One of the best ways to facilitate special needs inclusion is to assign a one-on-one helper or “buddy” to participants with learning differences or disabilities. Yet, even with buddies, some students still need access to an alternate environment. A child with special needs may benefit from a few minutes of regular participation inside the special needs dedicated space for any of the following reasons:
(1)   Sensory issues may arise during certain activities. Common sensory challenges include:

  • Sensitivity to bright light, loud noises or certain smells
  • Uneasiness in high-energy settings
  • Inability to self-regulate or calm down

(2)   The child with special needs may not connect with the material or activities in the typical setting. Very often, behavior problems are a child’s way of communicating frustration because they are unable to participate. The option of retreating to an individualized environment may be helpful. A participant might also benefit from a setting where the Bible story and the learning experiences are tailored to their individual pace and ability.
(3)   A pattern of disruptive behaviors interrupts the ministry experience of others. Every kid has a bad day and deserves an occasional pass. But when those behaviors become frequent, predictable, and/or upsetting to the other ministry participants, appropriate accommodation might best occur outside the typical setting.
(4)   Additional safety supports are required for the successful accommodation of a particular student. When any of the following situations arises for a specific participant, a self-contained or secure environment may provide the appropriate accommodation:

  • Weakened immune system, requiring limited exposure to others
  • Tendency to run off, bolt, or wander (also called “elopement”)
  • Behaviors that are inappropriate for a typically developing child of the same age (especially when those behaviors pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others)

(5)   The child needs a break. So often, a child can benefit from a few minutes or maybe even an entire day retreating from the busy, noisy, structured, or unstructured typical ministry setting. Occasionally, time rocking in a swing or chilling on a beanbag chair allows a child to recharge and enables a positive church experience.
How a church accommodates a student with special needs is always individual-specific. Churches can glean helpful information and craft an initial inclusion plan by having a member of the family ministry team complete a “get to know you” intake document and conversation with the parents of a child with additional needs. And it is important to remind everyone involved (including ministry volunteers and parents) that flexibility is important. A participants needs and a church’s resources (trained volunteers and available space) can easily fluctuate on a weekly basis.
 ~ Excerpt from Leading a Special Needs Ministry: A Practical Guide to Including Children and Loving Children by Amy Fenton Lee (©2013 The reThink Group, Inc.). Amy blogs at