Working Towards Inclusion in Kids' Ministry
What does inclusion look like in kids' ministry? How can we love everyone well? What practical steps can we take?
A note of introduction to this topic from our North American Director, Christie Penner Worden, in collaboration with Kim Botto, a trusted inclusion ministry advisor:
There are wide range of opinions on using the terms ‘disability’, ‘special needs’, ‘neurodivergent’ and more. I think it’s just impossible to come up with one umbrella word to describe such a wide variety of people. The ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act) does use and encourages use of the term ‘disability’ exclusively, as does the UN (https://www.ungeneva.org/sites/default/files/2021-01/Disability-Inclusive-Language-Guidelines.pdf). It is important to note that, in some spaces, and with some diagnoses, life experiences, and unique circumstances, people have feelings around this language and would prefer a different term. *
There is also a broad group (like adopted and foster kids) who have unique needs but no disabilities. There are also some children who have special needs (like ‘a runner’ or ‘a biter’) where it’s a season requiring additional support, but also a season that will likely end.
Bottom line: "I’m wary of anyone who says, ‘absolutely this is how we should address this big, beautiful, and diverse group of individuals.,’" says Kim. Let’s ask the person or their support person their preferred term(s) and be open to correction.
*In this article, Angie often uses the phrase ‘special needs’, and this includes how she talks about her own children, and the preschool and elementary aged children in her church context.
My husband and I have three kids. All three have some sort of special need. One son has ADHD, the other son has ADHD and borderline Asperger’s, and my daughter has RAD and borderline Personality Disorder. Because of our family, the study and implementation of special needs are a big passion of mine.
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)
He also said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
I don’t know about you, but I know I surely don’t want to cause any little ones to stumble, so I want to make sure they are welcomed and included in our ministry. This is why we work so hard towards inclusion at our church.
What does your church’s or kids’ ministry mission statement say?
My church’s mission statement is: “Our mission is to welcome people into a caring community that honors the Word and Spirit of Christ so that a lifestyle of prayer, worship, discipleship and service is multiplied locally & globally.”
Our kids’ ministry mission statement says: “Our goal is to provide kids with a welcoming, loving, and safe environment that lays a spiritual foundation for their lives. We desire to come alongside parents in this process, ultimately serving Jesus together.”
To welcome people (kids are people, and kids with special needs are people), we must ask ourselves, “Are kids with special needs being welcomed into our ministries?” Are their parents feeling welcomed into our churches? 'People' doesn’t just mean those that can sit still through a Bible lesson, without assistance or medical equipment; people means all people, which also means kids, and also means kids with special needs.
My question to you is, “Does your ministry reflect these words of Jesus?”
The Buddy Crew System
Our church runs our special needs ministry through a 'Buddy Crew System,' which works by pairing a 'Buddy' with a special needs child to help them navigate transitions and assist them during class.
The Buddy and the parent exchange phone numbers so they communicate as to which service the family is coming to. The parent(s) can also inform the Buddy of any particular needs for each Sunday.
We also utilize 'Buddy Boxes' that have items such as fidget toys, bubbles, silly putty, feathers, and scented markers. Items like these, that utilize all the senses, help calm special needs kids.
A Visual Schedule
We also have a visual schedule posted on the wall. This helps the kids know what is coming next in the day and gives them a sense of consistency.
If you have children in your ministry that struggle with physical aggression, you can put a cut out of hands on the wall and create a 'push wall.' The children place their own hands on the cut-outs on the wall, and push against it; this helps give them sensory feedback as well as allowing them to relieve tension.
If physical space allows for it in your ministry area, you could also create a sensory room that is filled with objects such as: a sandbox, soft pillows, a small trampoline, and jump ropes. We also put diffusers in the room, filled with calming oils such as lavender or stress-away; this helps create a sense of balance.
Dream with me for a minute… What if our families were so convinced that they have a place in our church, that when they miss a Sunday, they can actually expect to receive text messages and cards, communicating that their church missed them? When your special needs ministry volunteers and staff earn a family’s trust, they can even offer to meet the family in the parking lot to help them get the child into church. Could you even imagine your church reserving some parking spots just for special needs families?
Special needs families are generally well-connected in the disability services community; they will tell their friends and extended community when they have a wonderful experience at your church. Additional new folks will start coming. What an incredible potential impact for Christ!
Special needs families are no longer hiding at home. They need to know the love of Jesus, and they are coming to our churches to find out about Him, whether we are ready for them or not. So why don’t we get ready? Why don’t we create special, intentional environments and activities that can communicate our love for them?
Our role is to help the parent(s) feel comfortable bringing their child to church. To this end, we need to look them in the face when speaking with them. They are scared and vulnerable, and have likely had bad experiences, whether in churches, schools, or elsewhere. They have learned to be advocates, fighting for their child.
They need us to be consistent, even if they might not be able to be (at least, yet). They might not be able to make it out of the door of their house each Sunday, or even out of their car. This can be hard on our volunteers, and we need to teach them empathy for these families and their unique challenges.
Some families might come to your church not yet aware their child has special needs, or they might not communicate a particular need/diagnosis with you, due to embarrassment or a previously hurtful experience. When you communicate with these parents, try not to use the words 'special needs' to describe their child. You might say something like, “I have noticed Johnny sitting under the table during class; does he do this at school?” Or “what can we do as a church to make this a place that Johnny wants to come every Sunday?”
It is common for leaders to experience fear when they are starting inclusion ministry. You may feel like you need to have everything planned, have your policies and procedures in place, or have a classroom FULL of children. That is just not true. Start with who God has given you – just one child maybe. Then, start adding as needed: more volunteers, more classrooms, more resources. Start with who God has given you, be a good steward of that family, and watch Him grow your ministry.
The Church should be the place that children with special needs feel the most welcomed and accepted. Don't you think that if Jesus was walking the world today, He would be spending a ton of time loving those with both physical and mental disabilities?
Here’s the thing. Jesus is walking the world today – through you and me. We are called to love those made in His image and that includes loving children with special needs well.
Start simple. If you don’t have a plan for inclusion ministry, begin with the first family God brings to your church. If you have one student with disabilities and one volunteer (often called 'the carer'), you have an inclusion ministry. Trust God to grow the vision.
Communicate with parents. Build trust through open conversation. Don’t be scared to say, “I don’t have the answers, but let’s figure this out.” Be consistent, even if the family can’t be consistent.
Find volunteers. You may need a pool of volunteers who can be flexible since your inclusion ministry may look different every week. Encourage them to be consistent in prayer and checking in on their designated student/family even when the child can’t come.
Train your volunteers. Parents are your best resource for training as they know their own child so well; this also builds trust. You can lean into local school systems and organizations like Joni & Friends, Easter Seals, Down Syndrome guilds, and Autism associations for further training, just to name a few.
Like Nike says, JUST DO IT!
Angie grew up in the church and started volunteering in Kids' Ministry over 20 years ago. She was called into vocational ministry 10 years ago. Angie is now the full time Kids' Ministry Pastor at Two Rivers Church, a multisite church in Tennessee. Angie has helped her church grow their special needs ministry, which now goes from 3 years old through high school. One of the joys of her role is building up leadership teams and watching the teams soar in their giftings. Angie has grown in her leadership skills through the courses she has taken from INCM (International Network of Children’s Ministry) such as Equip, Engage Children’s Ministry Certification and Pastoral Care Certification, and Coaching Certification. Angie is the wife of David of 25 years, and mom to Marty, Alicia, and Ian. In her spare time, she loves to spend time with her family, cook, read, and take her dog for walks.
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