Mark Arnold suggests that with a little thought and activity, your church can be the most additional needs community in your neighbourhood
I don’t know about you, but I’ve tried to keep the festive season going as long as possible, hanging on to the Christmas tree until the last needle had dropped and stretching out the leftover food in as many creative ways as possible. I’m always the last in our street to be taking the plethora of lights down from the outside of the house! But eventually we all need to launch ourselves into the New Year, and so here’s a checklist of 12 things to do that will help your children’s and youth work, whenever that starts back, to be as inclusive as possible for children with additional needs and disabilities, to help create belonging for all. Hopefully a list of ideas, along with links to further information, that will last a bit longer than the rest of our New Year resolutions!!
1. Appoint an Inclusion Champion
The single most important, transforming, strategy that a church can put in place is to appoint someone who ‘owns’ inclusion within the church. To look critically at the things the church does through the lived experiences of the children, young people, and families that you reach. What is hard for them to access? What modifications can be easily made to improve things? Who needs to make these modifications, and how?
They provide a primary point of contact for children and young people with additional needs and their families, although having this role in place doesn’t let the rest of the team off from being involved in ensuring inclusion works for everyone! Who can be your ‘Inclusion Champion’?
Further info: youtube.com
2. Be ready, do an accessibility audit
Don’t just wait for a child or young person with additional needs to arrive before you do something; plan and be prepared. The first step should be to do an accessibility audit of the activity, event or programme that you help to run. Is there a website, or some publicity material; is this accessible for someone with additional needs? Is the venue accessible; can children and young people with additional needs easily get in, move around, access the facilities? Are there any hazards that need to be addressed? Is it too cluttered and overwhelming?
What about the programme or activity itself? Is it offering options for children and young people with additional needs? If there is an activity that is likely to provide a trigger point for some additional needs, e.g. something that is loud; are there measures in place to help support children and young people who might struggle, e.g. ear defenders or a quiet ‘safe space’? Think about the children and young people who might come; will the activity be accessible for them, can you adapt it so that it is?
An accessibility audit sheet is here: energize.uk.net
3. Develop support strategies with parents and carers and the young people themselves
More often than not we tend to be reactive to the arrival of a child or young person with additional needs, rather than anticipating their arrival and being ready with strategies in place so that they can be included in any activity that the church offers.
Understanding what support strategies are in place in other areas of their life, e.g. school or home, and bringing them into our church activities, provides us with a ready-made set of ideas to try, as well as providing consistency and continuity. The information from the one-page-profiles will help us here too (see ‘6’ below).
Be careful though, as parents and carers will be at different points on their own journey with their child and their child’s diagnosis. Understanding their perspective will help us to help their child, as well as to help in identifying any pastoral support needs for parents and carers.
Further info (blog): theadditionalneedsblogfather.com
4. Smile, and mean it!
We all know that first impressions mean a lot, and the first impression that a child or young person and their family can often receive on arrival is of someone looking panicky, disappointed, or appearing downright hostile that a child or young person with additional needs has come. People’s reactions become visible in their facial expression, and those looks can hurt.
So, when you see a child or young person with additional needs arriving, think of the positive ways that including them will be great for everyone; it will help if you’ve already anticipated their arrival and planned for it (see 2. above). And smile, really meaning it; let your face show a welcome, not a worry.
5. Greet children and young people by name
As they arrive with you, say hello to children and young people with additional needs. Call them by their name so that they know that you remember them and care enough to know their name. Ask them how they are doing, take an interest in them, tell them a little about the things that are going to happen in the session and explore with them, and if appropriate their family, what support they might need. Get to know them and their family, learn from their experience and knowledge. Maybe you could create a ‘social story’, a sheet that uses photo’s, symbols and words to explain a bit about the club or event. You can find out more about social stories here:
Further info (resources): reachoutasc.com
6. Get one-page-profiles done for every child and young person
Asking parents how their child likes to be supported and helped, and what they enjoy doing, is likely to unlock useful and helpful conversation. One-page-profiles are a great way of doing this and can provide useful information about every child we work with, as well as being good fun too! And remember to ask children and young people themselves about how they like to be supported; inclusion should always involve the person being included; be ‘done with them’, not ‘done unto them’.
Further info (resources): sheffkids.co.uk
7. Have someone they can ask for help
Some children and young people with additional needs can become anxious and stressed if they are left to cope on their own. Not knowing where they are in the programme, what is happening now/next, what is expected of them, can build up to the point where they struggle to cope and this may result in a meltdown which can be hard for them and for others.
Providing one-to-one support can make a big difference, giving a young person someone who can help them understand what is happening and what they are supposed to be doing. Checking that they are coping and knowing what to do if they are struggling. Sometimes other young people can fulfil this role as ‘Buddies’. Visual timetables (see 11. below) can be used here too as a way for children and young people and their helpers to know what’s happening now and next, and when important points like ‘snack time’ and ‘home time’ are happening!
Further info (blog): theadditionalneedsblogfather.com
8. Use what they enjoy doing to help them learn
We learn best when our learning is fun, engaging us in activities that we enjoy and are good at, matching our preferred learning style, ‘watching’, ‘listening’ or in most cases ‘doing’. It’s no different for children and young people with additional needs.
They might be really good at jigsaw puzzles; get them to build a jigsaw of the story or theme you are sharing. Maybe they like Lego? Get them building something from the Bible, such as a Lego version of the Temple of Jerusalem, or a diorama of Abraham and Isaac, and did you know there is a (Lego) Brick Bible?
Young people spend time in the online world, so why not get them building Bible scenes online? Creating Jericho in Minecraft and then marching around it before bringing it crashing down would be a great way to bring the story to life! And did you know there is a Minecraft Bible too, as well as a Minecraft Bible stories YouTube channel?
Further info (resources): youtube.com
Thinking creatively about how we set up our children’s and youth groups, maybe looking at focusing on interest areas rather than strict age groups, might be another way to give us a better opportunity to include everyone and create belonging for all!
Further info (video): youtube.com
9. Think about sensory support
Sensory overload can be a common issue for children and young people with a range of additional needs and so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this is essential. A sensory ‘calm’ zone, equipped with calming lighting, relaxing sounds, beanbags/floormats, and safe things for children to engage with to help them relax, will be helpful. A simple pair of ear defenders can make all the difference between someone being able to enjoy the programme or being in physical pain because of the noise.
We all learn and engage with activities in different ways, but our senses play a fundamental and vital role in how we explore and understand things too. Are the activities we are providing accessing as many senses as possible? If you are telling a story, for example, are you just reading the story and expecting the children and young people to listen, or are you creatively employing all of their senses, giving them things to see, touch, smell, and do? The more sensory and interactive the activity is, the more children and young people will be equipped to engage successfully with it.
Another useful addition to the kit list is a ‘fiddles’ box. This contains a selection of items that can be stretched, squeezed, spun, clicked or simply fiddled with! The sensory input that this provides can be calming, or aid focus and concentration.
Further info (resources): theadditionalneedsblogfather.com
10. Have ‘activity breaks’
If there is a part of the programme coming up where the children and young people will be needing to really focus and concentrate, help them to prepare for this by giving them an ‘activity break’ first to help to regulate their systems. This could be some exercises, some stretching, maybe a short walk, or if this isn’t possible then giving them some theraputty to squeeze for example. These ‘activity breaks’ can help wake up a child’s system that is under-responsive, and calm down a child’s system that is over-responsive.
11. Communicate clearly
One of the most common triggers that can cause difficulties for a child or young person with additional needs is when they don’t know what is happening now or next. A simple visual timetable, using words, photo’s and symbols as appropriate for each child or young person that needs it, can give reassurance and understanding. Alongside a sequence of each activity in the programme, a photo of the child, attached to a strip of velcro, that they can move along step by step as the programme continues, can give them confidence in what is happening now, what is expected of them, and what is coming next. The link to the ReachoutASC site given earlier provides some example downloadable visuals, and you can also find some visual timetables here:
Further info (resources): additionalneedsalliance.org.uk
(Note: Click on ‘Resources’ then ‘Visual Timetables’)
12. Feedback to families
At the end of the session there is a valuable moment that we shouldn’t overlook; a time to feedback to families about how their child or young person has got on during the session. What have they enjoyed, what did they struggle with, are they happy or sad. It is important to keep this feedback upbeat, we’ve all been there filled with dread when a stressed looking teacher has been striding across the playground towards us, so focus on the positives while also seeking ideas to help with areas of struggle. If there isn’t time to have conversations with every family, maybe design a simple feedback sheet that can be filled in as you go through the session.
And here’s a ‘bonus’ suggestion for those of you that have made it this far!
13. Journey with others that are doing this too
It can sometimes feel hard figuring all of this out on your own, but it doesn’t have to be that way! There are others who are figuring this out too, and who may be further down the road than you and so can offer you the benefits of their experience. Maybe you can also offer help to others who are just starting out on their journey.
Join the Additional Needs Alliance, a collective of children’s and youth workers, church leaders, practitioners, parents and more who together provide a supportive learning community; a safe place to ask questions, access resources, or just learn from each other’s stories.
Further info (Facebook Group):
(Note: You will be asked a couple of admin questions the first time you connect)
I hope this checklist of ideas gives you a great, inclusive, start to the New Year in your children’s and youth groups and helps to create a place where everyone belongs.
Happy New Year!