Working with kids with special needs in Sunday school

Oct 16, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Kathryn Watson


Sunday morning behavior can be a challenge for all kids, especially those whose behaviors fall outside of our usual tricks.  There’s quite a range here – from distracting noises and movements, to a refusal to follow directions, to meltdowns that seem to come out of nowhere.  Sometimes children’s ministry leaders are privy to the diagnosises that might explain these behaviors – and sometimes parents choose to keep the labels private.  But whatever we call it, some kids need a little extra understanding to participate successfully Sunday school.

You and your Sunday school volunteers may not have particular training in special education, but you can still use your limited time and resources to make your Sunday school welcoming to kids with diverse challenges.  And oh, behavior can be a challenge!  I wish I could give you a script, or a set of rules, that would ensure the participation of every kid you’ll come across – but behavior is more complicated than that.  So instead I offer the following encouragement as you map out a plan for working with the challenging kids in your Sunday school classroom:

Set realistic expectations

Some parents watch their kids struggle with behavior in school and want the weekend to be a time where they are accepted no matter what.  Other parents may see that their child does best when they have consistent behaviors across different settings.  Meet with the parents and learn their expectations for their child’s behavior in Sunday school.

Tap in to the family’s resources

When a kid has challenging behaviors at church, they likely have challenging behaviors elsewhere.  Their parents may have strategies of their own, or they may be working with their school, doctor, or a behavior therapist.  Talk to the parents about what works, and what you can use in your setting.  And when the parents don’t know all the answers, let them know it’s okay, their child is welcome, and you’re going to work through this with them.

Find a buddy

Consider if  the child would benefit from some one-on-one attention.  Does their behavior pose any sort of safety risk?  I once worked with a young escape artist, and it put everyone at ease to have an extra buddy in the room keeping an eye on him.

Find a routine

Behavior challenges often flare up when a kid doesn’t know what to expect.  Look for routines you can keep consistent from week to week – like your opening and closing prayers, specific spaces in the room where you sit for quiet vs. active work, or words you say when it is time to transition from one activity to the next.  This is especially important if you have several leaders taking turns in the classroom.  Listing a schedule for the day, in words or pictures, can also help a child feel in control in their environment.

Notice reactions

Challenging behaviors can be a learning experience for the other kids in the class too.  I once had a girl believe for weeks that she had caused a classmate’s meltdown because they were sitting next to each other when it happened. Check in with the rest of the class and answer their questions directly.

As a parent of a kid with special needs, I truly believe that the kids who learn alongside my son now will grow into the adults who make space for him in their workplaces, communities, and, of course, churches!


Finally, the most important item in your behavior toolkit is lots of grace.  Grace for the child, of course, and grace for you as a leader.  Having an orderly Sunday school classroom isn’t always the best indicator that ministry is happening.  Even when a situation may feel chaotic, kids know when you love them enough to stick by them.


Check out our other blog posts to support kids with special needs in Sunday school. 

Topics: Children Ministry, Sunday School

Kathryn Watson

Written by Kathryn Watson

Kathryn Watson encourages faith formation in families through her work as a Sunday school director at Plymouth Congregational Church UCC in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  She and her husband have two sons with very different learning personalities—and they inspire her to keep finding ways to make the church more accommodating.


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