Placing the Child with Special Needs

by Amy Fenton Lee

This article is part of a series of articles on Special Needs by Amy Fenton Lee. See the first article, Special Needs: Your Best Resource May be Outside the Church, the second article, Special Needs: The Volunteers’ Blessings and the third article, Special Needs: Understanding the Diagnosis, Understand the individual.

Most children’s ministers with experience in special needs ministry have at some point felt conflicted in how to best accommodate a specific child with a disability. A child’s temperament and learning capacity may vary from one week to another. Occasionally, a parent may push an expectation or agenda that is not in line with the church’s capabilities. Parent-volunteer dilemmas will require the grace and negotiation of a skilled diplomat.

Alyssa Barnes, M.Ed, Special Education and PhD student in University of Georgia’s Special Education Program, explains, “the classroom placement of children with special needs is one of the most controversial issues dealt with in the field of special education. As a result, the church should not find it surprising when it too struggles to find the perfect fit for a child with a complicated set of needs.” Barnes shares, “In the government funded public school systems, placement decisions involve a team of opinions. The placement process sometimes requires mediation or even due process procedures to settle on a specific child’s education path.” As a result, churches can expect that it may take time, tenacity and trial and error before a child with special needs is successfully woven into the children’s ministry. Churches are not tax-funded entities. We have big hearted volunteers, not specially trained educators like those found in the school system.

Common Terms
For the purpose of discussing child placement, let’s define vocabulary that parents may know and are common to the public school system and special needs culture.

Self-Contained Special Education Classroom – stand-alone classroom setting designed to separate and appropriately accommodate children with a range of identified disabilities. These classes are typically taught by special educators or instructors with experience working in the disability community.

Inclusion– placing a student with special needs in regular classes and activities for an entire school day. The school system generally provides an aide or special education teacher to accompany and assist the child in the fully inclusive setting.

Reverse Inclusion- placing a small number of typical students from an age-appropriate class to join the person with special needs in his or her self-contained environment.

Typical – the term used to describe a child-peer without a disability or need for additional assistance.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – A formal education plan developed by a team of interested parties (parents, school faculty, medical providers) specifically designed for an individual student with qualifying special needs. An IEP creates goals and the means for their achievement within the public school system.

History and Background
Since 1975 Congress has enacted significant pieces of legislation that shape the special education environment and other publicly funded programs assisting persons with disabilities. Based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1999 and No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, the trend in public education has moved away from self-contained special education classrooms and toward full inclusion. Wording such as “least restrictive environment” is common guidance provided by the laws for the schools’ placement of children with disabilities. How each local school system interprets and applies the law is different and complicated. Parents’ expectations for their church’s children’s ministries are often shaped by their experiences in the public school systems. And it is for these reasons that it is helpful to become familiar with effective and common practices in both the secular field of special education and established church-based special needs ministries.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Churches that simultaneously provide self-contained classrooms and inclusive environments are best prepared for special needs ministry. One child may thrive in a setting where alternative teaching methods are the primary form of instruction even though there are distracting noises and body movements common in self-contained classrooms. Conversely, many children are capable, and in fact thrive, as part of the regular activities among their typically developing peers (inclusion). Oftentimes, the same child requires both settings during a single day in church programming (sometimes referred to as “partial inclusion”). Volunteer staffing and parent desires can also affect the placement of a child. While a one-to-one ratio and buddy-system is ideal for special needs situations, it isn’t always practical or necessary. For example, a child may require a fully devoted caregiver in order to remain participative in the inclusion Sunday school setting but be able to share a volunteer teacher inside of a self-contained special needs classroom.

Many parents advocate placing their children in a fully inclusive environment. It is my personal belief that creating a welcome environment across all areas of children’s ministry is the best way to model Jesus’ love and equal value for all developing children. However, inclusion sometimes requires judgment and program modifications. Churches with preschool and grade school programming incorporating “buttoned-up” volunteer training and well-executed worship experiences are more likely to have success including children with special needs in their typical settings. Volunteers familiar with behavior modification techniques, redirection, and a sound church policy on handling conduct challenges are less likely to ruffle feathers with the children or their parents. In the meantime, programs already utilizing music, puppets, skits, and creative movement are more conducive for including participants with a wide range of cognitive abilities and learning styles. When activities are designed to engage all the senses, children with disabilities have a greater chance of constructive participation in the environment. Establishing a sound foundation in the typical children’s programming is imperative for successful implementation of an inclusion friendly special needs culture.

Volunteer Placement
In accommodating children with disabilities, volunteer placement is sometimes more important than child placement. Occasionally, parents resist the idea of a buddy, in their effort to fully integrate their child among their typically developing peers and to provide a “normal church experience”. In those instances when reality and parents’ wishes don’t perfectly align, pad the volunteer team. Discreetly position an additional helper with the understanding they are tagged to assist the child with a disability. The goal of a buddy should never by to isolate and separate, but to encourage and facilitate full participation to the best of the student’s ability.

The Value of the IEP
In cases where the church staff and family struggle to agree on a child’s placement inside the church, initiate a discussion regarding the child’s Individualized Education Plan. Jackie Mills-Fernald, director of McLean Bible Church’s Access Disability Program (McLean, VA) explains, “when you know how the public school system is addressing a child’s educational, social and behavioral development, you can glean helpful information on the individual’s capabilities and past successes.” Mills-Fernald goes on to recount the story of a child who struggled in church programming until Access ministry staff inquired about the child’s IEP. The conversation triggered the parents’ disclosure that the child was more likely to maintain controlled behavior as long as his favorite set of books accompanied him in every environment. The revealing discussion helped the Access team determine staffing and logistics for helping the child adjust in the church setting. While the initial conversations were rocky, ultimately the parents were grateful for the church’s successful accommodation of their child.

Barnes advises churches to invite the development of a church “IEP.” Ask parents to help the church craft and regularly update a strategy, incorporating goals from the school’s education plan with personal objectives for their child. Taking a collaborative approach between parents, teachers and children’s ministry staff sets the tone for an atmosphere of partnership and often reveals areas where small adjustments can yield big payoffs. Barnes, a former special education teacher, used to ask her students’ parents to state their aspirations for their child at the beginning of each school year: “By understanding the real drivers for these parents, I could tailor my teaching and make intentional efforts to recognize progress along the way.” Barnes points out that most parents of children with special needs have social objectives equally important to their academic ambitions. She frequently observed parents’ stated goals such as “to have my child invited for a play date,” “for my child to be invited to a peer’s birthday party,” or “for my child to make meaningful friends.” Barnes applies this to the church settings, “when the church staff gets to the underlying concerns and addresses the parents’ deeper desires, the disagreements over the child’s placement may ultimately diminish.”

Celebrate the Successes
As parents’ goals for their child are implemented into the church setting, be mindful of and recognize even the smallest of achievements. Mills-Fernald of McLean’s Access Disability ministry advises program teachers to regularly celebrate successes with parents: “point out the fact that the child participated in the typical classroom or group worship for 15 minutes this Sunday, whereas last week he or she only lasted 10 minutes. Relay a sense of victory to the parents.” Mills-Fernald explains that these short, parting conversations between the child’s caregivers and their parents allow parents to leave church on a positive note and with evidence that the ministry team is working with the stated goals in mind.

Similarly, Barnes suggests churches create programming “exit tickets” or “interview sheets” for each child. While a similar exercise is valuable for typically developing children, it can be especially cherished by parents of children with special needs. “Exit tickets are essentially a personalized recap of what a child learned during a single session of church programming,” explains Barnes. Exit tickets convey a child’s individual responses to a brief one-on-one interview conducted by a teacher at the end of programming. The child’s answer(s) may relay a favorite activity or the subject of the day’s lesson. For children who communicate nonverbally, providing visual pictures for the child to place on the day’s interview sheet may be equally effective. As parents observe their child absorbing a basic Bible concept and participating in social interaction, the likelihood for concerns and dissention often disappears.

Amy Fenton Lee enjoys equipping churches for ministry to children with special needs and their families. Along with her husband and preschool age son, Amy is active in the ministries of Perimeter Church in Atlanta, GA. For more on Amy and her writing

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