My first job after college was working as an Early Childhood Educator in the preschool room of a daycare. I loved that job — singing songs, telling stories, and going on imaginary lion hunts are great ways to spend one’s day! There were some challenges though. One of them came in the form of a 4-year-old boy named Zachary. Sitting without fidgeting during circle time was impossible for Zachary. He was more likely to throw a block than build with it. And during naptime, he would run ‘round and ‘ round the room flapping his arms instead of laying on his cot. It was difficult to connect with Zach and I remember feeling frustrated by that. I was also unsure about how to approach his mom about the situation.
Maybe you’ve experienced something similar with a child in your group. As children’s ministry leaders we want our programs to be inviting for everyone — including children with learning and behavioral challenges and the adults who bring them to us. But how can we connect with the children who respond and react in unanticipated ways? And how do we engage their parents/caregivers in ways that are inviting and encouraging?
In her Little Lambs and Story Hour Leaders’ webinar, Diane Dykgraaf points out that attending these programs may be the first time a child has experienced a structured environment with the opportunity to interact socially with other children. She also notes that because these children are so young, some may have learning and/or behavioral challenges that have not yet been diagnosed or recognized. “While this can be a big challenge,” says Dykgraaf, “it also provides an opportunity for ministry to the children and the family.” Emphasizing that how leaders respond to such situations can be important in the faith formation of the child and the child’s family, Dykgraaf suggests the following actions:
Observe. Have enough helpers in the room with you — especially in the first few weeks as you are getting to know the children — so that you can observe how each child is interacting with the other children, with the leaders, and with their parent.
Communicate. It’s important that you always communicate to the child in love, no matter how challenging a child’s behavior has been for you. The same applies to how you communicate with their parent — never have a conversation with a parent in which you tell them how bad their child was. When you speak with a parent about learning or behavioral challenges you have observed in their child, always communicate that you love the child, that you’ve observed something and you want to find ways to support, help and encourage the child. (In Part 2 of this series you’ll find an example of how to begin a conversation with a parent about their child.)
Ask. Seek out a helper to stick with the child who needs extra support and ask them to work one-on-one with that child.
Act. Consult with another leader and/or consult with an expert as appropriate to discover the best ways to support a child with learning or behavioral challenges. Resources that you (and your church) will find helpful as you seek to support and include all children: Learning Disabilities and the Church: Including All God’s Kids in Your Education and Worship, Autism and Your Church, and Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities.
Another valuable resource for leaders looking for ways to be inclusive of all learners is the Christian Learning Center Network’s blog, Making Us Whole. In a post titled "Include ALL Kids in VBS with these 9 Tips" you’ll find excellent ideas which could easily be adapted for use in Story Hour and Little Lambs including:
- Create a picture schedule to help children transition from one activity to the next.
- Make a simple Church Welcome Story to prepare children for your program.
- Provide parents with a questionnaire to help you get to know their child. Tip: Check out this free parent/family member survey for ideas on what you might include on such a questionnaire.
Diane Dygraaf says, “The relationships you build with these children is one of the most important things you will be doing. One of the biggest truths they will learn is that God loves them — and they need to experience that love through you.” Ensuring that all children are supported, encouraged and welcomed at Story Hour and Little Lambs demonstrates that all children are precious to you — and to God.
In Part 2, find out how to have an encouraging and supportive conversations with the parents/guardians of a child with learning or behavioral challenges.