Thursday, June 1, 2017

Therapy Tip: Taking your Child with Special Needs to Church

It's therapy Thursday! This is the day that I share a tip based upon my experience as a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a mother of a child with special needs. Today's tip is:

Keys for Taking your Child with Special Needs to Church

When your child has special needs, certain places just aren't easy for a variety of reasons. Church is often one place that parents are hesitant about or have had difficulties with in the past.

One hindrance for church attendance and our children is that there is little support. This is not a dig at churches; it is a reality. At school, our kids have educational plans, special support systems in place, therapists, and possibly individual aides. At home, we parents have mastered our children's strengths. We also know their triggers and how to help them regulate themselves when they are upset.

Then there's church. If you are like me and attend a church where your child is "dropped off" in a classroom away from you, it can be very scary at first. But, I can tell you that having a child with special needs attend church is possible.

That being said, every child is different. Every church is also different. It may take make trial runs. It may take many weeks and months, but I am optimistic that there is some church in your area that is willing to work with you to help your child.

Here's some keys to help make church a place where your child can succeed.

First, give some notice.
If you are starting a new church or class, it might be wise to call ahead and speak to someone in the youth ministry. You might feel strange doing this but hopefully the church contact will be courteous and listen to your concerns. If a church has no experience with special needs, I wouldn't let that stop you from trying it out. All you need to find is people who are willing to listen and serve your child.

When we started a new church when Jaycee was 5 years old, we kept her in sanctuary with us for several weeks. She did well in the adult church, so thankfully that was an option for us. When we decided we would be staying at the church, I approached the children's church teacher at the time to let her know Jaycee would be joining their class. We chatted for a few minutes about Jaycee's needs, and she was ready for her the next week.

Jaycee (middle) praying with children at Bible School

Offer help to the leaders.
You know your child well. You can offer great advice and insight into your child to help them succeed. Most of the people working in youth ministry are volunteers. Few have special education training. You can't expect them to understand your child's diagnosis or what to do. But, you can help these people understand your child so that the time in church can be peaceful for them and your child. Give church staff ideas on things that calm your child or things that will trigger problems with your child.

When my daughter moved up to a new class in our established church, I had reservations about her adjustment to it. The first Sunday she was in the new class, I offered to sit with her and a volunteer who would be her helper for the next few weeks. As class proceeded, I told the lady what her mannerisms meant, when she was happy, and when things were bothering her. It was one Sunday that I gave up to give Jaycee the best shot for the next few weeks. It worked.

Another thing we did when she switched classes was to create a "Tips for Jaycee" sheet. Because there were different volunteers on Sundays and Wednesdays, we made a one page paper of basics to help the volunteers know and understand Jaycee. Some things on it were: Jaycee needs to be reminded to use the bathroom, Jaycee loves dancing and music, If Jaycee sits on the floor between the seats that means she's scared, etc. This helped all of the volunteers feel comfortable when interacting with Jaycee, who was nonverbal at the time.

Prepare your child.
If there is something that helps your child do well at school or in other situations, then use it to your advantage at church. If your child responds to social stories, then make one to explain what happens in class. If your child thrives on schedules, create a schedule of what happens in class so that they will know what to do. If they are anxious about when class will be over, come up with a way to help decrease the anxiety.

If someone at the church can't provide and make these things, then find other resources. If you can make them on your own, then offer to do this. If you have no way of making visuals or schedules for your child, then ask a friend, teacher, therapist, etc. Beg them if you need to.

Jaycee in front of the stage dancing to songs at church

Be patient.
Change often takes adjustment. This is true for everyone involved. It may take the church staff a few encounters to learn your child and know how to respond in different situations. If your child only makes it through half of class and needs to leave, don't give up. Brainstorm with the leaders and be willing to help. Be patient with leaders who are trying to work with your child while taking care of other children in the class.

Offer suggestions, not demands.
Many people in the children's ministry are volunteers. They are giving up their time and energy to serve your child and many others. Even though I have discussed things like schedules and visuals, please don't demand the church make these. Offer suggestions and ways to help. Suggestions are most likely better received in any place, even church.

Sometimes, there is a debate on what class a child should be placed in. One person wants the child in the class that is for their age/grade. Another person may want the child in the class that is based more on their developmental abilities. Again, I think you need to discuss your concerns, ask questions, and give your input. Placing a child based on chronological age or developmental age is a case-by-case decision. I think there are many factors to consider with this, and there is no right or wrong placement. Just be willing to try out different classrooms or visit them for yourself in order to help decide what may be best. If you are demanding that your child be in a certain classroom, then you may need to sit and discuss with the church leaders why your opinions are different and get their side of the story. Hopefully, they are willing to do the same with you.

Taking your child with special needs to church doesn't have to be stressful and difficult. There may be some bumps in the road. You may have to do some work to figure out what will help your child, but I pray you will find things that will indeed help. I hope you will find a church full of people willing to work with your family to see your child grow in God.

Therapy Thursday is for educational purposes only and not intended as therapeutic advice.

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