Over the past two weeks, we have been spotlighting special needs inclusion in student (youth) ministry environments.  Today’s post is the third and final part of this series, where Amy Fenton Lee (Director of Special Needs Initiatives for Orange and author of:  Leading Special Needs Ministry) interviews Katie Garvert an expert in the area of inclusion with special needs students.

Amy Fenton Lee:  In the first post, you explained why teen inclusion is challenging. Last time you talked about parent partnership. So, how do you create a successful youth ministry experience for the student with special needs?   

Katie Garvert: We use five strategies for students with any sort of disability, learning difference, or unique needs.  Our desire is to hone in on the desires and passions God gave them by doing the following:

1. We help the student feel in control. In the last post we talked about inviting the promoting student to talk to us without their mom and dad. Assuming the parents have agreed to the requests I outlined then, we start by acknowledging church participation is not optional. But it doesn’t have to be miserable either, so we immediately say we’re willing to make adjustments. If the student is adverse to being placed in a Small Group, we don’t argue—and then go through a series of questions to figure out what the student is good at and what they enjoy.

2. We create jobs inside the student ministry. We proactively look for ways the student can feel they are making a contribution. If we discover a student likes creating PowerPoint presentations, we’ll ask him to build a visual presentation for the student pastor. We’ll outline our needs, expectations and give a concrete deadline. If that goes well, he may be asked to produce a PowerPoint presentation again. This student is receiving a “reward” by seeing their work utilized in the weekly environment. A vitally important routine is emerging while this student has a growing sense of worth and success.

3. We strategically create opportunities for spiritual growth. For us, the students with special needs on the production team sits inside the tech booth for the duration of the student ministry experience and hears the teaching like every other student does. They are having a shared experience with the rest of the youth group. In addition, after large group as other students head to small groups, the production team has a debrief meeting. There is adult led discussion on what went right or what needs improvement next time. Students helping in the booth weigh in on technical topics, while growing comfortable interacting with each other. Like other ministry areas, this time with the production team closes with a devotional intentionally connected to the large group teaching time. In other words, there’s a small group happening inside the tech booth.

4. We solve problems before they become problems. Some students can be part of a more traditional small group if we navigate their placement. Obviously the “job” approach or tech team assignment doesn’t work for every student with special needs. This is especially true for girls. Often times in our early conversation with a female student, we’ll learn that she is uncomfortable around the “social girls” whom she perceives to be boy crazy or shallow. We’ve found success by pairing this student with an adult small group leader who likes to explore topics outside of pop stars and trendy fashion. This small group leader might be someone who throws out big ideas related to social justice or theology. While the student with learning differences may not always track with the group discussion, she isn’t going to be boiling in anger listening to the latest teen-scene gossip. In addition, we’ve placed the student with a small group leader who is more naturally mindful of her needs. That leader is also going to create an accepting, safe group dynamic that invites this student’s participation.

5. We look for opportunities to multiply our own success. We love having students inside the tech booth mentoring new volunteers on the production team. Some of these mentors are the same students who would have avoided involvement in student ministry at all costs! Now these students are in their element, and in their own way leading in student ministry. This is a huge win for our students and our student ministry as a whole!

Checkout the two other posts:
 (1) Including Teens with Special Needs – The Challenge and (2)  
Including Teens with Special Needs – Parent Partnership

Katie Garvert Katie Garvert is the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Woodmen Valley Chapel currently serves around 90 individuals affected by special needs. Over the past nine years Katie has helped WVC establish special needs inclusion programming over virtually every age and stage of life for this multi-site church.

Follow Katie on Twitter.

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