“One child may thrive in a quieter setting focused just on special needs accommodation while another student is fully capable of participating with their typical peers.”
Special Needs at Church
Most children’s ministers with experience in special needs ministry have at some point felt conflicted in how to best accommodate a specific child with a disability. A child’s temperament and learning capacity may vary from one week to another. An occasional parent may push an expectation not in line with the church’s immediate capabilities. And parent-volunteer dilemmas may require the grace and negotiation of a skilled diplomat.
Alyssa Barnes, PhD and assistant professor for pre-service dual certified (elementary/special education) teachers at North Georgia College & State University explains, “The classroom placement of children with special needs is one of the most controversial issues dealt with in the field of special education. As a result, the church should not find it surprising when it too struggles to find the perfect fit for a child with a complicated set of needs.”
Barnes shares, “In the government funded public school systems, placement decisions involve a team of opinions. The placement process sometimes requires mediation or even due process procedures to settle on a specific child’s education path.”
As a result, churches can expect that it may take trial and error before a child with special needs is successfully woven into the church’s children’s ministry. Parents and church staff can benefit from the reminder that churches are not tax-funded entities and when compared to the specially trained educators in the public school system, they utilize big-hearted lay volunteers.
History and Background
Since 1975 Congress has enacted several significant pieces of legislation shaping the special education environment and other publicly funded programs assisting persons with disabilities. Based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1999, and No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the current trend in public education has moved away from self-contained special education classrooms and toward full inclusion.
Wording such as “least restrictive environment” is common guidance provided by the laws for the schools’ placement of children with disabilities. How each local school system interprets and applies the law is different and complicated. Parents’ expectations for their church’s children’s ministries are often shaped by their experiences in their local public school systems. And it is for these reasons that it is helpful to become familiar with effective and common practices in both the secular field of special education and established church-based special needs ministries.
One Size Doesn’t’ Fit All
Special needs ministries that simultaneously provide both self-contained classrooms and inclusive environments are ideal. One child may thrive in a quieter setting focused just on special needs accommodation while another student is fully capable of participating with their typical peers. And oftentimes, the same child may require both settings during a single day in church programming. Volunteer staffing and parent desires can also affect the placement of a child.
In accommodating children with disabilities, volunteer placement is sometimes more important than child placement. Occasionally parents resist the idea of a buddy, in their effort to fully integrate their child among their typically developing peers and to provide a “normal church experience.” In those instances when reality and parents’ wishes don’t perfectly align, pad the volunteer team. Discreetly position an additional helper with the understanding they are tagged to assist the child with a disability. The goal of a buddy should never by to isolate and separate, but to encourage and facilitate full participation to the best of the student’s ability.
Ask about a Child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
In cases where the church staff and family struggle to agree on a child’s placement inside the church, initiate a discussion regarding the child’s Individualized Education Plan. When you know how the public school system is addressing a child’s educational, social and behavioral development, you can glean helpful information on the individual’s capabilities and past successes.
In the course of such discussion, Barnes advises churches to invite parents to share their personal goals for their child. While the church may not be able to further a child’s intervention plan, understanding the real desires of the family may reveal areas where small adjustments can yield big payoffs.
Barnes points out that most parents of children with special needs have social objectives equally important to their academic ambitions, and this may apply in the church setting as well. As a special education teacher herself, she frequently observed parents to state goals for having their child invited for a play date, a birthday party or making a meaningful friend. Barnes relays this to the children’s ministry team, “when the church staff gets to the underlying concerns and addresses the parents’ deeper desires, the disagreements over the child’s placement may ultimately diminish.”
Celebrate the Successes
As parents’ goals for their child are implemented into the church setting, be mindful of and recognize even the smallest of achievements. Point out the fact that the child participated in the typical classroom or group worship for 15 minutes this Sunday, whereas last week he or she only lasted 10 minutes. Relay a sense of victory to the parents. Utilize parting conversations during the child pick-up time as a means for positive communication and evidence that the ministry team is mindful of the parents’ desires.
Amy Fenton Lee enjoys equipping churches for ministry to children with special needs and their families. Amy administers The Inclusive Church blog.