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Last year, our family left the church we had been attending for over two years and began searching for something that would be a better fit for our family. While Ezra’s needs were not the main reason we left, they were definitely a factor. Going forward, we knew we would need to find a place that would be accommodating to him and his behaviors.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to look long – or far. What we have found in a church family continually blows us away, and what they have done for our son has been rare.
I wish that every church operated as ours does towards special needs children. I can’t make that happen. But I would like to offer some advice to special needs families who might be looking for a more accommodating church – or perhaps would like to effect change where they already are attending.
Find a small church
While a “special needs ministry” is something more likely to be found in a bigger congregation, we felt that we needed to be somewhere smaller and more intimate. We had gone from church to church to church – both as members and as regularly attending visitors – where we felt that people didn’t know us and didn’t really care to get to know us. When you have a special needs child, it just makes it that much harder to assimilate into an already established congregation, especially if it is sizable.
The bigger the church, the easier it is for your family to get lost in the crowd – which is the opposite of what a special needs family needs.
Now, we are a part of a small congregation – a family, really. And while a “special needs ministry” isn’t on their website or bulletin, they have take great care to get to know us and our son, know our needs, and go out of their way to meet those needs. We have never felt lost, excluded, or unwanted.
Be honest about your child’s needs
The first Sunday we attended, we showed up for the early service, because our son is an early riser. Unfortunately, there is NO childcare the first service because most of the families attend the second service.
We kindly said, “Our son has special needs. We need to have childcare,” and we politely left. We grabbed coffee at McDonalds, headed to a close-by park, and killed an hour waiting for the Sunday School hour to start when the children’s ministries would begin.
When we dropped him off, we tried to give them a brief synopsis of his needs and what they might expect. We needed them to be aware that they weren’t dealing with a typical child.
As weeks of visiting turned into months, we have had more and more opportunities to be honest with our church family about our needs. Not only have they been receptive to this honesty, but they have sought it out.
Our assistant pastor sat across from us at our kitchen table and asked us a question about how what we have gone through with Ezra has affected our spiritual lives.
Floored but grateful, we were able to share with them our struggles: How, honestly, it just plain sucks sometimes. How it’s a battle to even make it to church most Sundays. How we have been really angry at God and struggle to see His plan in it all. How Ezra’s needs have been a hindrance to both our attendance and service at church. How we sit on pins and needles just waiting for them to call us when he has a meltdown. How I want to be involved in music ministry, but I can’t right now because we might have to take him home early on any given Sunday. How I can’t stand to be asked to work in the nursery or children’s programs because I’m just too exhausted. How guilty we feel asking for special accommodations for a special case, but that it is a necessity.
I believe that it is this honest dialogue which our church’s ministry team that has made a way for our son to be successful in the children’s ministries.
Educate the church staff about your child’s needs
Within the first few weeks of attending, after Ezra started to really struggle with behavior at church, I sat down and created a Google document with information about his needs. This 2-page document included his diagnoses and how they regularly present, what triggers Ezra, what motivates him, and suggestions of how they can manage his behaviors effectively. This included scripting that we use with Ezra (such as “first-then”) as well as worded examples of how to give Ezra choices. This is a working document that we continue to edit as things come up. I have distributed copies to all of the staff members who work with Ezra.
I have also printed off internet articles about special needs in general, Ezra’s diagnoses, and articles about how to deal with special needs children in church. (I’ve listed some great ones at the end of this post.)
Invite them to be a part of your and your child’s life
Early on while attending our church, I saw a picture of Ezra and his classmates in children’s church on Facebook posted by another parent that I was connected with. I tagged myself in the picture and was subsequently friended by one of his teachers.
The following week she came and found me and told me something like this:
“I just love reading all of the things you post about Ezra. It helps me to understand him. I have just totally fallen in love with your son!”
It blew me away.
It’s really easy for me to be vulnerable online with complete strangers. It’s a lot harder when I have to face the people who read my blog every week. It’s scary, really. So it’s not always easy for me to open myself up like that. But I think it really helps. Now, when I post about Ezra on my blog or Facebook, I’ll try to tag them in posts I think could help them understand them better. I also do this with articles about SPD and ADHD so they can continue to learn.
I also try to share with them the good things, like when Ezra comes home singing a song or talking about a Bible story he learned at church.
Enlist extra help (ask!)
It’s really hard as a parent to say, “My child needs special treatment.” We want the world to be fair. But life isn’t fair to special needs kids. We have made it very clear that we want the class – as a whole – to succeed. But we have also suggested ways that he could be aided differently.
This has been probably the hardest part. It has required a lot of frank questions and discussions between us and the staff. They have had concerns about how to meet Ezra’s needs without causing problems with the other children, making it seem as though he is being rewarded for bad behavior, or making the class “the Ezra show.” Of course, none of these are our intention as parents. We want him to assimilate, but that’s a process.
As it stands right now, they have asked for extra volunteers to work in Ezra’s classroom to be an aid specifically for him. This is humbling. Amazing. The people who have stepped up to take on the role of “Ezra’s bouncers” have been incredible in ways I truly cannot express in words. They sit with him to help assist him with transitions, calm him when he gets upset or frustrated, and remove him from the class when he becomes a disturbance or starts having a meltdown or harming others.
Ask for continual feedback from your child’s workers about what is working and what isn’t. Initially, we thought that assisting with the transition from Sunday School to the church hour would help Ezra. We would go down, take him outside, let him run around and then transition him back into the classroom. We would also regularly check on him to make sure he was behaving.
After a few weeks, they asked us NOT to do this, because it ended up causing more disruption to Ezra and the classroom.
Since then, we have been able to drop off Ezra in the morning and pick him up and pickup time and they have been able to handle everything. It’s been FABULOUS. They have expressed to us that this is what they want for us – to be able to sit through the entire service and enjoy it without interruption.
Know your child’s limits – and the church’s limits
Our church has done so much to help Ezra succeed in the children’s programs. But there’s only so much one church can do.
While we would love to attend all of the church services our church offers (as our fundamentalist roots taught us), right now we are only attending Sunday mornings and our once-a-month care group. Why? 1) Because it’s all Ezra can handle. Sunday and Wednesday evenings would be too difficult for him being so close to his bedtime and dealing with his medication crashes. 2) Because they are doing so much to aid him on Sunday mornings, we don’t feel like it would be fair for them to do the same things for all of the other services.
We also know that any time the children’s ministries are suspended so the children sit in the main service, we won’t be attending – we will utilize those Sundays for family time.
There have been Sundays when we just knew that he wouldn’t do well – whether because of sleep disturbance or early morning meltdowns. There have also been Sundays when we have left early because his behavior was too disruptive. As a parent, you have to use your best judgment on when to keep your child home or leave before the service is over.
It is my habit to give his teachers a morning report at drop off so that they are aware of what Ezra is struggling with. Two Sundays ago, he woke up at 4:45AM. The next Sunday, it was 7:45AM. That’s a big difference, and I knew they would see a difference in his behavior. I try to make them aware of sleep issues, medication changes, morning meltdowns, general irritability – or even positive things, like if he’s had a GREAT morning. They have said that this really helps them deal with him more appropriately.
Ask for a meeting
When we began pursuing church membership, the pastors and we mutually decided that we should have a sit-down meeting with all of the children’s church workers to talk about Ezra and how they could help him.
While this was anxiety-inducing and nerve-wracking for me, our meeting went SO well. We were able to discuss more strategies they can use, troubleshoot problems, and just connect in general.
We also decided that, to maintain communication, we would meet quarterly to keep everyone on the same page.
Don’t give up
There will be bumps. There will be miscommunications. Some Sundays will be plain awful.
I believe that every church can be inclusive of special needs families.
It will take work. It will take brutal honesty. It will take open communication. It will take people stepping up to make a difference. It will take trying and not giving up – on the part of both the church ministry workers and the parents.
Helpful posts about special needs for children’s ministry workers:
Special Needs: ADHD by Children’s Ministry Magazine
How to teach children with ADHD by Lifeway