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Including Children with Special Needs in Worship and Church School Programsby Linda Chamberlayne
The first step for including children with special needs in any program at church or elsewhere begins with personal attitudes. Inclusion has more to do with one's philosophy, approach, and willingness to learn than a "how to" check list. It is about seeing each child, no matter how challenged, as having the potential to learn and the same need to be loved and included as all other children.
In the church, inclusion is also about wanting every child to know that they are deeply loved by God. Each child deserves the opportunity to worship and learn about God in whatever way he or she is able. With this foundation, a way can be found to include everyone -- even the most challenged children.
Learning about their specific needs is the next step to including children with special needs. Parents or other caregivers are the first and best source of information about the child and how to include him or her in church programs. Explain how worship time and church school programs function. Ask for help in identifying situations that limit the child's involvement and for suggestions in overcoming obstacles. Parents will usually have very helpful suggestions.
Gather essential information on health, safety, and toileting. Develop a plan of action for medical emergencies. Parents may also have information for you to read on their child's condition.
Consider inviting the parent or caregiver to accompany the child to church school for the first few sessions. This will help you, the parent, and the child become comfortable with the new situation. Observe how the parent interacts with the child so that you can feel more confident handling the child on your own. You may also find it helpful to ask the parent or caregiver if they can sit in the same area of the church each Sunday in case they need to be located quickly.
Expand the Offerings
Another important step to inclusion is providing activities that are meaningful and appropriate to each child. A useful approach is to "expand" activities for everyone, rather than "narrow" them down for the sake of one. For example, children often enjoy participating in worship through dance. Rather than saying there will no longer be dancing because one child is in a wheelchair, expand the definition of "dance."
Dance can be seen as "movement to music." Teach steps to the dance if you wish, and provide other interesting response options as well. Some children may choose to be seated with their friend in the wheelchair and "dance" by waving their arms and hands. Others may choose to wave ribbon banners or keep time with an instrument.
The child in a wheelchair may choose to lead the procession or move among the dancers with the help of a friend. Be creative! If an activity is too narrow to include everyone, ask the group for ideas on how to expand it. They may surprise you.
Ask the Child
In providing meaningful and appropriate activities for children, it is important not to make assumptions about what a challenged child wants, thinks, or feels. Just as every other child in your group is an individual, the special needs child is no exception. When in doubt, ask the child or consult the parents.
In time, you will find it easier to know which activities will work and which activities need modification. You may wish to approach other members of the church for help on a regular basis. Older members are often happy to be "grandparents" for a day, and teens can find real meaning in this supporting role.
Whenever possible encourage your "helper" to assist all of the children rather than hovering over the challenged child. This encourages independence and friendships within the group. With patience and a little effort, all of God's children can be actively included in church programs and come to know the love of God through a caring Christian community.
Avoid asking parents to accompany their children regularly. Caring for a special needs child can be exhausting. By spending time with a special needs child, you are ministering to the whole family and providing parents or caregivers with time for spiritual refreshment.
In all this, remember Jesus' words: "Let the children come unto me. Forbid them not, for to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven."
Linda Chamberlayne is a special education teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. "Including Children with Special Needs in Worship and Church School Programs" by Linda Chamberlayne was previously printed in The Whole People of God curriculum. This curriculum has now been replaced by the exciting new lectionary-based Seasons of the Spirit curriculum; spiritseasons.com for information and contacts. Copyright © 2002 JoinHands. All rights reserved.
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