Many of us are overwhelmed by the idea of starting a special-needs ministry from scratch. But really, some small changes and preparations can go a long way in helping your ministry be more special-needs ready. While actually launching a full-blown special-needs program is a much bigger undertaking, being prepared for kids and families who may walk through your door with special needs isn’t as overwhelming as you might think! Here are five things to think about.

1. Definition. What do you and your children’s ministry team mean by the term “special needs”? The definition has broadened over the years. Check with educators and specialists in your church and create a working definition of how you will all understand and reference special needs. Consider taking medical, learning, behavioral, developmental, and mental health issues into consideration in your definition. Get on the same page!

2. Protocol. What’s the drill? When a brand-new family walks into your ministry area with a kid who has special needs, you can help them feel safe and welcome by already having a plan. The parents may already be on high alert because they’re used to running into barriers. They often can’t just fit into what we might call the “normal” rhythms of life. You have an opportunity to offer them a place of acceptance by communicating to them, “Even before we knew you were coming, we were getting ready for you!”

3. Visitor. Each child with special needs brings a unique story. You can’t be prepared for every possibility when that guest walks through the door, so cover your bases with a couple of basics: a buddy and a schedule. You may not have a bunch of volunteers just sitting around waiting for a job to do, so your special-needs buddy for guests might not be one of your weekly ministry partners. Have someone (perhaps an educator in your church, or a special-education teacher) pre-assigned to this position. They’ll be prepared to give their Sunday morning to the role whenever a visitor comes. Ensure they are properly background checked and enrolled in your volunteer program, even if they only volunteer occasionally. Your special-needs buddy (give them a title) can plan to help out for the first week or two while you form a more unique program with the parents. Also, provide a schedule for the parents and the child. This helps everyone feel a little more in control. They know what’s coming, what the morning or evening looks like, when transitions happen, etc.

4. Program. After the first week, don’t miss your opportunity to follow up with the family! Go above and beyond to continue to promote acceptance and hospitality. Meet with the parents to put together a program for what your gathered times need to look like. What does success look like for their child? Will they need a buddy each week? A special schedule? It might just be a special type of redirection from the teacher, or something extra to do with their hands. Find a program you’re all comfortable with. Make everyone who will be working with the child and family aware of the program so they know what to expect. If needed, it’s even okay to address the other kids in the ministry. It will help promote acceptance among them if they know why that child has a schedule that’s a little different from theirs, or why there’s always an extra adult in the room now, etc.

5. Sensory Tub. As a general rule, have a sensory tub available in each classroom and gathering space. I wrote about this in a blog about helping wiggly kids. This is a tub (box/crate/bag) containing manipulatives to keep hands or feet busy. Try a stress toy (not a ball, so there’s no temptation to bounce, throw, or roll it) or something bendable that they can twist around their fingers. Keep clipboards with paper and crayons for coloring. Buy a few fidget spinners, cubes, or pencils. For their feet, you can buy rolls of resistance bands to cut and tie horizontally around the legs of a chair so they go across like footrests. Kids can sit and bounce their feet on them. It’s quiet, and it keeps them moving! Keep a tub of manipulatives in each of your children’s ministry rooms.

It’s hard to cover such a vast and complex issue in only five points, but this gets the conversation started. In general, be adaptable and hospitable. Make sure a special-needs family leaves saying, “Wow. They REALLY want us to come to this church!” And not only do you want them back, you need them back! Those families with special needs make our churches a more complete picture of the kingdom.