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Tips on Working with Children with Disabilities

Here are some tips for working with children with disabilities in a church or ministry setting. The guiding principle behind all of these tips: the child comes first; a disability does not make a child less human, valuable, in need of love and parenting, etc.

General tips

  • Ask parents about their children. Allow them and their children to direct the conversation, such as what to talk about or not to talk at that time.
  • If new parents find out that their unborn child is anticipated to have a disability, or their new baby has a disability, remain excited and eager to congratulate them on the pregnancy or birth. Connecting them with families who have had similar diagnoses/experiences can go a long way in alleviating potential anxiety.
  • Ask children or their parents about the child’s interests, gifts, and hobbies as you would for any child.
  • Don’t assume. Realize that life with a child who has a disability can be both very similar and very different from parenting non-disabled children. It may be difficult mentally, physically, and emotionally for parents and for siblings, or it may be easier and more joyful than you would predict. Listen to learn, celebrate, and support.
  • Realize that parents and siblings are doing the best they can. Ask parents, or someone who knows them, if there is any way you can lend a helping hand, and then be willing to offer specific suggestions of what you might do.
  • See that your church not only welcomes children with disabilities but also takes responsibility for their spiritual, educational, and social needs, as you would for non-disabled peers.
  • When looking to support a child in religious education, talk to the child and their parents about different teaching and socializing methods used at school and at home that have been successful.
  • Children grow up! Sometimes adult children with disabilities will remain with their parents, but they are still adults. Remember to find age-appropriate materials for adults with disabilities.

Disruptive or “difficult” behavior in children with disabilities

When it comes to children with sensory, intellectual, or emotional disabilities, we are often quick to assume that all behavior situations are negative and require mitigation. 

Remember that all behavior is communication. 

Rather than assuming that behavioral responses are the “fault” of the person/child with the disability, we need to acknowledge that the starting point is often an unmet need or other forms of communication that have not been understood. So try to identify what the person is attempting to communicate. Sometimes their actions simply convey the urgency of their unmet need, and make every effort to meet the need before that level of communication is used. Sometimes we need to work with people to express their needs differently through practices such as “Positive Behavior Intervention.” Positive Behavior Intervention means that we model, encourage, and reward behavior that is publicly acceptable. 

Some disabilities can impact a person’s ability to follow specific rules or behave in a particular way. With this in mind, we want to work together with the person/child with a disability, their family, volunteers, and others to help the person succeed in their environment without being a danger to themselves or others.

Tips for responding to disruptive or difficult behaviors

  • Listen. Be flexible. Use a lot of positive encouragement.
  • Give five minutes’ notice before switching activities.
  • Consider using social stories to help all participants process Bible stories, activities, and events.
  • Talk with a person’s loved ones to better understand the methods that will lead to successful and complete participation in church activities.
  • Limit visual and auditory distractions. Headphones can work, but where possible be careful not to single out someone with a disability. Making headphones available to everyone can be a way of doing this—others may need them too! Headphones can be great for students with sensory input sensitivities.
  • Offer a safe, structured, predictable environment.
  • Allow the person a brief time to respond after direction.
  • Designate a space where a person can go when beginning to experience difficulty. Depending on the person, this might work better with a support person or without.
  • Demonstrate, reward, and expect respect between all participants. Recognize, though, that “respect” can look different coming from each person. As an example, some people will look you in the eye to convey respect. Others may find this difficult or consider it a form of disrespect.
  • Avoid power struggles; allow the person to make choices wherever possible with language such as this: “It seems like you are having a hard time. I need you to decide whether you will give up on that behavior or take a break.” 
  • Talk with the person and/or family members for suggestions on how to prepare for, prevent, or manage difficult situations. Develop a plan for how the person can express themselves, and expected follow-up when challenging behavior presents itself. 
  • If the person is a student, discuss methods that have been successful in school and utilize those.
  • What is happening when the behavior occurs? What can be done to adapt the environment to avoid that situation in the future?
  • Work with the family to know when behavior is attention-seeking or not. Sometimes ignoring attention-seeking behavior is the best course of action. 
  • Again, pay close attention to the environment! Some things that many of us never notice bother others (such as people/children with autism, or with sensory integration sensitivities). Examples include the hum of fluorescent lights, the scent of someone’s body wash, the feel of a tag on the inside of their shirt, the breeze on their skin, etc.

(Adapted from Ashley Peterson’s Disability Resource Manual: A Practical Guide for Churches and Church Leaders, Appendix D. See also Redirecting Challenging Behaviors, a 40-minute training video for children and youth leaders by Barbara J. Newman.) 

Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.

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