It was something I told myself I’d never do. At least, I just knew I never give up after only two days. When I was a children’s pastor and I saw other churches do this, I was self-righteously angry at them. “They’re cowards,” I reasoned, “And they’re unloving.”
But then I did the same thing last fall. And for months — even now — I wonder if I did the right thing.
I told a mom that we (in our after school program) could not handle her special needs son.
We have several boys in the after school program that are diagnosed with specific special needs. One boy has high-functioning autism, and another is in a special education class in his school. And as I’ve said before, a handful have ADHD.
I’m thankful for the leaders I got to work with over the years at Grace Church, who worked diligently to minister to families who have children with special needs. I learned so much from them, not just terminology and information, but I saw them sacrificially serve these families.
In working with these children in our program, I was reminded of a couple of articles written by Amy Fenton Lee, of The Inclusive Church. I got to know her through a mutual friend, and she once came up for a special needs training event that we did. From that meeting, she produced a couple of articles that I still refer back to, to help me get re-oriented to a ministry mindset.
- Special Needs: Managed or Ministered To? The title of this article came from a comment that a friend and fellow parent made, “Parents of children with special needs don’t want to be managed. They want to be ministered to.”
- Special Needs Training for Church Greeters This is a summary of the training event we did, where a staff member interviewed both volunteer leaders and parents who have children with special needs.
These articles reminded me of a couple of things as I interact with families who are a part of the after school program:
- I need to be intentional to reach out to families here who have children with special needs. Yes, I need to manage the needs of the child, but I need to do it out of a desire to lovingly minister to them, not just check off a box.
- I need to be intentional to ensure that all staff and volunteers are equipped to minister to these families.
On the other side, if you have a child with special needs, here is another article that Amy wrote, about how you can help the church (or other ministry organization) prepare for your child’s visit.
|image courtesy of Michael Jacksonfan via flickr|
Five boys can make all the difference. No, I’m not talking about the five in the picture to the right. I’m talking about five boys that I work with each week in the after school program in Allendale.
When Marvin Love started working regularly with this program, it gave us the chance to shift around some responsibilities. Since he prefers the older kids, and is really good with them, he took over the 4th – 8th grade group where I had been leading. That allowed me to focus more time on the 2nd and 3rd graders.
This was much-needed since this class had already gone through a number of volunteer leaders. I am no expert on childhood and education, but I knew I could at least add some time and energy to this group of kids.
What I saw immediately was that their energy put mine to shame. Their voices rapidly increased in volume, as they clamored for attention. They ignored directions, even after I repeated myself multiple times.
But two things soon became clear to me:
- These kids are not that different than mine.
- The “they” that caused the most problems were only part of the class, and the worst has been a group of 5 or 6 boys, out of a total class size of about 25.
As I’ve been working with this group for about two months now, it’s amazing the difference in how things go depending on whether those boys are there. And it’s rarely just one or 2 of them there; it’s pretty much all or nothing.
But I’ve been learning that their behavior is only part of the issue. In fact, God reminds me that that their external actions merely reflect an internal reality. Much of this, of course, is related to the spiritual condition of their hearts, as I am sure that most of this group are unregenerate.
I am also seeing that a lot of this is due to emotional and physiological issues. A few of these boys will melt into tears when I pull them aside to discuss their behavior (like this boy who struggled with his emotions). Even more, when I obtained report cards from the schools, I learned that one of these boys (whose temperament can change in an instant from lovable to wanting to fight) is in a special education class.
I also learned that one other boy in that class has ADHD, and when his medicine is wearing off at the end of the day, it can get bad. (Although I’m excited to say that he earned our class’s “Youth of the Week” award last week.) In truth, probably a few kids in there (and a few in the other groups) have ADHD, and at least half have emotional self-control issues.
It was interesting to read that there seems to be a connection between ADHD and emotional self-control, especially that this can run in families (and everyone seems to be related down here). While the connection is clear, it has not yet been determined if one issue causes the other. But the real-life implications are serious. “Individuals with ADHD who also display emotional overreaction have a reduced quality of life and difficulties with personal relationships and social success.”
I know that we cannot fix anything in the short-term, but we can’t just excuse the behavior. One day, after a boy in the oldest class (who has ADHD) was jumping off of tables and bookshelves, I told his mom, “I understand that he cannot always control his behavior. But we have to work with him over the next few years to teach him how. While he can get away with jumping off tables when he is 10, he has to learn that he can’t still do that when he’s 18.”
I’ll be running in a relay today, my first-ever road race. It’s the first annual HOPE Relay, sponsored by the HOPE Foundation, which works with children who have autism. Our 5-member team is the “BunchaNancies!” and we’ll cover about 42 miles, starting at 10:30AM on Paris Mountain. Since I’m not a runner, I was slick enough to put the team together, and then claim the shortest legs (3.6 miles and 2.5 miles). Joanna and Hannah will be volunteering — kinda’ ironic that they have to be there earlier than I do, and that they’ll be doing more work than I will.
- Often people who have disabilities get overlooked, devalued, and even shunned. But we believe that each person, each child, is created in God’s image, with infinite value — valuable enough that God sent His Son to die for each of us. Read more thoughts from our church here.
- Joanna’s nephew Nick, has Aspberger’s syndrome. I’ll be running in his honor.
- My grandmother taught special needs for a long-time, and some of that love has been passed down to me.
- We have many friends who have children with a variety of special needs. We want to support them in their journey.
If you want to learn more about why and how we should minister to children with special needs, see the label “special needs” on this blog (Grace Church currently ministers to at least 20 children who have special needs). Furthermore, any church looking for more resources in this area should check out The Inclusive Church blog.