There are so many little changes or improvements that can be made to what your church is already doing. By making these small changes, we can invite more individuals into worship services, Sunday school or Bible Study, and into the community of our congregations. Which modification will you START with?
Adding pictures allows people to visualize a task, an emotion, or an activity in a concrete way. Try adding clip art or creative touches to typical church documents like event flyers, bulletins, Bible study material, etc. Symbols that tell people when to stand or sit, sing out loud, or pray quietly will help ease anxiety and prime success for all participants. Using certain pictures or symbols for different areas of ministry may also help people find the area in which they serve or find interest.
Many folks- from children to adults- are learning social timing, self-regulation, and the ability to set limits on activities. Many people cannot easily go from high intensity or high energy activities into lower intensity or low energy activities without transition time. Transition time can range from a few seconds to a few minutes, but this is crucial time for a person to prepare for what's next by mentally, emotionally, and physically letting go and moving forward from their current task. Much of our work, as leaders in the church, is to help prime people to confront the rollercoaster of changes and challenges in life so that their faith and faith community stay in tact and grow deeper. Ways to help with transitions may include a schedule, a countdown, or a wait plan (all described below). Another way to help kids prepare for transitions is to create social stories of activities or events which MAY occur. Social stories are also described below.
Create a Schedule
In Sunday worship, bulletins serve as a type of schedule. Think of offering Sunday school classes with the same idea. Use laminated pictures or words and place them in order of what you will be doing that day. As you complete one of the activities, take that picture/word away. Being able to tell participants, “FIRST WE GET TO… and THEN WE GET TO…” is a terrific way to prime them for the activities they can participate in. A schedule provides a person with a sense of purpose, direction and hope. It also reminds the leaders what comes next and helps them prepare better for that transition.
As an activity is coming to a close, help people make a smoother transition by giving a countdown. A countdown could mean saying that the participants have 5 more minutes of a certain activity, and then count down each minute until the time with that activity is over. For example, during coloring time, a leader could say, “In five minutes we will clean up our coloring.” And then they can count down every minute until the activity time is over. Another way to do a countdown would be to put a number of times an activity can be done. For example- “You may bounce the ball three more times - one, two, three. Thank you - we had our three turns.” Countdowns set a limit to an activity but also provide a transition time for the child to enjoy a few more minutes of an activity.
Create a Wait Plan
Even as adults, we don’t always wait well. Think about the last time you had to wait - in line at the grocery store, in the car in rush hour, at the doctor’s office… How did you react? What did you do while waiting? We all have a “wait plan.” In the store, we may peruse the magazines; in rush hour, we may call someone or turn on the radio; and at the doctor’s office, we may bring a book to pass the time. Children, youth, and adults are all developing and reinventing waiting plans. A waiting plan may be needed as Sunday school is ending and parents have not yet arrived from the worship service, when in line to travel somewhere in a group, when taking turns in a group activity, or even during times of prayer or silence. Wait plans could include quietly counting something found in the room, like the number of pens. Wait plans could be drawing a picture or reading a book. There are so many options for people to invest their time in something productive while waiting.
Create a Leaders Picture Book
Help your congregation connect instantly with the leaders in the church. Providing a book with pictures of volunteers, as well as a short bio or interests list from those volunteers, helps people get to know the leaders (and each other). Another way that the picture book idea can be used is to print and laminate the picture and name of all volunteers. Whoever is teaching Sunday school that morning would place their picture/name up on the door before participants arrive. When participants arrive, they already know the name and the face of the person(s) who will care for them.
Create a “Proud to be Me” Booklet for each child
This can be a fun activity for parents or leaders in the church to do with persons who need extra support. This information is crucial in case of a medical emergency or during a difficult time with an individual. This may help leaders know an item or phrase that will bring calm to a child, motivate a child, or provide space for a child to release energy or intense emotions. This information should NOT be shared outside of the classroom and should be locked away when the child is not participating. It is important to honor and respect the information parents share with leaders by keeping conversations about the knowledge shared through this booklet in the classroom.
- picture of themselves
- age and birthdate
- parents contact info
- emergency contact info
- food allergies
- favorite toys or activities
- typical behavior - how to respond to non-typical behavior
- work/reward system or behavior/reward system
- what else should we know about your child?
Some families may desire a “buddy” to sit with their family or with an individual with a disability during worship times, Sunday school, small groups, or church events. Ultimately, this is the decision of the family. Many families living a person with special needs find it difficult to worship together on Sunday mornings or participate as a family in ministry events for various reasons. Being able to provide a person who will learn about individual’s exceptionalities and care for that individual so that a family may worship together is an amazing way to serve the congregation. The “Buddy System” can be supported by many ministries within the church, but the youth ministry is a great place to begin shaping in young persons what it means to serve all of God’s children.
What is a Hidden Curriculum?
Hidden curriculums are small cues, events, phrases, etc. that “everyone knows” but were never taught. For example, “Everyone knows you only put money into the offering plate, never take it out,” or that, “When there is Special Music I am not supposed to sing with them.” These are small “common sense” things that occur within the life of our churches, yet a person living with a disability may have difficulty picking up on those "unwritten rules." Below are some examples of hidden curriculums as well as ways to prepare a book or flash cards that describe these common church events in a way that primes individuals for success.
Some disabilities make it difficult for indiviuals to understand the subtle components of communication, recognize non-verbal cues, or realize what they themselves are communicating. Directly teaching non-verbal cues through role-play games or by looking at media examples may aid in increased comfort with social interaction.
Many persons, regardless of ability, benefit from having predictable schedules that exhibit routine, structure, and transition time between events and activities. Priming is key to creating predictable schedules, and when changes occur to daily plans, a wait plan is very useful. Priming a schedule means preparing an individual for the events of the day, the events within an activity, or providing a countdown to the next activity.
Baptism is the way my family and friends show me they love me. God loves baptism, too. In my church, baptism is when the pastor sprinkles water on a baby’s head. The baby may cry, but the baby is okay. The water reminds me that God loves me. I may hear the pastor say, “Remember your baptism and give thanks.” I may get to read our loud with the whole congregation. This part is loud, but I get to be a part of it!
Communion is the way we remember Jesus. Communion is when Jesus wants me to eat a snack with Him to remember how much He loves me. In my church, I get to walk down the aisle to get the snack. I will wait for the usher to come to my pew and tell me where to go. I will stay in line with my family and friends. There will be two people who meet me and say things to me. The first person may say, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” I will tear off a small piece of bread that that person is holding . The second person may say, “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” I will dip just the tip of the bread into the cup with grape juice. I will say, “Thank you,” and eat the bread. I will follow the person in front of me back to my pew and sit down. Some people like to be quiet after sitting down. I will be quiet, too.
The church helps many people with the money that people give. When the plate with money is handed to me, I may put money into the plate, but never take money out of the plate. Then I will hand the plate down the pew. This money will help many families.
Passing of the Peace
At my church, there will be time for me to say, “Good Morning” to other people who are near me. The pastor will tell me when to stand up and greet people. When someone greets me, I may greet them back. I may shake someone else’s hand and I may say “Good Morning.” When I hear music, it is time to start singing and I can greet more people after service is over.
At my church, after Sunday morning service, there will be time to say “Hello” to people. I may eat one donut hole and have one cup of juice. I will stay in the fellowship room with my friends and family. My parents or caretaker want me to say “Hello” to three people each week. I will not run around or sit in the corner. I will listen to my parents or caretaker when they say, “It is time to leave.”
There is a special time for just kids at my church. During the morning service, my pastor will invite all the kids up to the front steps. I may choose to join the other kids in the front of the church. I will choose where to sit and stay there. We may listen to an adult tell us a story, we may play a game, or we may answer questions that the adult asks us. These are fun things to do with the other kids. I may say a prayer with the adult and the other kids. I will fold my hands and bow my head. I will try to be quiet and listen to the adult. When I hear the song “Jesus Loves Me,” I will walk back to my seat to sit with my parents.
When I pray, I talk with God. I can tell God about anything. We should take time to pray to God. We may talk to God quietly by ourselves. People usually put their hands together and bow their heads. Quiet prayer usually happens on Sunday mornings. In small groups of people, I may talk to God by telling other people about good things and bad things in my life. People will listen to my story. Listening to other people’s stories is very important, too. When I am finished talking with God, I will listen for as long as I can. Sometimes I may hear God talk to me. When I am finished listening for God, I will say, “Amen.”