7 Strategies to Equip Volunteers to Include Children and Teens with Disabilities
As your children or youth ministry prepares to kick off the start of the new school year, you will have children and teens walk through your doors that bring a wide range of gifts, needs, and abilities. An essential element of preparing your ministry to receive individuals with disabilities is equipping your church volunteers.
There are many things you can do to equip volunteers to support and include children and teens with a wide range of abilities during a formal volunteer training and throughout the ministry year. Here are seven strategies to get you started:
Communicate the vision.
Help volunteers catch the vision of the program they are working in. Share how individuals with disabilities are a vital part of living out your vision for God’s kingdom.
Address specific student needs.
Is there a child with autism spectrum disorder, a kiddo with attention needs, a teenager with Down syndrome, or a young person with mental illness? Make sure you ask parents/guardians the right questions about each individual’s gifts and needs, and communicate this information (as appropriate) with volunteers. Seek training (whether in-person or DVD) on specific disabilities or differences and share this information with your staff.
Learning from experienced volunteers can be particularly beneficial to new volunteers. Provide opportunities for a new volunteer to observe someone who is experienced working with a person who has a specific need or with persons with disabilities in general.
Give volunteers tools to be successful.
Depending on the age group your volunteers are working with, provide fidget, sound, and seating options for kids and youth. Sound blockers (such as headphones and acoustic paneling) and designated quiet spaces can be helpful for kids that need a break from loud noises. We recommend using picture schedules and Time Timers to provide structure (plus, learn more about the importance of establishing a routine in this blog).
Create a resource binder or notebook for every volunteer with tips and resources. If there are children or youth with specific special needs, we encourage you to create a “welcome page” using the information you collected about their gifts and needs on your intake form (click here to download a free intake form and sample welcome page).
Provide adequate staffing.
Whether it’s through an adult aide, peer buddy, or older youth, provide your volunteer leaders with staffing support to help all children or youth be successful in your programming.
Offer worship options.
Encourage your worship leaders to consider the variety of gifts and needs present in your group and how each person can use their gifts to glorify God. Do you have children or teens who are non-verbal or need to constantly move? Consider offering flags or ribbons for individuals to wave during worship. Are there individuals in your group who interpret everything literally? Be careful with the language you use (the phrase, “Give your heart to Jesus” may be quite scary to some literal thinkers!).
Read Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J. Newman as a group and discuss how your ministry can help each person—regardless of ability–grow in their faith and express their worship to God.
Think about peers.
Regardless if you’re working with children or teenagers, peers need God-honoring information to best understand and come alongside their peer with a disability. A note of caution: it’s essential to gain parent’s permission before sharing any information with peers!
Depending on your ministry, providing information to peers may involve a teaching on the body of Christ depicted in 1 Corinthians 12, a lesson plan involving pink and green puzzle pieces to represent the gifts and needs of every person within God’s giant puzzle (be inspired by this example), a “Get to Know Me” session with the person with a disability, or a monthly teaching/devotional on including persons with varied abilities. Depending on your group, it may be important to provide specific training (for peers and volunteers) on how to interact with, react to, and include the person with the disability in your setting.
Peers may ask volunteers questions about their new friend. Provide a way for peers to ask questions through a designated “question box”, during a “Get to Know Me” session, or within a safe small group setting.
Be available to offer support.
Whether it’s through a phone call, weekly email newsletter, Facebook group, or monthly coffee, let volunteers know you are there to support them. Show your appreciation for their time with encouraging notes throughout the year.
Explore these resources for more ideas and tools to support all children and youth in your ministry:
- Universal Design for Worship: Shaping worship for people of all abilities training event on September 13, 2016 in Grand Rapids, MI
- Church Welcome Story by Barbara J. Newman
- Helpings Kids Include Kids with Disabilities by Barbara J. Newman
- Every Child Welcome by Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo
- TOGETHER Curriculum from Friendship Ministries
Do you have additional tips? Share your ideas in the comment box below!
Kim Luurtsema is a church consultant for All Belong. She has a background in special education and has served in children’s ministry for more than twenty years.