The idea of launching a special needs ministry for kids is intimidating to some children’s directors, but North Metro Church’s Special Needs Coordinator, Erin Nason, and North Point Ministries’ Director of Special Needs, Karen Lamb, say anyone can do it.
“You just have to love on kids and treat them as if they were your own children,” says Nason, whose son has developmental delays. Lamb agrees. “If you can love a person, you’re qualified,” she says. “That’s it.”
Many who serve in this ministry area do not have professional experience with special needs children. They’re simply willing to show up consistently to provide a loving place for kids to learn about Jesus while their parents attend church.
This form of ministry can be approached in several ways: a self-contained classroom for the students, a “buddy system” where each of the students is paired up with a volunteer who can assist them with inclusion in average needs classes, or a combination of the two, with some time spent in a self-contained room and other time spent with the rest of the children. The size of your church - both physically and in congregation - may dictate which approach will best suit your children’s ministry, but consider where each child will learn most effectively.
Lamb and Nason say creating a self-contained environment, sometimes referred to as a sensory room, is relatively easy.
“Some people think you need a room with tricked out lights, but you can actually start really small,” Lamb says. She suggests equipping the space with comfortable seating like bean bag chairs and offering a mini trampoline for those who need to release energy. Stock the room with soft toys like foam blocks, cloth books and balls. If possible, install a closed circuit TV that streams the activity happening in the large group. Some children who are overwhelmed by lights, sounds and crowds and may learn better participating via livestream in the self-contained room.
Whatever approach you use, don’t forget that the goal is the same - it’s children’s ministry, not just “childcare.” While the methods that work best and the spectrum of what each child can absorb will vary greatly, make sure they are learning about Jesus. Send them off on Sundays not only loved, but with a new nugget of truth from God’s word. A few basic teaching tips are:
- Simplify. Make lessons and activities shorter and more concise. This will help decrease frustration for those who cannot concentrate for long.
- Repeat the main point often throughout your time together.
- Avoid teaching in abstract terms. Whenever possible, use concrete ideas. Bring in items they can touch, taste, and smell.
- Avoid using complex directions. Give instructions one step at a time.
- Allow each child’s strengths to dictate how you can best reach him or her.
- Give praise often for actions or work, and be very specific.
- For more information on teaching learning disabled children, check out the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
Consider other logistics that would serve these families best, such as timing. “We offer our special needs ministry at the Sunday gathering that’s the least busy so it’s less overwhelming for the kids,” Nason says.
Communication with parents is crucial. Make sure to collect relevant information about each child, and keep your questions positive whenever possible, Nason suggests. She asks about the child’s strengths, favorite topics of conversation, and the best ways to redirect behavior when needed. Lamb’s approach is to have volunteers follow the same redirection process parents use when the child is at home. “We want to be consistent and not confuse the child,” she says.
In addition to gathering information on the child, Nason shares details about the program to ensure parents understand what her team can do - and what they cannot do.
“We set clear boundaries and explain to parents that we want to love on their child, but we aren’t providing therapy. It’s important to set clear boundaries and not over-promise,” she cautions.
Once your special needs ministry is up and running on Sundays and you’ve recruited a dedicated volunteer base, consider branching out to serve these families at other times. You could offer a quarterly date night option to parents by inviting the special needs children to church in the evening, or offer an occasional parents’ morning out.
We all want to break down barriers that prevent children from experiencing Jesus. Establishing a special needs ministry ensures that every child has an opportunity to learn and worship.