Back To Church: Helping Every Child To Belong

How do I include all children & young people with additional needs in my church?  As many church children’s and youth groups return back after the summer break this week, we explore how everyone can be included and belong.

Count how many children and young people you have in your children’s and youth work, including crèche, Sunday School, clubs, youth ministry…  Do you have a pre-school?  Uniformed organisations?  It adds up to loads of children and young people who are a part of your church.

Every child or young person needs support to help them learn or engage with activities, and children’s and youth workers are usually equipped to meet those needs.  Some children and young people, however, need support that is either additional to, or different from, the support given to children or young people of the same age, to ensure everyone benefits together from all that they participate in at church.  There can be all sorts of reasons why children and young people will need additional support, and these reasons can be long-term, short-term, or just be while they are supported through a difficult period.

Around 20% of children and young people have long-term additional needs or disabilities of some kind [1].  Many of them, and their families, feel excluded from a wide range of social activities [2], including church, so how can we reach out to, and meet, the needs of these children and their families?

How about a seven-year-old Autistic child who finds it overwhelming when they arrive at church with their family to be greeted by bright buzzing lights, an incredible wall of noise, a crowded room and an overload of different smells.  Or a 10-year old child with Dyslexia (sometimes called Reading Disorder) who loves the worship, but finds reading the words on the screen impossible because of the photos or video images in the background.  Or a 14-year-old young person who uses a wheelchair and sighs deeply once again as the worship leader excitedly encourages everyone to “Jump up and worship together!”

Inclusion is something that should be offered to all; it doesn’t stop at wider doors, ramps and disabled loos, but is about creating places of belonging and developing the faith of everyone.  It’s about providing a better way for a seven-year-old Autistic child and their family to engage with church when they arrive, maybe thinking about when, how and where they arrive, as well as looking at alternative lighting.  It’s about providing screens with plain backgrounds and with appropriate text fonts and size for a 10-year-old with Dyslexia and anyone else who might need it e.g. someone with partial sight loss.  It’s about changing what we say to include everyone; just saying “We’re going to sing now, please remain seated, or stand, as you prefer.  God really doesn’t mind!” could make all the difference in the world to a 14-year-old who uses a wheelchair.

Here’s a range of other tips and ideas that you can add to your ‘toolkit’ as you include every child and young person this term.  Practical strategies that have proven to make a real difference to how churches can successfully include everyone:

(1)  Appoint an Inclusion Champion
The single most important, transforming, strategy that a church can put in place is to appoint someone who ‘owns’ inclusion within the church.  To look critically at the things the church does through the lived experiences of the children, young people, and families that you reach.  What is hard for them to access?  What modifications can be easily made to improve things?  Who needs to make these modifications, and how?

Ideally, this role would be held by someone with a lived experience of additional needs or disability themselves, either in their own lives or as a carer, to ensure inclusion is ‘done with’ and not ‘done unto’ everyone being supported.

They provide a primary point of contact for children/young people with additional needs and their parents/carers, although having this role in place doesn’t let the rest of the team off from being involved in ensuring inclusion works for everyone!
Further info:

(2)  Building support strategies/communication with parents/carers
More often than not we tend to be reactive to the arrival of a child or young person with additional needs, rather than anticipating their arrival and being ready with strategies in place so that they can be included in any activity that the church offers.

Understanding what support strategies are in place in other areas of their life, e.g. school or home, and bringing them into our church activities, provides us with a ready-made set of ideas to try, as well as providing consistency and continuity.

Asking parents/carers how their child likes to be supported and helped, and what they enjoy doing, is likely to unlock useful and helpful conversations.  And remember to ask children and young people themselves about how they like to be supported; inclusion should always involve the person being included, “nothing about us, without us”.  Providing one-page-profiles to help parents/carers and children/young people describe themselves can be helpful (see example and link below).


Further info:

An example of a support strategy that you could bring into church from other settings such as home or school might be a visual timetable.  These are a great tool to help children/young people understand where they are in the programme now, what is expected of them, and what is coming next (including when ‘snack time is!)

There are many versions of the symbols used, so check with the young person, or their parents/carers, what symbols they use at home or school and use these in church too.

James_ Visual Timetable

These can be provided on a laminated sheet, such as this example, with a strip of Velcro that the child’s photo is on, allowing them to move their photo down as they go through the session.

(3)  Recruiting one-to-one support, or ‘buddies’
Some children/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, can build up to the point where they struggle to cope and may result in a meltdown which can be hard for them and for others.


Providing one-to-one support can make a big difference, giving a young person someone who can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing.  Checking that they are coping and knowing what to do if they are struggling.  We sometimes have to fish in a different pond for one-to-one support; often when we ask for more folk to join our children’s team, people who may not see themselves leading talks, songs, games etc. switch off.  But if we seek people who are caring, empathic, nurturing, someone to sit with and support a child, this can appeal to a different group.  The grandparent generation can often be great at this, and sometimes other young people can fulfill this role as ‘Buddies’, getting alongside their peers, or younger children, and supporting them (with suitable supervision).  Ideally, this role should not be filled by parents/carers; they need to be spiritually fed themselves in church!

(4)  Sensory support
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 is essential.  A sensory room/zone, equipped with calming lighting, relaxing sounds, beanbags/floormats, and safe things for children to engage with to help them relax, will be helpful.  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.

Fiddles box

Another useful addition to the kit list is a ‘fiddles’ box.  This contains a selection of items that can be stretched, squeezed, spun, clicked or simply fiddled with!  The sensory stimulus that this provides can aid focus and concentration.
Further info:

(5)  Creative learning
We learn best when our learning is fun, engaging us in activities that we enjoy and are good at; meeting our preferred learning style, ‘watching’, ‘listening’ or in most cases ‘doing’.  It’s no different for children and young people with additional needs.

Lego and Minecraft

They might be really good at jigsaw puzzles; get them to build a jigsaw of the story/theme you are sharing.  Maybe they like Lego?  Get them building something from the Bible, such as the Lego version of the Temple of Jerusalem above, or Abraham and Isaac, and did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible?  Young people spend time in the online world, so 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!

Getting inclusion right makes our church a place of belonging for everyone
; a place where people are missed if they can’t come, for all the right reasons.  The culture of caring, supporting and acceptance that this creates is wonderful to see and is transforming for everyone, bringing amazing benefits to the whole church.  How about starting your journey to include everyone today?

Next steps
There is truth in the old saying that the hardest step on a journey is the first one
, so make it an easy step by linking in to support from people who have walked the road already.  There is plenty of support available, you don’t have to do this on your own!  To access a range of training and other services geared towards helping you, have a look at the ‘Partners’ section of the Additional Needs Alliance website:

You can also join the Additional Needs Alliance Facebook group, a vibrant and fast-growing learning and support community of children’s/youth workers, parents, carers, practitioners and others:

Think about what else you could do today.  Could you create a visual timetable?  Or put a ‘fiddles box’ together?  Who in your church has additional needs or a disability; could you speak with them and their parents/carers to see what support they would value most?  Take your first step on your inclusion journey today, in prayer, and remember to come back to this blog in future for more tips, ideas and stories to help you as you travel!

Mark Arnold

To find out more about how Mark and his work can help you, visit or contact him at: or @Mark_J_Arnold

[1] ‘Reforms for children with SEN and disabilities come into effect’(2014)  [accessed 22ndNovember 2017]

[2] ‘Mumsnet parents: negative attitudes are holding back our disabled children’(2014)  [accessed 22ndNovember 2017]

Image rights:  Header, © Shutterstock; One-page profile, © Sheffield City Council; One-to-one support, © ‘All In’ holiday; Fiddles Box, © Authors own; montage of Minecraft and Lego pictures © various including ‘Temple of Jerusalem’ © Kieran/Jackie Potter, ‘Abraham and Isaac’ © Ed Beamish/Beamish family, ‘Minecraft’ photo © Mojang, Minecraft Bible © Garrett Romines & Christopher Miko/Lion Hudson Publishing, Brick Bible © Brendan Powell Smith

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