There are basically three structuring strategies to promote inclusion for people with special needs that have been successfully used in children’s ministry: family inclusion, reverse inclusion, and full inclusion. All three have a place with purpose. Each local church must evaluate which of these will work best for them given their size, leadership training, physical space barriers, and church strategic plan for overall ministry. A combination sometimes will emerge as right for your church as time allows you to become more understanding of individual needs and resources you are called to work with. As you seek God, the Holy Spirit will guide you into an individualized structure for your program. Rely on Him…He will always have the perfect plan.
Family Inclusion Model: In this model, special needs participants and their families are all involved in the activities and meeting times of your ministry as partners with church staff. In other words, the parent/guardian stays with the child during ministry time. This is a good model for bringing people that may not be familiar with your church and lessen or eliminate the fear people in your community might have if they don’t know you. Another plus that makes this successful is the mentoring of the staff by the family. It allows staff to learn from those who know the individual participant and can share their experience of what works well in meeting the participant’s needs. The family inclusion model fosters a relational experience and often allows the development of great partnerships for other ministries as well.
However, this model also has drawbacks. Many families are the primary support for their child and need time away which is not available in this model. It has been noted from churches using this approach that some families have shared if they are going to be the one providing the support, there is no need to become part of the faith-based community. They can do that from home. While this may be a valid point, it also brings an opportunity for your ministry to walk with the family and establish your church’s care for them as a family. Another issue to be cautious of is biblical foundational differences which can become problematic, create tension and issues within the ministry team, and hinder optimal success. Keep in mind the standard number of families who have a child with special challenges that do not attend church is generally held to be around 90%, while over 80% are said to fracture as a family unit over relatively short periods of time. These staggering numbers are perhaps a wake-up call to churches concerning ministry opportunity; therefore, it is important to seek God as you make the selection of the format that is right for your program. While there are concerns with this model, it may also be a perfect ministry model for new families.
Reverse Inclusion Model: In the reverse inclusion model, participants with special needs are not part of your general children’s ministry program. Instead, they are in another space with people brought in to work with them. Although some programs subscribe to one-on-one reverse inclusion, it has been less effective in building spiritual formation long term since participants are not part of and worshipping in community to learn from peers. Some success has been noted using this method as a transitioning period with the goal of integrating into the larger ministry group. While this has some merit for transition with some who have profound needs and may not do well in large group where unwanted behaviors may become disruptive, it may also build dependency on staff which is not helpful towards full inclusion and total program integration if used for long periods of time. Many times, the outcome becomes a dependent relationship with the one-on-one leader that can be traumatic when removed. This is not the best approach for the foundation of a successful special needs program. Our goal should be to build independence through a relationship with God and others and not just the one-on-one leader.
Full Inclusion Model: For this approach, the special needs child is part of the entire children’s ministry program with staff supporting the participant to the fullest extent possible given their choice for participation. The staff encourages the child to make the choice to participate and then provides the support necessary for successful participation. Working as a team to support everyone who may need help and not specifically any one person is the most successful application. However, there are times when the disability may require a “buddy” to be assigned as a one-on-one to assist the participant in their interaction and working with the team of support. It should be noted that at times another peer may also be a good buddy and gives the peer a ministry opportunity too.
The key is to provide the correct help and support depending on the child’s need. For instance, if a child who has receptive language skills expresses a desire to sing but uses a communication device for expressive language, staff would support him by making sure the music to his communication device has been downloaded where he can participate in singing. The staff member would also assist and encourage the child to participate and worship with everyone else. However, the person you assign to this role should have a knowledge of electronics and the music applications needed or a willingness to learn them for this to be a successful support for worship.
Another illustration for providing correct help would be in the case of a child who needed hand-over-hand support to complete the motions to a Bible verse or song as part of worship. The staff would engage them to provide the hand-over-hand support to give them the same opportunity to worship in this manner as all the other participants. However, support staff would need to know the Bible verse or song since using hand-over-hand would need to be their focus. In instances like these, pre-assigning and preparation for this task would need to be completed.
In a case where there might be a project with several steps to be completed in the amount of time allotted, the support staff might prepare some of the steps to the project ahead of time to lessen the frustration, yet still allow the participant to be with peers and complete the project just like everyone else with proper accommodations and support. Therefore, some of this preparation work could be done by someone earlier and made available to the support staff assigned at this time. Instances like this are a great way to utilize team members who might not be able to be present at the activity or ministry time but are committed to the meeting the needs of children with special challenges. The key to this model is allowing the special needs child to do as much as possible for himself and to be active with peers in all facets of the ministry. We must not do for them, just support and encourage their efforts. While this model takes coordination and staff-to-staff teamwork, it does lend itself to great achievement and optimal success for greater spiritual formation with program longevity and growth.