As a former public school teacher, I often wondered how we could make children with special needs and their families feel welcome and invited. Was I doing enough? Now, as a developer of faith formation learning materials for Catholic children, I’m asking myself the same sorts of questions: Am I feeding children’s spiritual and emotional lives with the same sense of duty and fervor? How can we in our ministry help meet the needs of typically developing children as well as those with special needs?
One key in serving children with special needs is to make sure that our congregations, classes, and ministries are places where people can experience friendship and fellowship. Here are three suggestions to help bring the message of welcome to all people in your faith community:
- Develop awareness. Including children with special needs into the fabric of faith formation is no longer a special situation that needs to be accommodated. The first step is to develop awareness and educate ourselves and others about how to best serve every child. Talk to the families—many parents have already done research and are experts in understanding their child’s needs. Learn all you can from them. Contact advocacy groups for assistance. As you research groups that serve children with special needs, answer this question: What is one new idea or piece of information that I can use when working with children with special needs?
- Involve the parents. Parents are your key to understanding and interacting with children with special needs. Having an open, ongoing, and meaningful relationship with parents is crucial when working with a child with special needs. The child’s parents know him or her best. Whenever possible, offer opportunities for parents to become directly involved. For example, they could be classroom helpers, or encourage them to form a support network with other parents who have a child with special needs. Encourage all parents to help develop a welcoming, inclusive, and open attitude within their children.
- Respond to individuals. Work with the parents to determine the appropriate level of inclusion and how to best teach to the child’s strengths. Offer choices to children with special needs and their families. If a child can participate in a class service project, for example, then make sure the child has what he or she needs to join. If your youth ministry has an outing, check with the catechists and parents to ensure that a child with special needs can join. Let the child and his or her parents decide what the child can or cannot do. Every child has unique gifts; we want to help each child discover and use their gifts and share them with the faith community.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” As people who minister to youth, let’s all do our best to respond with open minds and welcoming hearts, not just for children with special needs, but for all God’s children.
Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press. Joellyn helped develop Loyola Press’s new products and resources for children with special needs, including Adaptive Finding God, the foremost faith formation program for children with autism and other special needs.