Out of love for my young son, I agreed to accompany him on a amusement park ride that stretched my nerves and my stomach way past their comfort zone. For the first ten seconds, all I could think about was getting to the end of the ride. But as we progressed, the sudden twists and turns became less nerving and more palatable. To my own surprise, when the ride was complete I was willing to go again.
For a child with special needs, their first time at church may yield unnerving feelings similar to my experience on the park ride. A new environment, different faces, and a change in routine can all be unsettling to an individual with anxiety or other cognitive challenges. Most parents of kids with special needs expect a little turbulence when their child is introduced to a new setting. But to the special needs ministry volunteer, a child’s perceived negative experience may unnecessarily produce feelings of failure inside the ministry. It is important for special needs buddies and class helpers to recognize that a period of adjustment exists for each new ministry participant. Initial entry into church programming may spur behavior challenges that disappear with minor modifications or repetition in the schedule. Keep in mind that the second time, let alone seventh time, in the church setting rarely resembles the first.
Inclusion Tip #1 – Church Picture Narrative
To prepare students for a specific environment or an upcoming change (e.g. promoting to a new small group or Sunday morning class), consider writing a simple narrative about the child’s day at church. Next to each sentence or short paragraph, display a real picture of a face or ministry environment.
For example you might say:
Many Sundays we go to church. (display exterior picture of church)
When we arrive, we walk from the parking lot to the church building. (show picture of entry door)
After walking down the hall, we go to KidsTown check-in. (show picture of check-in area)
When I arrive in my small group class, I might see some of these people:
Mrs. Ann (show picture)
Mr. Barry (show picture)
John (show picture)
Emma (show picture)
Some days a teacher might walk with me from the small group to a large group (Show picture of room)
….continue through the environments and people the student may encounter on a typical Sunday at church. Be sure to avoid using definitive terms such as “always” and to instead use words like “might”, “oftentimes” or “sometimes”. This same type of picture narrative may be helpful for VBS participation. For a similar topic and corresponding picture, see the earlier post: Creating a Transitions Box for a Child with Special Needs.
Inclusion Tip #2 – Advance Tour
Offer a tour of the ministry space on a quiet weekday. Simply having an opportunity to see the environment without the active chaos can help remove the intimidation of a new experience for some children. Consider inviting the student’s buddy or perhaps even one typical peer to join the child on their church tour. Creating familiarity creates comfort and increases the likelihood of success for the child who struggles with anxiety or sensory overload.
Inclusion Tip #3 – Graduated Inclusion Participation
Be prepared for some behavior hiccups in the large group environments. Loud noises, bright lights, and the general chaos inherent to big group settings may spur anxiety or sensory overload for a few kids. To acclimate these students, consider exposing them to large group settings for a brief but increasing amount of time each week. For example, for the first week a buddy might walk a child to the back of the large group setting, staying for under one minute and during a less rowdy time. The next week the goal may be for the child to walk inside the big group environment and remain for two minutes. The third week perhaps the student stays through the music or drama, and so on before retreating to the self-contained class.
You can expect to have a week when you backtrack (maybe the student didn’t sleep well the night before) and that’s perfectly okay! But by graduating the exposure, you are making progress. And by the end of a ministry year you might see a child comfortably participating with their typical peers for the majority of the time. In cases where a child poses behavioral or safety challenges in the full inclusion setting and their parents still prefer full inclusion over a special needs class, be sure to note the inclusion improvements. Parent pick-up time is a key opportunity to celebrate the progress. Many parents will appreciate the ministry team’s efforts to help their child work toward full inclusion. ~ Amy Fenton Lee
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