Summer is just around the corner which means vacations, beach trips, and, of course, VBS! Some families plan their vacation schedule around this beloved summer tradition. But is your church prepared to welcome all children, including those with special needs? Children with disabilities, exceptionally-abled, or special needs, no matter the term you use, there will be children who struggle to be included in Vacation Bible School. 

But hold on! We can intentionally plan for, even expect, these children to come through the doors of our church and right into the fun of VBS. 

If a child enters your doors in a wheelchair, you may quickly think through how to accommodate them, but what about children who have invisible challenges such as autism, anxiety, or ADHD? If we are expecting these children to be a part of our VBS, there are a few things we can do to be prepared: 

1. Expect Them To Be There

If you anticipate 100 children at your VBS, how likely is it that you will have some kids who need additional assistance to participate with your typical children?

Here are a few numbers to keep in mind as you plan for the fun of VBS:

  • 1 in 6 children (17%) aged 3-17 were diagnosed with a developmental disability as reported by parents 
  • 1 in 36 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

2. Utilize Care Forms

If parents share on their child’s registration that they have a diagnosis, follow up with a simple intake or care form. This collects information regarding a child’s likes and dislikes and what to do if the child gets overwhelmed. Be sure to notify the parent that the information will be shared only with those working closely with their child.

3. Recruit Buddy Volunteers

Add the role of a buddy to your list of volunteer needs, even if you aren’t sure you will need them. If you expect 100 kids, it would be great to have at least five buddies. If you don’t have anyone specific who needs a buddy, add the buddy to a group that could use some behavioral support.

4. Train Your Team

Start by sharing the above statistics to cultivate awareness with your staff and volunteer team. 

Remind your team that not all behavior is misbehavior. Sometimes, behavior is communication. We can find out what behavior is saying by asking a few simple questions. Is the room too loud? Are the lights too bright? Is the child overwhelmed? 

Train all of your volunteers on how to work with children with special needs. The volunteers do not need to be experts. However, a basic understanding of children with autism or ADHD and who to talk to if they need additional help will go a long way. 

5. Provide Support Tools

Provide group leaders or buddies with tools to help a child be successful at VBS. A laminated picture schedule of the events of the day or a timer will help with anxiety and transitions. A fidget, or something recommended by the parent, may help a child keep their hands busy and their minds focused. Put these items in a backpack for the group leader or buddy, and their group will be good to go! 

6. Create a Sensory Space

Even with buddies and a plan in place, VBS can be overwhelming. The number of people, sights, and sounds can cause even our typical kids to need a moment of quiet. Creating a sensory quiet space for children to retreat to with buddies when they get overwhelmed can help a child catch their breath and get back on track. It does not need to be a fancy room. A corner of a room away from the activities, an office with dimmer lights, or a tent inside a room can create a quiet getaway. I know a church that used a six-foot table with a tablecloth over it that became a quiet fort. Whatever you choose, be sure to abide by your church’s safety policy. If a buddy needs to step away with a child, another volunteer needs to go with them.

7. Modify Activities

Include children with special needs in games with instructions they will understand. Help them to participate in games focused on cooperation versus competition. Be understanding if a child does not want to participate. Offer alternative crafts or simplify the steps, such as pre-cutting items needed for crafts for a child who needs extra assistance. Offer help only when needed. Children of all abilities like to do things themselves.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Let’s find ways this summer to ensure that all children feel welcome to participate in the fun of VBS and, more importantly, experience the love of God through his church.

Additional Vacation Bible School Resources: 

Ministry Architects Consultant Kerri-Ann Hayes

Kerri-Ann Hayes

Kerri-Ann Hayes has been a children’s and family ministry leader in Central Florida since the late 1990s. She has led children’s ministry in both single and multi-site churches. Kerri-Ann has a Disney family heritage, a hospitality management background, and a love for the local church that all shifted nicely into the world of family ministry. During her years of serving families, Kerri-Ann developed a passion for those struggling to find their place in the church due to the special needs of their children. She loves supporting and equipping churches to be accessible to families with special needs or traumatic backgrounds and is the author of The Accessible Church. Kerri-Ann and her husband, Tom, live in Clermont, Florida, where they raised their three children.