It’s Sunday morning. Everything is ready. Materials are prepared, worship is cued, and volunteers are in place. Then it happens. One child’s behavior sends your morning off the rails.

So much for well-made plans. 

All children deal with behavioral issues now and then, but what if that behavior tells you something else? What if the behavior communicates that this child needs accommodations due to special needs or trauma?

Dr. Karyn Purvis said it best: “Behavior is the language of a child who has lost their voice.” Whether you refer to these children as differently-abled, exceptional, or special needs, we all agree there are some children who need extra help to participate in our ministry successfully. 

Not sure these kids are in your ministry? Chances are that if you serve more than ten children, these kids are already part of your church. Here are some statistics to keep in mind:

As ministry leaders, we aim for everyone to feel welcome in our church. With that in mind, it may be time for us to find out what is behind our kids’ behavior. When a child enters the church in a wheelchair, we consider the accommodations they need to participate in the ministry. But what about children who have invisible challenges? Autism, ADHD, and anxiety play out in the ministry as behavioral problems when really, they are challenges a child needs help navigating. The good news is you don’t need a separate special needs ministry to welcome these families. You need a plan, and that plan can start with these steps:

1. Cultivate Awareness

People are our greatest asset when it comes to serving children with special needs. Train your team with a brief understanding of invisible differences and how they may impact your ministry environment. Volunteers do not need to be experts on autism; they need to be experts on the child in their group. Training a volunteer to sit near a child who needs additional help can change the trajectory of your morning. If a child is talking out of turn, a gentle reminder with a hand on their shoulder is often all they need to get back on track.

2. Partner with Parents

Partnering with parents can seem like an elusive goal for ministry leaders. When working with differently-abled children, it becomes much easier. Parents are the experts. If parents share their child’s challenges, seek them out for what works best for them both at home and school.

Have an intake form available for parents to complete before attending or when checking their child into the ministry. An intake form gives you important information to better serve the child. 

Parents may not disclose their child’s challenges for fear of rejection. Asking a parent, “How can we help your child be more successful?” opens a dialogue with the parent and builds a partnership. 

Some children have never been diagnosed. It is never the job of a ministry leader to suggest a diagnosis. You don’t need a diagnosis to serve a child. You can accommodate a child because you know they need extra help. 

3. Know Your Kids

Help your team become “empathetic investigators” by finding out what is behind the behavior. Develop a relationship by asking questions of a child struggling in your ministry. Try this approach:

  • Ask-Words alone are often not enough. Visual aids help kids put words to their emotions. An Emoticon Chart is a simple tool that helps kids describe their feelings. This is a great starter for small group or class.
  • Listen– Listen to what children communicate through their words and behaviors. Remember, behavior is a language.
  • Plan-Have a plan in place when you know the child is struggling. Schools offer Individual Education Plans. Why not an Individual Ministry Plan? What does this child need to be successful? Having a plan for one child will serve the whole group.

4. Assess the Environment

How does the room feel to a child walking in for the first time? Is the music loud? Are the lights too bright? Is the room crowded? Be mindful of sensory needs. A child with supervision may step out during worship or sit in the back of the room. Knowing your child will help you answer these questions and have a plan.

We once changed our entire Sunday morning schedule with one child with ADHD in mind. The kids were moving and singing during worship, sitting during Bible story, standing for a game, sitting during the closing prayer, and traveling to small groups. Do you see a pattern? The outcome of just moving our schedule around served all our children, not just the child with ADHD.

5. Train Volunteers and Kids

Communicate clear expectations to everyone. Begin your time with what kids can expect and what you expect from them. We begin our time by sharing three expectations. 

Together we will:
Respect God
Respect leaders
Respect each other

When we experience behavioral issues, we connect it back to one of these expectations. Another clear expectation would be a visual schedule for my friends who need additional help. Understanding what will happen next gives participants a sense of control. Boundaries and clear expectations provide safety for everyone.

Having the desire to serve these families is the first step. You don’t need a sensory room or separate space. You need people, and you can start with one person willing to partner with a child. I like to encourage volunteers with the reminder that when they serve these children they help, not just the child, they help their family be part of the church, as well. 

So, where do you start? You start with one child. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

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