The numbers of children with special needs is growing in our country. Autism alone has increased 119.4% since the year 2000 (autism-society.org) ADHD is also on the rise with a 42% increase between 2003 and 2011 according to the most recent data (cdc.gov). We are seeing more and more children with varying disabilities coming into our churches. While there are growing ministries available to students with special needs, many of them are separate from the other children’s ministries in the church. This population, already rejected and isolated by the world, may be better served through inclusive ministries contributing to feelings of safety, acceptance and love.
– A BRIEF LOOK AT PUBLIC EDUCATION:
In public schools, these children are being identified then served in a variety of ways. They may be evaluated and provided with one of several legal documents detailing their needs. (For more information on this process, click here IDEA 504). The students will receive their accommodations/ services in the LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT. The least restrictive environment refers to the educationally appropriate setting which most closely resembles that of same-aged peers. For example, a student with mild disabilities may receive services that are pushed-in to his class. A special education teacher or therapist would provide services in the general education classroom. Another student may receive pull-out services one or more times per week. She would leave her general education classroom to meet with the teacher or therapist individually or in a small group. Another scenario may include a small group of identified students within a general education classroom run by two teachers: a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Students with more significant needs may be placed in a self-contained class, a class with only special education students and a small student to teacher ratio. Numbers of students may vary from 4-15 depending on the students’ needs, and the type of curriculum taught may also be different.
Public school districts may use any combination of these programs to serve a particular student. For example, a student may be pulled out of the general education classroom for occupational therapy, but may also have a special education teacher push – in to the classroom to work with him and two other students during math and ELA. A high school student may have a self-contained Global History class, an inclusion English class and general education art or music. In the 2013-14 school year, about 13% of all public school students received special education services. Of those students, only 14% spent less than 40% of their school day in the general education classroom (nces.ed.gov)
Public schools are academic forums and have the purpose of providing each individual student with the greatest opportunity to reach their highest academic potential. Schools are evaluated by their success in this area and may need to segregate some students with more challenging needs in order to accomplish this goal.
– AND THIS MATTERS BECAUSE?
So what does this have to do with serving children with special needs in our church ministries? I bring out this information for two reasons: first, to highlight how a major provider to special needs students handles the situation, and second, to delineate their purpose in the provisions.
With approximately 6.5 million special education students attending public schools (2013-14 school year), public education dictates that about 87% of those students spend more than half of their school day with typically developing peers. Environments where students are included are modified in various ways to accommodate their needs. Students that are taken out of the general population are placed elsewhere primarily to meet academic needs, but only after it has been documented that this is the best way to accomplish that goal.
– OUR MISSION:
While every church has it’s own specific mission, I think it is safe to say, that we all have one purpose in common: To win souls to Christ. It’s our Great Commission…“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV). Each church has it’s own way of doing this but again, I think it’s safe to say that we have at least one method in common: Love. The second greatest command tells us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, (Matthew 22: 39). We do not have the burden of teaching our children to read and write; we have the joy of teaching all of our children that they are loved.
This is so important. Children with special needs, and their families, are often confronted with rejection, failure, misunderstandings, isolation and ignorance. Churches are places where these feelings should not exist. Yet whole families leave churches because they feel that they do not fit in. I had one parent express to me that she and her autistic son, “…just don’t belong anywhere.” Of course they belong somewhere. Right here in our churches. We need to welcome children and families with special needs. We need to show them that we are not led by a spirit of fear or ignorance but rather with a spirit of love and acceptance. We need to let them know that they are valued, they can teach us, and that they are us.
Many, many churches across the United States are responding. Special Needs classes and programs are popping up everywhere. But we need to be careful. Although sometimes necessary, segregated programs are just another way to isolate or reject a child with special needs. Good intentions may lead to negative feelings. There is another way for most children with special needs.
– THE LEAST RESTRICTIVE CHURCH MINISTRY ENVIRONMENT:
We saw in the public school setting how about 87% of students identified with a disability spend more than half the day in general education. School is about 6 hours. Most of our children’s ministries take up much less time than that and while there may be academics such as reading and writing involved, they are not the ultimate goal of the ministry. Most students with special needs can and should be included in ministries with their peers. And by included, I don’t mean putting an eight year old in the nursery or preschool class. I’m talking about same-aged peers. Children with special needs are more like their peers than they are different. Even the teens that I teach who are in self-contained classes 8/9 periods during their school day following a Life Skills curriculum enjoy music, playing games, using the computer, watching videos, and reading stories. Most of them can spend an hour in super church with an extra adult or a buddy to help them to participate, along with a few minor changes such as lowering the volume on the music and a clearly defined space.
With training for the ministry leaders, and accommodations/ modifications made to the environment, curriculum or materials, most children with special needs can be learning that they are loved and accepted right alongside their same-aged peers. Using the model of an individualized plan, our special needs students can receive their Christian Education by participating in all or part of the ministries we provide to everyone.
Statistics demonstrate that only a very small percentage of the general population requires a self-contained learning environment. With some effort and training, most special needs students can be included in some or all of our church children’s ministries. This version of Christian Education not only benefits the child by countering feelings of rejection but also liberates the child’s family by relieving isolation. Ignorance is shattered as “us” and “them” become “we.” Our Mission moves forward.
Coming soon: Including Children with Special Needs in Children’s Ministries Part 2: Creating an Inclusive Environment.