At just about every workshop I lead, I get a similar line of questioning that starts like this: “We don’t have a special needs ministry at our church, but …”
I know it may feel overwhelming to get started with a plan for including children with special needs, and that’s ok! The good news is you don’t have to have a dedicated staff member or a large ministry for children with special needs and their families. Start where you are, with what you have, and do what works for your church.
The following are some examples of effective ways to include children with special needs in the classroom environment at your church:
- Educate yourself and your team. This could look like a home visit or having families fill out an information page. If you don’t know something, ask! Locate resources to help your team. Reach out to parents.
- Minimize environmental distractions. Reduce sensory input. Dim the lights, turn down music, minimize wall decorations, use calming colors, and have a quiet space within your classroom.
- Maximize predictability of classroom routines. Have a consistent routine, teach expectations/rules explicitly, use a specific signal for obtaining class attention, and provide a visual schedule.
- Vary how you teach material. Instead of expecting children to learn according to your teaching style, know kids’ strengths and teach to those. Do you have a child that is active but doesn’t like to read? Teach a Bible verse using hopscotch. Present material so children can experience it using many different senses (i.e., sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing).
- Provide extra support when needed. Provide a trained “buddy” to children who would benefit from the extra support. This could be a peer if appropriate, or it could be a teen or adult trained to facilitate engagement, both with the lesson and social situations.
Inclusion is not just about the location, but about making all children feel welcome as full and equal members of the classroom, allowing them to access and engage in learning opportunities that match their strengths.
In this way, you are welcoming all children and providing an opportunity for them to know and love Jesus, and to build relationships with others. And that’s what it’s all about.
Dr. Tracy McElhattan serves as Director of Preschool Ministries at Blue Valley Baptist Church in Overland Park, KS. Tracy also writes and edits Bible Studies for Life curriculum for Kids. Previously, she has worked in public education in various roles for 13 years, including teaching and research. Tracy’s passions include teacher training, inclusive education, leadership development, good conversations, and enjoying life with her husband raising their two young boys.