Welcoming Children with Special Needs

They are welcome at Awana: the teen in the wheelchair, the T&T kid who struggles with reading and that Sparkie who can’t control his actions …

They are welcome but we don’t always know how to welcome them. We want to have a Christ-like attitude and show love and kindness to each child, but we sometimes don’t know what that means.

Children with special needs are as different as any group of children and in many ways, it’s unfortunate that we label them. They have diverse capabilities and face a myriad of life challenges.

I don’t pretend to know everything about special needs or to have the education some have – because I don’t. But I have taken classes and read countless books and sat through seminars to learn. I have planned games and outings for a group that included a girl who didn’t have the use of her arms and legs, comforted a Sparkie who wasn’t capable of doing what everyone else was doing, and I have watched a troubled 8th grader (we never were able to meet the parents) be embraced by a phenomenal group of Trek leaders and students who patiently worked with him to learn a verse and allowed him to win games even when that meant no points for their teams.

And I have a son who is legally blind.

Here are some basic guidelines to begin that welcoming process.

  1. Connect with the parents. Often parents will open the conversation themselves. “This is Joey – he has difficulty …” Then work out a plan with Dad and/or Mom.
  2. Choose his leader wisely – you might not have a special-needs expert in your group, but kind Mrs. Jenkins has a grandson facing the same challenges and understands how to relate.
  3. Remember Awana is flexible. If Joey can only memorize two words at a time or run partway around the circle, allow him to do so and applaud wildly when he reaches a goal.
  4. Invite the parent to stay (if necessary) if the child is too distraught. But recognize that Dad and Mom might need a break from a 24/7 job. (Yes, all parents have 24/7 jobs, but most of us get some kind of relief – often parents of special needs children don’t.)
  5. Find someone to work with the child one-on-one if necessary.
  6. Don’t offer advice. These parents are already being vigilant in finding the best care for their child. The “friend” who called us after reading an article I had written about our son to tell us if we had prayed harder and fed him broccoli – he wouldn’t be legally blind – was not helpful.
  7. Don’t underestimate their abilities. Yes, the girl in the wheelchair couldn’t walk or use her arms, but she could memorize quicker than any of the kids.
  8. Ask another child to help. Often kids respond to other kids quicker than they respond to adults.
  9. Pray about starting a special needs ministry in your church. Many churches use such programs as an outreach to their communities.

They are welcome at Awana: the teen in the wheelchair, the T&T kid who struggles with reading and that Sparkie who can’t control his actions …

God loves every one of us – be the conduit of that love to each child who walks in your church door.