Ministering to Preschoolers with Special Needs
This blog is an interview with a mom who has little ones with special needs. I hope it inspires you and your church to think through how you minister to families of children with special needs.
Tell us a little about your family.
My husband is a computer programmer and I am a stay-at-home mom. We are the parents of two boys—a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Our four-year old is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. His autism is severe; he cannot speak or even repeat one-syllable sounds. Our two-year-old has been diagnosed with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, which means he is delayed in both understanding what is being said and being able to express himself verbally.
For most families, getting ready for church can be quite hectic. Describe a typical Sunday morning for your family.
I prep breakfast plates while my husband wakes up the boys and changes their diapers. While the boys eat breakfast, I am prepping their backpacks for Sunday School. Since our four-year-old is on a special diet, he cannot eat fish-shaped crackers or other standard preschool ministry snacks. Though sometimes foods like boxed raisins or fresh fruit are available in his classroom, I try to bring at least two substantial snacks to get him through Sunday School and then the worship service. I pack a straw cup with water as our four-year-old doesn’t know how to drink from the traditional sippy cups provided by his classroom. I also check for clean diapers and a change of clothes. I keep everything in labeled ziplock bags to make things easy for his aides at church. After I finish packing backpacks, I lay out clothes for the boys so my husband can easily dress them. Then, I go get ready.
Before we leave, I usually grab the tablets so the boys can watch a movie on the way to church. If things are going smoothly (rarely), I turn on speech therapy videos for them to watch in the car. If the boys are feeling overwhelmed and rushed (almost always), I turn on a comforting movie like a favorite animated film. Once we’re at church, we check the boys into the children’s wing, drop our four-year-old off with his aide, who stays with him in Sunday School until his aide for the worship service arrives, and I drop our two-year-old off in his classroom. Then, my husband and I have the incredible blessing of attending Sunday School and church!
Describe one of your best experiences in bringing your little ones to church.
Our church provides dedicated aides who give our four-year-old one-on-one attention during Sunday School and worship. One of his aides frequently texts me pictures and videos of fun things she and our four-year-old did during Sunday School. She genuinely cares for him, and he genuinely cares for her. I feel that each of his aides is a gift directly from the hand of God; their work is the kind of work that the Holy Spirit impresses on people’s hearts, and these people have been so quietly faithful.
How has the church ministered to your child and your family?
Our church did not have a preexisting special needs ministry when I initially emailed the staff. However, the children’s director was very eager to make accommodations for us. She asked us to wait to bring our four-year-old until she had lined up one-on-one aides to be with him in the classroom for his age group during both the Sunday School and worship hours. Now he has two aides dedicated solely to his care every week.
In addition, I’ve asked our pastor a couple of theological questions about disability; these questions have been treated with the utmost care and thoughtfulness. Some churches do an excellent job of providing for tangible needs but neglect the unique spiritual needs of special needs families. I wrestle through verses about faith and healing. I struggle relating to other families’ problems in parenting or marriage classes. I’m grateful our church seeks to meet our spiritual needs as well as our practical needs.
What are some ways you have seen churches effectively minister to children with special needs?
Some churches provide a “sensory break room.” Most special needs children are included in their regular classrooms, but sometimes they need a break. A sensory break room is just that, a special room where the child can take a break and interact with various therapeutic tools such as an exercise ball, weighted blanket, tactile balls, cozy inflatables, swings, or mini-trampolines. There is a saying that “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” Every child is different, so different things work for different children.
One-on-one aides are extremely effective. This type of aide is dedicated to providing one-on-one care for a child with special needs. The aide can help the child engage in the regular classroom, take him out when he needs a break, lead the child to participate in activities that interest him, and make sure he stays safe. The aide does not have to any kind of special degree, but only a heart for children with special needs.
Many special needs children are on special diets. These can easily be overlooked in a busy classroom. Providing brightly colored name tags to alert volunteers to dietary restrictions are very helpful.
Some churches provide “respite nights.” This is basically a parent’s night out, where childcare is provided at the church. The difference is that childcare is provided by workers who have been trained to care for children with special needs.
Good advertising about a church’s special needs ministry is also valuable. Most special needs parents browse websites and social media for this kind of information before ever setting foot in a church. Most families won’t ask for help—they’ll check your website, see no accommodations for their children with disabilities, and move on. Sometimes we find a church willing to serve us—and sometimes we don’t.
What advice would you give to a church who wants to minister to children with special needs but does not know where to start?
First of all, avoid creating false expectations. Your heart may be in the right place and you have the best of intentions, but be honest with special needs parents if you are not yet at a place where you can accommodate their child. Do not be afraid to say, “We do not have the resources right now, but we’d like to develop a plan for your child and work toward a start date in the near future.”
Consider contacting a special education program in your area to ask for pointers. Don’t just serve special needs families when they’re sitting in a church pew—deliver a meal after a child’s surgery. Pray with them before a developmental evaluation. Visit them in the hospital during a child’s procedure. Just showing that you care and that you love our children goes a long way. Knowing someone is praying for me and my children means the world to me. There are so many ways to serve these children and their families for the church who is willing to prioritize them. I’m thankful to be active in my local special needs community; several of my friends in that community are strong Christians who feel unable to attend church. I firmly believe we would see a greater number of special needs families in church if a greater number of churches prioritized honest, loving, and imperfect but committed care for special needs individuals.
What are some ways your church ministers to families of children with special needs? If you have children with special needs, what are some ways your church has ministered to you. Share in the comments below.
Karen Jones is the preschool content editor for The Gospel Project for Kids. Karen came to LifeWay in 2014 with over 15 years experience in preschool and children’s ministry. Karen earned an M.A. in Christian Education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Karen loves living minutes from downtown Nashville and teaching preschoolers at Immanuel Church.