by Amy Fenton Lee
Many children with special needs have an Individualized Education Plan or “IEP” in their local school systems. The purpose of this tailored plan is to create agreed upon educational goals and outline their means of achievement for a child with any number of learning differences or special needs diagnoses. Together with parents, representatives from a specific child’s classroom and school system will map out a plan for exactly how a child will pursue this customized learning plan. Responsibilities of the parents, the school system and other third parties may be clearly defined as part of this documented arrangement which may even provide measurable indicators.
For several years, there has been discussion regarding whether or not churches doing special needs accommodation should adopt a similarly modeled plan for a child’s church inclusion and spiritual growth. I frequently see questions on kid ministry discussion boards, dialogue among Christian educators and parents of children with special needs pertaining to the issue of church based IEPs.
While virtually all churches are being called to broaden their accommodation to welcome children with learning differences, the paths to successful inclusion and the scope of special needs programming can vary greatly between churches. Whether or not a children’s ministry or disability program creates a church based or “Christian IEP” for participating children depends on the calling and capabilities of that church, it is an excellent idea for children’s ministry workers to learn about a child with special needs, to engage in dialogue with parents and to arrive at a mutual understanding for what the church can and cannot do while serving a child with unique needs or disability. However, creating the formal process and paperwork of an Individual Education Plan may be unnecessary and possibly not productive for every church doing special needs accommodation.
Connie Hutchinson, the mother of a child with special needs and Director of Disabilities Ministry at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, CA shares, “When I started in my role as Director of Disabilities Ministry in 1992, I thought our church should do an IEP type plan for every participating child. Initially, doing the IEP was a good way for our evolving ministry to learn how to better serve the handful of participating individuals with special needs. But as our program grew in numbers and their needs changed, the IEP process began to hold our ministry back.” Hutchinson explains that early on, the church learned by doing IEP type meetings. Setting up a plan for each child required the church staff and volunteers to work through all the details, such as determining who would walk a child’s companion dog outside during extended periods of church programming. In addition, the IEP meeting taught the church how to create a shared ownership between the church and the parents. The families left these meetings with a good understanding of what role they would play in providing for the successful inclusion of their child. Over time, Hutchinson discovered some unexpected drawbacks of the church-based IEP:
- Prospective volunteers and lay people were intimidated by the idea that they would be responsible for furthering a child’s IEP goals while in church care.
- Families began to view their child’s time in church programming as an extension of the child’s prescribed therapy or “intervention”. The parents’ expectations of the ministry team grew, further reflecting the view that church was an extension of treatment.
- Some children started dreading church participation because they desired a break from their treatment and therapy routines.
- As the number of participants grew in the church’s special needs ministry, so too did the time required of the ministry team for facilitating these very involved discussions and documented plans for each participant.
Now, nearly twenty years into disability ministry, First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton no longer does church-based IEPs for the ministry participants. Hutchinson notes that after the church’s disability ministry made the decision to quit doing documented IEPs, the ministry became more defined and comfortable with their objectives. “We embraced the idea that our volunteers and staff have limitations. And while we often ask to see a child’s IEP from school so that we can compliment it during church care, we no longer hold ourselves to the documented requirements of an IEP. When our team quit doing a church-based IEP, we created a more relaxed atmosphere for both the volunteers and the participants with special needs.” One of the greatest moments of affirmation came when a mother who had originally been a proponent for doing a Christian IEP came back to Hutchinson saying, “Thank you for telling me to relax and to allow Sunday to be Sunday. I think I needed permission to back off from therapy. We are all enjoying Sundays more now without feeling like we have to accomplish an education or therapy related goal while at church.”
For more on the Disabilities Ministry of First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, CA seehttp://www.evfreefullerton.com/connect/disabilities.html
Amy Fenton Lee administers “The Inclusive Church” blog to help churches successfully include children with special needs. For more on Amy and her writing seewww.amyfentonlee.com. To learn about the special needs focused breakouts at the 2011 CPC in Orlando and San Diego, see the related post on “The Inclusive Church Blog” athttp://theinclusivechurch.wordpress.com/.