When I was a special education teacher, I spent five days a week, six hours a day for 180 days with my students. I quickly got to know their strengths, their likes and dislikes, and challenges and was able to use all of that information in creating and implementing support plans for each student. When I attempted to transfer my knowledge and skills to disability ministry in the local church, I quickly learned how difficult it can be to determine effective supports for children whom I was only able to see a few Sundays a month for 75 minutes at a time. In all of my experiences and consultations with churches of all shapes and sizes all throughout the country (and beyond), many children’s ministry staff cite lack of frequency and lack of consistent attendance as barriers to creating accessible, supportive classroom environments. With a bit of intentional observation, teamwork, and clear communication, you can utilize the resources you have and collective experiences of volunteers, caregivers, and children to create thoughtful, affirming, and effective supports for children in your ministry.
Spend a few weeks observing the child in the classroom environment. During this time, ensure that there are enough volunteers/staff in the classroom so that you are able to focus on observation and data collection, rather than observing and teaching a lesson, overseeing a craft project, or running a group game. Take notes on your phone or a pad of paper if needed (and ensure those notes maintain appropriate levels of confidentiality).
In your observations, it will be helpful to note the following:
- What activities does the child seem to enjoy?
- How does the child communicate preferences and needs?
- How does the child respond to their caregiver at pick up and drop off?
- How does the child move through transitions?
- How does the child interact with peers?
- How does the child interact with adults?
- When does the child seem most happy?
- When does the child appear sad or frustrated?
In most cases, there are likely different sets of volunteers scheduled each week in the child’s class and different sets of peers who attend each week, so observing the child multiple times is ideal. After multiple weeks of observation, you should have a decently accurate picture of the child’s strengths and identified areas of support needs. This information will be invaluable as you begin to create and communicate a support plan.
Ask Thoughtful Questions
While observation allows us to see things with our own eyes, the reality is that we cannot see or know everything through observation alone. You will want to ask thoughtful questions of classroom volunteers, the child’s caregiver, and the child themselves as you begin to create a support plan.
Classroom volunteers are on the frontlines on Sunday mornings making connections with children and caregivers, communicating within their volunteer teams, and responding in real time to the needs of a child. Oftentimes, it is a classroom volunteer who is the first to identify a need for support for a child or inquire about supports that may be available.
In addition to asking volunteers questions found in the observation section above, they may also be able to provide insight on the following?:
- What toys or activities does the child usually prefer?
- Does the child usually play with others or play alone?
- If the child chooses to play with others, who do they usually play with?
- Has the child shown any signs of fear or distress? Under what circumstances?
- Is the child potty trained? Are they able to use the restroom independently?
If you have not already, invest time into building trust with the child’s caregiver before asking questions. It is important to communicate care rather than judgment, thus building rapport and trust are central to creating an effective support strategy for the child.
After appropriate trust is established, helpful questions to ask the child’s caregiver include:
- (If the child is of school age) What is school like for your child? What supports does your child receive at school?
- What activities does your child like to do at home?
- How does your child communicate needs and wants at home?
- How does your child feel about coming to church?
- How does your family feel about coming to church?
Just as it is important to build trust with the caregiver, it is also incredibly important to build trust with the child. Children, like humans of all ages, long to be known and loved. You want to create a plan that reflects that child being known and loved, so spending time establishing a safe, positive relationship with the child is crucial.
If the child communicates verbally, and depending on their developmental age, asking the child some (or all) of the following questions can help yield information needed to create and implement an effective support plan:
- What do you like about church?
- (if the child is of school age) What is your favorite part about school?
- What is your least favorite part about school?
- What do you like to do for fun?
If the child does not communicate verbally, you may have to spend more time observing the child and ask more questions to volunteers and caregivers to obtain the information needed to create an appropriate support plan.
Asking questions communicates that supporting a child is a team effort and that all perspectives are valued and considered. Asking thoughtful questions will provide a more complete picture of the strengths and current areas of need for the child than observation alone.
Communicate the Plan Clearly and Consistently
It is incredibly important to clearly communicate that this plan is not to “fix” the child but to support the child. We are not in the business of “fixing” people, but rather in the business of loving and caring for others well. Thoughtfully creating and implementing supports for children are practical ways we can love and care for families and children. Once you draft a strategic support plan for the child, be sure to communicate the details of that plan to the classroom volunteers/other staff members, caregivers, and the child in a clear, timely, and caring manner. Supports are much more likely to be successful when implemented consistently and when everyone involved is informed of the plan’s purpose and specifics. It is also wise to communicate that the plan may need to be implemented for several weeks (or even months) before adjustments are made, depending on how frequently the child attends and/or how frequently individual volunteers serve. Be sure to include communication of support plans as part of the onboarding process for training new volunteers and when children age out of a classroom and move to a new one.
While this process may feel a bit time-consuming, it takes into account multiple perspectives and multiple experiences, which will ultimately result in a more effective and supportive plan for children.
For more information on how to create ministry intake questionnaires, train volunteers, and implement fun activities for your Sunday school class, check out our free resources.