20% of children and young people have an additional need or disability of some kind; if your church includes children and young people, some of them are likely to need additional support. Many of these children and young people, and their families, feel excluded from a wide range of social and other activities, including church, so how does the church reach out to and meet the needs of these children and their families?
Inclusion is something that should be offered to every child; it doesn’t stop at wider doors, ramps and disabled loos but should include creating places of belonging and developing the faith of every child, whatever their ability or needs.
As churches plan for their summer programmes, perhaps looking to run a holiday club for local children for example, or taking a group of children or young people on a summer camp, what does reaching out to children and young people with additional needs, and their families, look like in this context? What can churches do to include and create places of belonging for every child and young person, while ensuring the safety and security of all?
In this blog, we’ll look at six tips and ideas that you can add to your ‘toolkit’ as you plan for the summer. Practical strategies that have been proven to make a real difference to how churches can successfully include everyone across all ministry programmes, including holiday clubs and summer camps. There will also be some ‘signposts’ towards other resources and sources of information and help that you can access going forward.
1. ‘Inclusion Leader/Champion’ or ‘Church SENCO’
Of all the strategies that a church can put in place to support children, young people, and also adults with additional needs or disabilities, the single most important and impactful is to have someone who ‘owns’ this within the church. Where a church has an Inclusion Leader/Champion or ‘SENCO’ (an education term meaning ‘Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator’) it can be transforming.
The person fulfilling this role doesn’t need to necessarily have an in-depth health or education background, but be willing to consider the things the church does through the experiences of the children and young people that you reach. What is hard for them to access? What modifications can be easily made to make things easier?
For example, a nine-year-old boy with Autism may find that coming in to church, or a main camp marquee/tent, at the same time as everyone else very hard as his senses are overwhelmed by the noise, number of people, smells etc. Could he be invited to come in 5-10 minutes earlier, and have a familiar ‘safe place’ where he can settle as others gradually come in?
Or a twelve-year-old girl who has Dyslexia and finds that the words to the worship songs, creatively displayed on the screen over beautiful photo’s or video clips, are unreadable for her. Could there be a screen that doesn’t have a background image so that people have a choice of what works best for them?
Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking about the words we use… A worship leader who excitedly shouts out “Everybody jump up on your feet to worship!” may not realise what that can do to someone who has mobility disability…
The church inclusion leader and safeguarding leader also make a great team, working closely together to ensure the safety of everyone, being points of contact for parents/carers who need to talk to someone about the support needed for their child, ensuring that the whole team think about these two vitally important strands of children’s and youth work together.
2. Building support strategies/communication with parents
So often we can be reactive to the arrival of a child or young person with additional needs, rather than anticipating that they might like to engage with our group, holiday club, camp etc. Reacting is never as good as preparing; being ready with strategies in place for that child so that they can be included in any activity that the church offers is always better.
We can also fall into the trap of thinking that we need to build this strategy on our own, whereas there is likely to be a strategy already in place to effectively support that child in the other areas of their life e.g. at school and at home. Understanding what support strategies are in place in those other settings, and bringing those strategies into our church based activities, provides us with a ready-made set of ideas to try as well as providing consistency and continuity for the child.
The language we use when seeking this information from parents/carers is vitally important. How often do we include a box on our enrolment form for a weekly group, holiday club or camp that asks “Does you child have any special needs?” and are then surprised when that box is left blank. Asking parents how their child best likes to be supported and helped, what they enjoy doing, what positive things do people say about them, are all questions that are likely to unlock much more useful and helpful information. Using one-page-profiles, such as the ones provided by SheffKids www.sheffkids.co.uk/adultssite/pages/resources.html can be a great start.
Once the child is in our setting, how we then communicate with parents/carers during or after the session is something we also need to think about, especially for children with additional needs. How to help parents to know how their child is doing, or how the session has gone is key to building this important relationship. Again language is key, highlighting the achievements of the child while asking for help in how to support them better in areas where they might need a little help.
3. Recruiting one-to-one support or ‘buddies’
Many children or young people with additional needs can become anxious and stressed if they are left to cope on their own. Not knowing where they are in the programme, what is happening now/next, what is expected of them, all can build up to the point where they struggle to cope with the feelings they are experiencing and this may then result in a meltdown which can be hard for them and for others.
Having a one-to-one support can make a big difference, providing the child or young person with someone who can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing. To check that they are coping well and to know what to do to support them if they are struggling.
These one-to-one support team don’t have to be children’s or youth workers; their primary role is not to run activities, rather to support a child or young person. Someone with a caring, loving, empathic approach is ideal. We sometimes have to fish in a different pond for these people, looking outside of the usual children’s work demographic to other groups of people. The grandparent generation can be really great in this role, as can other young people as ‘buddies’.
Clearly it is important that any one-to-one support team, or buddies, are suitably safeguarding vetted and trained, both for their protection and the protection of the child/young person (see also ‘Safeguarding and additional needs’ below).
4. Sensory support
It is important to provide safe ways for children and young people with additional needs to be able to calm and relax. A safe sensory room or zone, appropriately supervised, and equipped with calming lighting, sounds, seating/floormats etc and with safe things for children to engage with to help them relax, will be helpful. Sensory overload can be a common issue for children and young people with a range of additional needs and so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this sensory input is essential. A simple pair of ear defenders can make the difference between someone being able to enjoy the programme or being in physical pain because of the noise.
Another useful addition to the kit list is a ‘fiddles’ or ‘fidget’ box. This usually contains an eclectic selection of items that can be stretched, squeezed, spun, clicked or simple fiddled with! The sensory stimulus that this provides can aid focus and concentration.
A visual timetable may also be really helpful for some children and young people with additional needs, helping them to know what is happening now, what is expected of them, what is coming up next, and how much longer the session is going to last. Understanding these things helps a child or young person to remain calm and avoid the build-up of anxiety and stress that can sometimes lead to them becoming overwhelmed.
5. Using what they love to help them learn
Most of us learn best when our learning is fun, engaging us in activities that we enjoy and are good at. It’s no different for children and young people with additional needs. Using what they enjoy to help them learn during weekly groups, holiday clubs, summer camps etc. will often deliver great results.
Children with additional needs might be really good at jigsaw puzzles, get them to build a jigsaw of the story you are telling or the theme you are sharing. Maybe they like Lego? Get them building something from the Bible; I recently got sent a photo of a Lego version of the Temple of Jerusalem, brilliantly built by some young people with additional needs, although I have a feeling that Darth Vader has never been the High Priest before! And did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible? Some young people with additional needs spend time in the online world, with Minecraft being a favourite… Why not get them building Bible scenes online? Creating Jericho in Minecraft and then marching around it before bringing it crashing down would bring the story to life far more than just telling them the story. The Pixel Heart Bible is available online, using Minecraft to tell Bible stories.
6. Safeguarding and additional needs
We’ve touched on a few safeguarding areas already, but there are other areas where careful thought and advice needs to be sought when supporting children and young people with additional needs. Some children and young people, for example, may need help with toileting, or in a camp setting with showering or getting dressed. Suitable guidelines to protect both children and adults will need to be considered, to ensure that no adult is alone with a child in a toilet, shower block etc.
Some children or young people with additional needs may find it harder to communicate effectively, which raises the risk of them being unable to alert someone if they are being abused. All of the usual signs to look out for when working with any child will apply here, but with an increased duty of care due to the vulnerability of the child.
It is easy for us to focus on the challenges around supporting children with additional needs or disabilities but this would be to ignore the amazing benefits that doing this well can have for the whole children’s/youth group and the church. Getting this right makes the group, holiday club, camp or church a place of belonging for everyone; a place when people are missed if they can’t come, for all of the right reasons. The culture of caring, supporting and inclusiveness that this creates is wonderful to see and is transforming for everyone.
Further resources and support
For more information on Urban Saints and our additional needs ministry programme, please visit: www.urbansaints.org/additionalneeds
I hope you have an amazing summer! 🙂
19th April 2018