attention. While Langdon’s approach seemed counterintuitive, giving the appearance of indifference actually worked in her favor by gaining a more compliant attitude from Taylor. It wasn’t long before Taylor’s disruption toned down to the point that remaining in the class was no longer an issue.
The Child’s Need for Respect
The beauty of this story is that by acknowledging Taylor’s need for respect and successfully managing her otherwise challenging behavior, Taylor was enabled to spiritually develop during her time in church programming. After working one-on-one with Taylor for several weeks, Langdon discovered the young girl had a penchant for chewing gum. One Sunday morning, Langdon placed a piece of gum on the edge of a table, nonchalantly mentioning it was a reward available to Taylor if she successfully participated in the day’s Bible instruction. To Langdon’s relief, it wasn’t long before Taylor indicated her desire to attempt the scripture memory exercise. With devoted assistance, Taylor began mastering the weekly assignments. In the meantime, Langdon developed a non-verbal code for communicating with Taylor. “She doesn’t self-regulate well. So she needs visual cues signaling her actions are moving in an unhealthy or disruptive direction,” Langdon explains of Taylor’s inability to control impulses and her need for guidance. Indeed, Taylor responded well to the hand gestures Langdon developed for what otherwise would have been an embarrassing public rebuke.
Through the sometimes painful process, Taylor’s teachers also learned how to help Taylor experience success in the church setting. While every staff member and volunteer would agree that Taylor’s requirement for personal attention and supervision has been draining, her improvement is worth celebrating. When Taylor reached the fourth grade she completed a significant portion of the church offered education curriculum. Langdon captured the opportunity for positive reinforcement and affirmation, creating an award for Taylor’s achievement. Langdon noted, “Sadly this was likely the first-ever positive recognition Taylor has received. Yet I’m so thankful our church has been blessed by the opportunity to provide one of the few experiences of unconditional love in this child’s life.”
Amy Fenton Lee enjoys equipping churches for ministry to children with special needs and their families. Amy administers The Inclusive Church.