Placing the Child with Special Needs
If including children with special needs was always easy there would be little need for this blog. Most of the time, recruiting and educating volunteers in special needs inclusion is a relatively small investment that yields a big payoff. But occasionally, accommodating a particular child with differences introduces a more complex puzzle where meeting the needs of one child (and desires of that child’s parents) pose a challenge for the church and children’s ministry team.
At least weekly I receive a private email or phone call from a church somewhere in the U.S. or Canada. These churches are almost always wrestling through a unique accommodation situation. The staff members and church lay leaders who contact me are always passionate cheerleaders for special needs inclusion. (If you are a regular reader of my blog or know me personally, you know I have a low tolerance for church leaders who dodge ownership or avoid being inconvenienced. Logically, those folks don’t reach out to me!). The churches contacting me are in need of guidance for crafting an accommodation plan for a child where any number of the following concerns may be playing out:
- The physical safety of the child with special needs, other children, and/or children’s ministry workers are threatened in the church setting. (Note: Protecting the physical safety of all participants is crucial and trumps all other goals or concerns.)
- Through his/her behavior, the child is repeatedly communicating their displeasure inside the church environment.
- The child’s behavior is significantly disruptive and compromising the learning experience of others.
- The child’s parents have not disclosed any special needs issues yet the child exhibits recurring behaviors (such as those above) that warrant the need to develop a specialized accommodation plan inside the church.
- The parents are unreceptive to the idea of having the church provide a one-on-one buddy for their child.
- The parents desire a fully-inclusive church experience for their child while one or more of the above issues are present.
- The parents’ request and/or special needs consultant’s advisement are placing heavy expectations on church workers. Volunteers and underpaid staff members are feeling pressure to contribute time and emotional energy at a level that compromises their own personal priorities (their own church attendance, their own children, their own health challenges).
- The parents are threatening discriminatory legal action against the church because one or more of the above situations are present and/or the church’s current accommodation plan does not meet the needs, desires, or preferred schedule for the affected family.
I love to network. So for most issues, I know another church that has experienced a similar challenge and developed a solution. I may not personally have the answer to the specific dilemma as I am neither a special needs parent nor a special needs professional. But oftentimes I can connect a church with another children’s ministry leader, a special needs professional, or a legal expert who can help.
The Building Faith website is running my article Placing the Child with Special Needs, which addresses some of the issues I raise above. The church can expect to have occasional challenges crafting a participating child’s accommodation plan. Special needs placement is often complex for public school systems, which have access to public funding and paid professionals that churches do not. The linked article offers some history and explanation for how schools handle special needs placement. This article may help churches better understand the frame of reference and expectations special needs parents may be starting with when they approach the church for help including their child. I owe great thanks to Dr. Alyssa Barnes, a faculty member in the education department of North Georgia College and State University for help with the linked article. Dr. Barnes completed her PhD work in the area of special education public policy. Dr. Barnes is a passionate advocate for special needs inclusion and has also served as a volunteer in her own church nursery, caring for a child with special needs. (Note: Dr. Barnes will be teaching a special needs workshop at the $25 Children’s Ministry Expo this coming July in Lexington, KY).
For more on this topic, see When a Child Shows Signs of Autism