MINISTERING TO SPECIAL NEEDS FAMILIES
The key question for children’s ministers is: What’s your goal? If the goal is a perfectly quiet classroom with no disruptions whatsoever, perhaps you should ship out any offenders until you’re left with one or two angelically fearful, quiet wonders. That’s ludicrous! If, however, your goal is to come alongside families and partner with them in their child’s Christian education, you may have to endure the disruptions as you seek to enter into relationship with the special needs child and the family.
The church has a tremendous opportunity to minister to families dealing with the special needs of a child. It’s a chance to show God’s unconditional love to individuals who’ve had a lot of conditions placed on their families. Even when you’re unaware of the nature of a child’s problem, there are ways you can help a family work past the excuses.
- Listen to the parents. All too often children’s ministers end up reporting a child’s misbehavior without listening to the parents. Keep in mind that parents of children with psychiatric disorders may be resistant to what you have to say; they’ve already heard it all and are tired of explaining the issues. They’ve witnessed how explaining their child’s condition results in their child being labeled and stereotyped. So listen well to them. They may just need someone to listen to them without trying to analyze their child or the situation.
- Support the family. Find out if there are specific needs in the family. Parents may need something as simple as prayer, or maybe they’ve recently gotten the diagnosis for their child and are in need of resources. Many of these families have to go through months of paperwork, meetings, and appointments to get their child’s needs met in the school system. Don’t make it difficult for them to get the same at church.
- Partner with the family. Work with the family on solutions to problems that arise in the classroom. The greatest gift you can give to parents with a special needs child is respect for their opinion. If the behavior isn’t in the child’s best interest and the parents agree, put your heads together on what’s the most effective way to approach the problem. Keep in mind that you see the child under different conditions than the parents; just because something works at home doesn’t mean it will work in a classroom environment. Realizing that parents may not be familiar with some of the processes that work in education, gather information on the child’s interests and strengths so you can best teach and support the whole child.
- Don’t take an excuse personally. Remember that a parent’s attitude toward you may stem from a previous encounter with another professional regarding their child. Let parents know the truth about a situation, but find a gentle way to deliver the news. For example, kids with attention deficit disorder/attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) can be disruptive in class. They can also be insightful and resourceful. Think about which fact you want to present first. Parents may not defend quickly if they sense you truly know their child.
- Keep in mind that all misbehavior is not medically explained. Six-year-old Brian has suddenly become the terror of your class; he can’t sit still, and he’s constantly seeking attention. You wonder if he has been tested for ADHD, then you notice that his mom picks him up pushing a stroller with newborn twins in tow. After talking with Mom, you realize that Brian has been feeling a bit left out since the birth of his siblings.
Check with parents about any sudden change in behavior. There’s usually an obvious explanation, but if there isn’t, a chat with parents may alert them to a behavior pattern that’s emerging.
Not all families are open to working with children’s ministers regarding their child’s behavior problems. Excuses will continue and may be the norm for families who don’t recognize the nature of their child’s behavior. So how do you deal with the child who, according to his or her parents, doesn’t have a problem but has had too much sugar every Sunday morning before coming to class?
MINISTERING TO KIDS
Today’s kids are a unique bunch. Never before have children been so busy, with schedules that outmatch many adults. Not only do we see kids who miss any given Sunday because of a soccer tournament or hockey game, but we also see more and more kids who are overly tired and exhausted from their tight schedules as they enter into our care. Then there are children who rarely get breakfast in the morning before church or who eat so early that by the last service they’re starving for lunch.
Yes, there are excuses out there, and legitimate ones. Your challenging child this week may be one with a diagnosed disorder, while next week the challenges may stem from a growling tummy. How can you meet the needs of these challenging children without jeopardizing their classmates’ learning opportunities?
- Be consistent. Set up classroom guidelines for children that promote respect for the leader and their peers. Follow through with consequences, don’t make excuses yourself, and contact parents if the situation warrants. Establish some type of routine, whether it’s having younger children play at a learning center when they arrive, or having older kids sign themselves in and put on a nametag. Be consistent with your own attendance. If special needs kids know they can depend on you being there, they’ll feel more relaxed each week.
- Keep the learning environment active. Not only is activity more fun and helps children retain information better, but it’s also a natural deterrent for misbehavior. Children who feel that they’re part of the learning will take more responsibility for their behavior.
- Build relationships. Depending on the circumstance, children with special needs often have difficulties making friends. They’re also often labeled as the “trouble” child by teachers and school staff. By building a relationship with special needs kids, you not only set a positive example for others, but you also build confidence in a child who may not receive a lot of positive reinforcement elsewhere. Find out what the child’s interests are and make it a point of contact each week.
MINISTERING TO VOLUNTEERS
If you’re a children’s ministry leader, you’ve had this conversation: A volunteer comes to you, pleading that he just can’t handle Amanda any longer. How can you value the person, without leaving Amanda in the dust? Here’s how.
- Equip your volunteers. The latest statistics say it all: your volunteers are going to deal with difficult children, some with diagnosed disorders, and others who are just stressed and act out in class. Training volunteers in discipline strategies as well as briefing them on the latest trends in special education is wise. If you have a specific child and know his or her situation, update your volunteer. Don’t divulge any confidences you’ve established with the family. Encourage volunteers to build relationships with the family and to keep the lines of communication open. The more prepared volunteers feel for the situation, the more confident they’ll be.
- Encourage your volunteers. Let them know they’re handling the situation well and that they’re doing a good job. Drop them an e-mail or give them a call when you know they’ve had a rough morning. This will give them time to vent any frustrations, and you’ll let them know that you’re on top of the situation.
- Support your volunteers. Nothing will bring a resignation letter faster than a volunteer who feels like a lone duck in a sea of behavior problems. Never let a volunteer teach class solo; provide assistants who can provide support in the classroom. If circumstances warrant, add an extra helper for a child who may need more one-on-one attention. If a situation escalates with a child, let your volunteer have an “out” by calling you in to deal with the situation. You can remove the child and deal with the situation outside the classroom, freeing your volunteer from what might be an uncomfortable predicament.
• • •
“For I was hungry and you fed me…naked, and you clothed me…”
We’re very familiar with these verses, and in them, we understand that God is calling us to meet people’s needs. If Jesus were to update these verses, perhaps they would read something like this for children’s ministry: “For I was out of control, and you called me to a standard. I had a disorder, and you sought to understand me. I was confused by my condition, and you held me and told me I was okay.”
That’s exactly what Jesus is calling us to do as children’s ministers in an environment where children have special needs. Rather than being angered by their condition or irritated by their parents’ excuses, we have a genuine opportunity to express God’s unconditional love to children.
No one can make children love the Bible. Nobody can force a child to have a relationship with God. But because imitation is a powerful tutor, children’s ministers strive to be living epistles of Jesus Christ. Children, with all their aptitude for mischief, are extremely malleable and are being imprinted daily — by others’ example. What sort of mark are you making on a child?
A CHILD’S TEN COMMANDMENTS
Here’s what children would like their Sunday school teacher to follow.
- Thou shalt accept my youthfulness. I need tender direction and loving leadership. Constant criticism and raised eyebrows make me feel foolish and inadequate.
- Thou shalt accept my imperfections. Please don’t expect perfection whenever you assign a task to me. I really do learn by my mistakes.
- Thou shalt accept my limitations. My hands are small and sometimes I seem awkward and clumsy. Please be patient with me.
- Thou shalt show me the way to go. When I show off, I’m really asking for affirmation and reassurance. Could you please give me gentle guidance so my behavior doesn’t become my attitude?
- Thou shalt welcome me. If I’m new to your class, please take the time to explain the routine and show the other children that you’re glad to see me (even if you thought your class was big enough already).
- Thou shalt expect the best from me. Please don’t have preconceived ideas about me. I have the tendency to live up to your expectations. Expect me to behave appropriately.
- Thou shalt make the Word of God come to life for me. Find creative ways to teach me about the power of God, the ministry of Jesus, and all of God’s Word.
- Thou shalt help me know and do what’s right. Nobody needs to show me how to sin (it comes naturally), but somebody please care enough to lovingly discipline me when I act inappropriately.
- Honor my father and mother with good communication. Talking to my parents could help you discover my fears, my joys, my problems, my talents, my weaknesses, and my strengths.
- Thou shalt pray for me. You know, you may be the only person in the whole world who talks to God about me. I need you to ask God to help me.
Carmen Kamrath is associate editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine. Glynis Belec is the drama ministry leader at Drayton Reformed Church in Drayton, Ontario.