A few years ago, when I was children’s pastor at Akron, East Market Street Church of God, I found myself in an interesting situation. Thirty-five students regularly attended children’s church including several children with special needs: a preteen girl who was mentally challenged, a young boy who dealt with mental and physical challenges, a young girl who was in a wheelchair, another boy who had severe autism, and a pre-teen boy who suffered from bi-polar disorder. We also had three or four students diagnosed with hyper-activity.
I didn’t plan to become an expert on children with special needs, but when circumstances were thrust upon me, I learned some principles that helped me serve them. At some point in your ministry to girls, you may also encounter challenges that come with children who have physical, mental, and developmental difficulties. Remember that God has sent them so you can help them draw close to Him. Those who society thinks the least of are special to the heart of God.
Matthew 25:41 (NKJV) And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
The principles I’m giving you for ministering to children with special needs are keys I learned through experience, articles and books I read, and a lot of prayer.
Be flexible. Flexibility is one of the most important aspects of teaching children with special needs.
We all have guidelines for placing children in classes. A girl will go to Sunbeams, then Bluebelles, then Joybelles, then Young Ladies according to her age and grade. With some young ladies, you need to throw those guidelines out the window. Place children with special needs in the classes they best fit, not according to age or grade.
You also might need to do some trial and error. If one age group doesn’t work, try another. The important thing is to meet the child’s developmental needs, not to follow age requirements. Parents are the best resource you have. They know their children better than anyone and can help you find the best fit.
Flexibility is also needed in the classroom setting. A parents can help by giving you advice on handling episodes her child has, behaviors to look for, and tips to help the child handle the classroom setting.
One mother of a child with severe hyper-activity told me that when she allowed her son to hold something, like a toy car, it was easier for him to sit still. I didn’t normally allow toys in children’s church, but I allowed him to have his toy car. It worked wonders.
Another time, a father of a child with autism instructed me that if I tried to get the child to stay in the room, he would become upset and have an episode. It was better to let him wander around. So I assigned a worker to follow him and keep him from getting hurt while I continued teaching.
Have an assistant who can take care of any problems that arise. Children with special needs present challenges. You’ll want to include them, but you don’t want them to disrupt the class so much that other children don’t have a chance to learn. The best way around this is to have an aide who knows what to do when a student with special needs requires attention. She can take care of any problems that arise.
Finding assistants is not always easy, but if you want to effectively minister to students with special needs, it needs to be a priority. Try asking parents or responsible teen-agers to rotate or discuss it with your pastor. He may have some suggestions.
Don’t be afraid to enforce rules. Children, all children, do better when they have firm boundaries and know what is expected of them. This is even truer with students with special needs. You may have to adjust the rules to fit with their challenges, but once those rules are in place, don’t be afraid to enforce them. Children need the consistency they receive from knowing where the boundaries lie.
Praise them often when they’re doing well. Depending on the disability, some children are constantly being corrected. Some of this is necessary, but if all you ever do is scold a student, she will feel she can do nothing right.
Look for ways to praise a child with special needs. If she disrupts the class five times instead of the ten times she normally does, mention that you’re proud of her for improving. If she calms down from a tantrum quicker than normal, praise her for improving her self-control.
If you praise these girls often, they will improve to get you to notice. That isn’t only true of children with special needs. All children thrive on praise and encouragement.
Don’t start a special needs class. There is a movement in the church world to start special needs classes for children complete with curriculum to follow. I’m against this for several reasons.
First, every child is different. That goes for children with special needs more than most. If one student is mentally challenged and another is physically challenged, isolating them from other children by placing them in a class together is not going to help either of them. Special needs vary so greatly, you’ll never be able to have a class to meet all of the various requirements of your students.
Second, separating those who are different deprives them of being a part of the community of believers. Every child should feel welcome without being escorted to a special class where they won’t bother the others.
Third, students with special needs give you an opportunity to teach the other children in your class to show love and compassion. Enlist your students’ help with these children. In this way, you’ll show them how to respect differences and display the love of Christ.
Children with special needs present challenges. But they also give us a great opportunity to share the love of Christ.