Making our spaces welcoming for all children requires consideration of their individual needs. We have to engage in thoughtful practices to ensure that our environments, activities, materials, and strategies are set up so that each child has an opportunity to learn about God in a way that honors their abilities. It also means that people who work with children need to make every reasonable accommodation for accessibility.
It’s true that in many ways, children’s ministry classrooms are unique. We have to think about children who may attend unpredictably, many of our volunteers or staff may have little or no training, and adult-child ratios may not be ideal. Nonetheless, it’s critical that we work with what we have to ensure a safe and loving experience for every child—not just those who are free of disabilities.
There are countless types of situations in which you may find yourself in need of making an accommodation to suit the needs of an individual child. Physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities may keep them from fully engaging in your class as it is currently designed. Many times, small adjustments can make a world of difference and can help communicate to kids (and their families) that church is a safe place for them to learn, grow, and experience the love of Christ.
Here are some good first steps to take:
- Loop in the family: The child’s family (parents, caregiver, etc.) likely have a very good idea of the best way to set their little one up for success. A place to begin is to ask the adults what accommodations their preschool teacher makes and see if you can duplicate it. Also, inquire about any tips they may have for you—either things to avoid or include. A funny example: one time I had a nonverbal child consistently run out of my children’s ministry classroom. She was super fast, and I worried she would get hurt. When I asked the mom, she said, “Oh! I should have told you! If you take off her shoes when she arrives, she thinks she can’t leave until they’re put back on!” This little tip made a HUGE difference!
- View your classroom through the lens of accessibility: Take a walk through your children’s ministry environment with the goal of noticing any potential to exclude. For instance, if a child came to your classroom, how could they play with your blocks? Is there a table they could push their chair up to? Do you have a tray you could put the blocks on? If a neurodivergent child needed a quieter space to hang out during worship time, is there a safe spot to do so? Often, no major changes need to be done, but if you have a general plan, you can easily switch things up without a major ordeal.
- Find your pros: People who work with children who have special needs may not want to volunteer to work with children on their days off, but they may be happy to help you make accommodation plans! I once gave a special ed teacher a small budget and free reign to put together a kit for our church. She gathered small toys (fidgets) for kids who need something to do with their hands during story time, created picture schedules (PEC) we could use to communicate, included headphones for those with auditory sensory issues, and more. She gave a quick little training on how to use the kit, and we used it for years! (Your pro could also help you with #2, above!)
- Plan with an accommodation mindset: When creating activities for the week ahead (or reading from a pre-created curriculum), keep in mind the children who you know will need accommodations. If you’re coloring, for example, you can plan to have larger crayons for a child with small motor delays. If you’re doing an obstacle course, you can plan an alternate course for a child with limited mobility. It’s also good to plan for the children you will meet for the first time. You may not know what their needs will be, but you can try to anticipate by asking yourself, “If this is too hard for a child to do, how could I make it easier?” and “If this is too easy for a child to do, how could I make it more challenging?” For example, if you’re playing with playdough, you might think, “What if a child had a sensory issue and can’t touch the sticky dough?” and then pack some child-sized gloves or a tool they can use instead of their hands to do the activity. If your activity includes a snack, what alternatives could you have on hand to accommodate allergies? You could even post plans about food or activities ahead of time so families can know to bring alternatives when necessary.
- Check your heart: Sometimes we can fall into the trap of grumbling when we have to do something “extra.” Keep in mind that caring for children with special needs means making sure they are safe and included. It’s not “additional” work—it’s part of the job. When we take the time to ensure ALL children feel valued by accommodating their needs, we are showing them the beautiful love of God. That’s the good kind of extra!