7 Ways to Do Ministry With Children With Special Needs
Does your ministry welcome any children with special needs in attendance? The United States census in 2019 found that over three million kids have a disability which is 4.3% of the under-18 population. Welcoming these kids into your church is essential, as every child deserves to feel God’s love.
1. Be Welcoming
Opening your doors for special needs ministry is one thing, but letting the kids know they are valued and welcomed is another. Often, church leaders may assume parents know that their children with disabilities are welcome, but has your ministry made it clear? Celebrate the differences of each child that attends your church, and welcome everyone.
The same goes for the parents of children with disabilities. Greet parents and their kids warmly and let them know their presence is valued. You may not understand the everyday struggles families of children with special needs go through – a friendly smile and a warm welcome will go a long way.
2. Be Accessible
Niceties are a given, but they will only get you so far if your church is not accessible. People with a physical disability may struggle to climb the stairs, so having wheelchair access to your kids' ministry zone is a must. Another practical way to make kids at your special needs ministry comfortable is to assign a designated quiet space.
Breakout rooms will be essential for children with sensory difficulties, offering them a time-out when they feel a little overwhelmed. Give parents access to these safe zones and build a trusting partnership. Learn more about the importance of trust between church and families, here.
3. Be Accepting
No two people are the same, and ministry should be a safe place for kids to embrace their individualities. While discipline is necessary for some kids' ministry contexts, remembering the unique experiences of children with special needs is a must.
Accept every child that attends your church, and celebrate their differences, but try not to treat them too differently from other kids at your church. Children pick up on subtleties like this, and it may negatively impact their self-image or how they interact with each other.
4. Be Active
When opening your church doors to account for children with special needs, you need to take it a step further. Simply welcoming the kids that reach out to you isn’t enough – you must make it known that you are a special needs ministry. Seeking out special needs families will demonstrate that your church is a cut above the rest.
Design events specifically for kids with different disabilities, like a sensory-friendly movie viewing with a sign language interpreter. Attract parents of children with disabilities by hosting them at your church and giving them a taste of what being a part of your ministry is all about.
5. Be Realistic
If you haven’t had much experience with special needs church ministry, be realistic with your growth. Jumping in at the deep end and biting off more than you can chew will only harm the kids involved. Make sure you are ready for the extra responsibility. This could mean hiring an extra set of trained hands or recruiting more volunteers.
When parents enquire about your capabilities working with special needs children – don’t oversell yourself. If you don’t have much experience – just be honest. Let them make the final call about whether your ministry is a good fit for their child, as they only want them to be happy and well looked after. Set realistic expectations and keep everyone on the same page.
6. Be Prepared
Get prepared for the children with disabilities at your ministry by engaging in deep dialogue with their parents beforehand. To give them the same experience as the rest of the kids at your ministry, you need to know their specific requirements.
On top of typical things like allergies and sensitivities, you need to know how to help them with their disability. Children with special needs might need extra support with mobility when working independently or with being included in a group. They might need help with all three.
7. Be Inclusive
Volunteers may shy away from working with kids at your ministry with disabilities, or other children are reluctant to play with them. Combat this by being inclusive of the kids in your church, regardless of differences in ability levels. Offering volunteer training on how to be there for kids with special needs can take away some of the pressure and remind them that all kids are God’s children.
Sometimes, kids with special needs may struggle to keep up with the same task as others in their class. Instead of removing them from the environment or giving them entirely different work to complete, adapt the task so that each child feels included and accomplished.
Special needs ministries in churches aren’t so different from what you do already. While you may feel out of your depth at first, remember that all children need a relationship with God. Make your ministry the haven that helps that happen. Children with special needs are a gift to this world – help them feel accepted by building a culture of understanding at your church.
For more on what running a special needs ministry means for parents and pastors, check out this podcast by Think Orange.