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Capable Child with Special Needs Resists Learning

October 6, 2010

Question: Our church has a participating child with special needs who is capable of learning but often resists.  Our concern is less about the behavior and disruption and more about the child’s resistance to participation.  Is it our volunteers’ responsibility to push the child to learn the Bible lesson?

How a church approaches a child’s spiritual development is dependent on three things:

1)      The needs of the child

2)      The desires of the parents

3)      The calling and capabilities of the volunteer(s)

For the sake of brevity, I am not going to specifically address the needs of the child and what the child may be trying to communicate through his resistance.  I have two articles coming out in the November and January issues of K! Magazine that provide guidance for getting to the heart of a child’s behavior challenges.

For this particular church and the child they were inquiring about, the situation does not involve unsafe conduct or behaviors disruptive to other students.  The issue of concern is the fact the child requires a rigorous behavior management plan in order to pull her away from a preferred activity and to refocus her on Bible learning.  To answer this church’s question I posed two questions back to the inquiring children’s pastor:

1) What are the parents’ goals for the child?

2) What is the capability and calling of the special needs volunteers?

For many parents of children with special needs, their primary objective in attending church is to receive spiritual nourishment themselves. Having access to childcare that provides a loving and safe environment for their child is most important.  Whether or not the child with special needs accomplishes any spiritual objectives or Bible knowledge while in church programming is considered a bonus.  Adding the stress and anxiety that may naturally emerge as the child is “pushed” to learn may not be worth the battle, even to the family.  If the parents were to pick up their child from Sunday school to discover that she successfully memorized scripture but was stressed out and angry, then has the church best served the child and their family?

When parents do have a desire for their child to live up to their cognitive ability and learn, then the children’s ministry team needs to look at their own capabilities and calling.  Utilizing a timer, following a strict routine and enforcing a well planned reward system can help a child successfully learn in church programming.   However doing these things may also exhaust a volunteer work force.  Any church that isn’t constantly asking themselves: “How can we help this child advance spiritually?” has lost their calling to the Great Commission.  However, the expertise and patience of the special needs buddies and lay servants have to be considered when deciding how much to push a child.  If a team of special needs volunteers emerge that have experience in special education and/or the bandwidth for enforcing a child’s learning plan, then problem solved!  But if the volunteers and staff members serving the individual with special needs lack the skills or energy sometimes required to implement such a plan, then “pushing” a child to advance spiritually might just push the loving but limited volunteers right out the door.

For more on this topic see the article Church Based Special Needs Individualized Education Plans. Connie Hutchinson, Director of Disabilities Ministry for First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, CA provides great insight on finding the balance between students’ needs and volunteer capabilities.

8 Comments
  1. Amy,

    Your response to this question provides some good advice. In addition to what you said, ministry workers always need to remind themselves of what work God has entrusted to them and what work remains His alone. We are called to proclaim the gospel and to pray for God to change hearts, but the heart changing work belongs to God alone.

    If ministry leaders are consistently doing their part – providing a safe place for all to hear and consider truth – they can leave the rest to God. In this case, our response to the resistance of a child with special needs to the gospel is the same response we should have toward any resistant person. We maintain a relationship, speak and live the truth, and leave the changing of the heart to God.

  2. Jolene –

    Your thoughts are SO well expressed! I am so grateful you took the time to provide this specific insight.

    The children’s pastor who posed the question to me actually had a most admirable heart. The child involved is incredibly bright and on the autism spectrum. However the child does resist fairly strongly to being pulled away from her passionate interest – just as she would in the school setting.

    In secular educational settings there are rigorous and effective individualized plans devised to help children who learn differently or who may be resistant to learning altogether. Would we tell the school teacher not to worry about teaching arithmetic and spelling to the resistant but capable child? While the comparison is not apples to apples (school and church), this question illustrates why autism spectrum disorders bring new complexities and sometimes tough questions to the children’s ministry team.

  3. The idea of doing any type of IEP for a church can be intimidating and honestly a deterrent to for a church considering starting a special needs ministry. After interviewing so many churches (maybe 75 churches as this point?) I have changed my original view that every church should develop a spiritual IEP of any type for each child with special needs. Many churches are called to provide such a meeting and working document – and go the extra mile in researching and finding the right resources for such a family. But to the average church who may be staffed with volunteer and bi-vocational ministers (who are already spread thin and oftentimes serving many heavy needs across the congregation), the idea of creating more meetings and action steps for their team is simply not doable. Every single church staff person I interview struggles to maintain balance in their life between their ministry, their need for income, and their own family.

    There are several levels of special needs accommodation and ministry for churches. And it is going to look different for every congregation – based on the church’s calling and their resource pool (people, volunteers’ special needs experience, facilities, budget).

    Obviously the times when churches can have a staff member paid and devoted fully to meeting the very unique and individualized needs, it is a true blessing for families affected by special needs. At the present time, the vast majority of churches rely on volunteers to coordinate their special needs accommodation. These special needs champions have different weekday responsibilities with unrelated job and family obligations. This is also true for most mega churches. And keep in mind that the economy has forced many churches to downsize.

    My goal with this blog is to encourage a church to take the next step forward in special needs accommodation. I want churches to read the posts and feel “we can do this!”. I also want to set them up for success….success with parents, success with volunteers, and of course success with students. I also hope the information on this blog can provide a good framework to parents and other stakeholders with special needs interest. Approaching a church with a request for accommodation may yield greater success when the conversations start with an appropriate level of expectations and an appreciation for the unique culture of a church. It is easy to forget (or not know) that church culture is considerably different from schools, businesses (including not-for-profits) and even para-church organizations.

  4. Cindy Spencer permalink

    As a Christian Educator, and a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I appreciate what you’re trying to do in this article. I have to admit, however, that I have very mixed feelings about IEPs in church, primarily because I have yet to experience a parent who has had a positive IEP experience in the school setting. It usually feels like another time when my child is viewed through his “deficiencies” rather than through his uniqueness and giftedness, and can easily become another barrier for participation of families in the church community. I think one of the challenges is to try to work with the family a little more informally, and also to consider carefully adaptations to the classroom environment and lesson plans that include the child. Are there ways to utilize the child’s interest to lead them into the learning, rather than trying to fight their prefered interest? Is the classroom routine consistent enough to allow the child to be secure in that environment? Are projects open ended enough to allow a variety of responses and not invite frustration when it doesn’t “look right,” or when one’s physical skills or social skills can’t keep up with one’s ability to think and process information.

    Another piece of information I would like about this particular scenario is the age of the child involved. Are there ways the child can be included in planning goals, methods and outcomes? Anything you try will likely be more successful with the child’s input.

    As you rightly point out, christian formation and public education are not the same. What happens if our christian education classrooms become another place where a child can “fail” or be “unsuccessful?” What happens if the same classrooms are places of radical welcome and inclusion, even when children’s abilities usually separate them from others? How can I communicate the love of God to each child? When I can keep “welcome,” “inclusion,” “respite care for parents/siblings,” and “relationships” at the top of my list of goals for all children in my classroom, I find this issue becomes much less frustrating, and I feel more empowered to work with challenging children rather than less.

  5. Cindy –

    This comment is so well written that it ought to be a guest post. I may connect with you via email. I 2000% agree with your suggestion to try and work with a family more informally. You give wonderful and practical suggestions! Your insight is so helpful and I hope the blog’s readers will process your input. Thank you!

  6. Lots of interest in this post!

    Probably the biggest “take away” intended with this post was the idea that it is okay to factor in the skills and calling of the volunteers. I’ve had two great conversations in the past 24 hours with staff members at two well known churches. Both of these church leaders direct vibrant and exemplary special needs ministries …and both discussed their need to set limits on behalf of their special needs volunteers. Respecting the time and the gifts of their special needs volunteers is crucial to sustaining the ministry. It is worth noting that the more involved a child’s behavior plan or learning plan becomes, the more it may require of the staff and volunteers. Some staff members and/or volunteers are called to go that extra mile. Others are not – and that is OKAY.

    I hope all readers know that my heart and intent in this blog is to help churches successfully include children with special needs. And setting appropriate expectations for what the church can do (and not do) is a crucial part of the bigger conversation.

    okay….I’m going on a comment vacation!🙂

  7. Excellent as usual, Amy! I think it’s important to remember that nurturing a child’s faith is a team calling. The Sunday School staff can’t expect to do it all. Even typical kids are sometimes uncooperative with the teaching on any given weekend. I love the comment that you make “Any church that isn’t constantly asking themselves: “How can we help this child advance spiritually?” has lost their calling to the Great Commission.” And I echo your opinion that the area of experience and knowledge varies with our volunteers. The bottom line seems to be that we give this our best, loving effort and leave the rest to a faithful God who’s numbered every hair on these children’s heads.

  8. Amy, good post!

    This year I had to let my son with Asperger’s/high-functioning autism graduate from my own SpiritPlay class (a Penfold UU adaptation of Berryman’s Godly Play curriculum.)

    I am so thankful for the volunteers in my own church who have taken up the task of teaching him. My former mentor Marty is one of those teachers.

    One strategy that really struck me was that Marty called me at the beginning of our year to touch bases with me about where my son is in his development, what works to motivate him, what helps to get him back on task, and what kinds of examples may help make the lesson real in his universe.

    I began attending this particular church here in North Texas, Pathwaysuu.org, because it was so inclusive, because it was time to start getting my my young sons civilized in a Sunday School class outside the home, and because it was time to return to a ministry of teaching, exploring, and passing on a spiritual literacy.

    There are definitely days when my son resists joining the circle of community. Practically every Sunday! He would much prefer to explore his own thoughts and say things that many might find disturbing if they haven’t been exposed to the movies, shows, and books he copiously quotes. So on his worst days of refusing to participate in class with kids his own age, he comes back to my familiar SpiritPlay class, with his younger brother (another challenge!).

    I have not yet found the keys to help my son to join our spiritual community. But I do hope that with daily story time, nightly lullabies, and regular discussion on morality and spirituality that my son will grow in wisdom as he grows in stature.

    I appreciate the advice and experience of fellow parents and teachers…

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