June 9

Special Needs and Children’s Ministry – Introduction

Nancy Wilson

"Ministry to special needs children was an essential part of my early children’s ministry training.

My internship was served in a large church that was the home to a weekday special needs program for pre-school children.

Those facilities were used to host a Sunday morning special needs ministry. There were families who drove over fifty miles to bring their children to that program. It was in that church that I first met Nancy Wilson. 

Nancy developed the first autism program in the Irvine Unified School District and has worked with special needs children for decades.

Since her retirement from public education, she has served with Every Generation Ministries to help churches around the world minister to the special children.

This week is the beginning of six-week blog series where Nancy will be addressing special needs ministry and the five children’s ministry principles found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (Relationship, Experience, Truth, Discussion, and Response).

These principles have resonated with thousands of children’s workers around the world, and we wanted Nancy’s insights on how they might apply in the special needs space.

This first blog is Nancy’s introduction will launch the series." 

- Daniel Watts (Director)

How I Got Started With Special Needs Ministry

Special Needs and Children Ministry

After graduating from USC with a degree in elementary education, I decided that I wanted to continue my education and get my master’s degree. 

I enrolled in classes that fall and figured that I would enjoy being a speech therapist. As part of the curriculum, I had to take a course in special education. My professor was a wonderful man named Leo Buscalia who had a heart for children with disabilities.

He taught us all about the various disabilities and what they looked like in the classroom. About three weeks into the semester, he stopped me on the way out of class and told me that he thought that I should be a special education teacher. 

I told him that I wasn’t interested and that those children scared me. He just smiled and said, “we’ll see”. Every couple of weeks he would ask me how I was doing and if I had changed my mind. I always told him “No”. 

As part of the curriculum, we had to choose a disability and for six weeks we had to work with children with that disability. I chose Cerebral Palsy and drove to south Los Angeles after work one day a week for those six weeks. 

I worked with a girl who was not much younger than I was. I helped her with feeding and with her homework. As I got to know her, I was amazed to see that she was smart and funny and liked a lot of the same things I did.

We were very much alike except for the fact that her arms and legs didn’t work like mine! We became very good friends, and I loved going there once a week to see her. She also told funny jokes! 

The last night I went to say goodbye and found that she had already been put in her bed by one of the nurses. When I went into her room, she told me that she had to go to the bathroom. I told her that I would find someone for her but there was no nurse to be found anywhere. 

So, I went back into her room and told her I would help. Being an only child, I had never changed a diaper in my life but she needed me to help her. So, I got a bedpan and helped. She began saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. She was so humiliated, and I felt so bad for her. 

As soon as she had finished, three nurses came into the room and took over for me. I wondered why they were not around when we needed them but then realized what had really happened. God was showing me what I needed to do with the rest of my life!

I got into my car and cried all the way home because I realized that I wanted to help children like her be the best they could be despite their disabilities. 

The next day I marched into Leo’s office and told him that he had been right all along. I really wanted to be a special education teacher and help as many children with disabilities as I could get my hands on! I have never regretted that decision.

During my years of teaching in special education programs I felt God calling me to help churches develop ministry among children with disabilities. I am excited for this opportunity to begin pursuing that calling in this six-week series.

This week will serve as an introduction to special needs ministry! 

How to Structure Your Sunday School Classroom to Help a Child With a Disability

Special Needs and Children Ministry

There are many types of disabilities that you might see in your Sunday school classroom.

Of course, Autism and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity (ADHD) are two of the most prevalent disabilities among children.

Listed below are some ideas of how to structure your classroom to accommodate and help a child with a disability be successful in Sunday school.

  • You might consider asking the parent of a child with a disability to give you some information about that child. You may ask the parent what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are, what do they enjoy doing, what you can do to help the child be successful. That way, you will be a little better prepared to help the child succeed during the class time. You will want to know if the child is verbal and if not, how you can discern what the child’s needs are. Pictures are a wonderful way to help a child if they are unable to speak.
  • Many children with disabilities have a tough time understanding where they are supposed to be and what they should be doing. As the teacher, you may want to consider how your room is set up. Open spaces may be confusing to these children and may cause them stress. Making the areas in your room uncluttered and well-marked will help the children know exactly where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. This will particularly help the children with autism and help them to not have a meltdown. Giving them boundaries will also help them know where they are supposed to be. If you have room, you may want to have a corner. Having a schedule of activities posted in your room will also help them know where they are supposed to be during the class time. It also helps them to know when it is time to go home. 
  • If you have the space, you might want to make an area where a child who is over stimulated can go and be alone for a few minutes. You might want to put in some fidget toys or other items that the child likes. You may also want to put out a timer so that the child knows how long they can stay there.
  • Try to be aware of loud noises and bright lights which can also upset a child.
  • Keep instructions simple.
  • Use visual aids to help understanding such as pictures of what is happening.
  • If you ask a child to answer a question, make sure you give them at least 15 seconds to think and respond.
  • You may need to adapt the size of a group or activity if it is too overwhelming for a child. You may need to adjust the time needed for the activity as well. Offer choices so the child feels as if they have some sort of control during the activity.

These are just a few ideas for helping you help your children in your Sunday school classes who have some sort of disability.

Implementing some or all of these accommodations will help the special needs children in your classroom to feel wanted and accepted at church. As you get to know and love these children, you will produce more ideas to help them learn and interact with their peers.

What a joy that will be! Working with children with disabilities can be extremely fulfilling. 

These children have lots to impart to all of us. And they can make an enormous impact on their typical peers. 

Closing Thoughts

Special Needs and Children Ministry

Several years ago, a group of children were participating in a VBS in Romania. This was the first time that the VBS teachers in Romania had decided to reach out and include children with disabilities.

Some children had Autism and others were in wheelchairs. It was a remarkably diverse group, and the teachers did not know how it was going to go. 

The first day, during the very beginning of VBS, one young boy with Autism became extremely anxious because he had never been around typical peers and he did not know what to expect. He was so nervous that he soiled his pants.

As it turned out, the boy had not brought any extra clothes and the teachers were going to have to call his mother to come and get him. Some of the children standing nearby heard what was happening and asked the teachers to please not send him home.

They offered to loan him some of their clothes so he would not have to miss what was happening that day. These children were showing the love of Christ to a child who had never experienced it before.

What a wonderful gift from God that we can see that same love shown to children with disabilities in our churches! 

If you are thinking of launching a special need ministry, we would love to help in any way possible. If you are already leading this kind of ministry, then you may face some challenges which we would love to meet with you.

In either case you are close to the heart of God in reaching out to these precious children with the love of Christ! 

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