Jesus has always been a part of my life. I grew up in a Christian home – my dad was a pastor, which meant church wasn’t just for Sunday, we lived it every day in our home. I’d always read the Bible and prayed. And I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher – it was something God had planned for me from the very beginning.
God specifically put working with children with additional needs on my heart early on. I had friends in school with additional needs and I was always the one to make an effort to befriend others like them. But it wasn’t until I was 14, when I visited a school for children with additional needs where my mum worked, that I truly fell in love with it. Now in my early 20s, I’m a teacher at a similar school.
I love my job, but I get a mixture of reactions when I tell people what I do. Most people say: “Wow, that’s amazing,” or “I could never do that.” Some say: “Oh, that’s nice” – that’s when people don’t actually understand (I meet a surprising number of adults who have never met a child with additional needs and they just assume every child I teach is in a wheelchair or speaks in a funny way, which is not true). Others will say: “That’s so sad.” This is the reaction I want to change, because I would never think of the needs of children as being sad. Their journey may be difficult and at times sad, but the fact that they have additional needs isn’t.
Every single child has been created by God, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and therefore there’s nothing sad about that. Every child I teach was planned by God – he knitted them together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13) and they were born according to his plan. I think there’s so much about the image of God that we can learn from how these children see the world and how they live. They are loved by God and entitled to everything every other child is.
We live in a culture of looking away, hushing those who ask questions and not prioritising those with additional needs – something the Church ought to be changing. The mother of one boy I teach is a passionate Christian, but she struggles to take her son to church. Because of his needs, he has some unusual but very joyful behaviours meaning he can be quite loud or unable to sit still. When she takes him to church, there is often a negative reaction from those around her, asking if she can make him sit nicely and listen, but that’s just not him. There’s this misconception that he’s being naughty or that she’s a bad parent. This is heartbreaking, because church should be the most inclusive place.
I want to spread the message to church communities not to tiptoe around children with additional needs, but to accept them for who they are, acknowledging their differences but knowing their differences don’t make them any less able to access what you’ve got.
Find people in your community who have experience with those who have additional needs. Ask parents of children with additional needs how you can help them access the kids’ work – make time to figure out what works for them. If Jesus met a child with additional needs, he would’ve spent quality time with them. All children have the same right to know and learn about Jesus and spend time in God’s presence.
My life would be lacking a lot if I didn’t work with children with additional needs. They bring real joy to my life and, because of them, I love my job even when it is hard. They have taught me so much about compassion and patience and I can only imagine how churches not involved in this kind of work are missing out. Often people say: “Working with special needs children must give you such a good feeling.” But it’s not about what I feel or validating myself. I do it because I love the children I teach and want to serve them, and I know that God has given me a passion for this, so I’m going to use it.
At work, I get to have a strong relationship with every child, but they’re not my children – they have parents and it’s not my job to educate them about religion any more than the curriculum allows. I know that if I have my own children I will want to spend time praying with them and teaching them about people with differences. We need to teach compassion from the get-go. I would want to make time to educate my children about additional needs and to ask questions when it’s appropriate – because a lot of parents are happy to talk or answer any difficult questions you or young people may have.
So much of what we do at school is based on what we model to the children and the positive environment they are in – so I want churches to know that even if a child can’t speak to you, pray with them (this isn’t just about praying for them – it’s getting alongside them). Even if it appears children aren’t listening or can’t hear, or perhaps they won’t sit still or will talk over you, you can never know the value that sitting and praying with them will have. Similarly, taking the time to read the Bible or sharing the good news with children with additional needs is invaluable. We can all get involved in welcoming those with different needs into our community – God’s Church should be all-inclusive, loving and welcoming to every child of God.