Five Strategies for Creating Inclusive Classroom Environments

April is Autism Awareness month. Even if your church has a thriving special needs inclusion ministry, navigating a classroom environment that includes both typically developing children and those with intellectual or developmental disabilities can be tricky. What can we do to make the classroom environment inclusive for all children? Here are a five strategies.

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(1) Post a visual schedule and clear expectations for behavior. A visual schedule with includes a list of written activities represented in picture form that can be taken out of sight as they are completed. Children can be given ten, five, and two-minute warnings before each activity changes, especially when the transition in schedule involves leaving the classroom. These cues along with the simple verbal cue, “What’s next?” can be used to signal that it is time to look at the schedule and transition to the next activity.

Visual behavioral expectations such as the “Give Me Five” strategy in the illustration above can also be used to gain the children’s attention. Our leaders say, “Give me five!” and hold out their five fingers. The children should respond by listing expectations with exact wording from the board.

(2) Structuring your classroom environment for success. It is helpful for classroom teachers to make sure there are hands on materials for the lessons and that the toys in the room are organized and appropriate for indoor play. Sometimes the environment can be adapted in ways that help all kids focus. In preschool classes, for example, sheets can be used to cover toys during lessons or you can use a rug or corner to identify a visual area for circle time. It can also be helpful to use a wiggle seat for kids who have trouble sitting still or a visual time timer for kids who need a little extra help with the schedule prompts.

(3) Give the kids direction by communicating the “what” and “why.” It is better to say, “It’s time to go to worship, because we love to sing to Jesus together” than to ask, “Do you want to go to worship?” It’s helpful to avoid implying that there is a choice when there is not, as this could set the child up for confusion and possibly a power struggle.

(4) Connect to redirect. This strategy is adapted from The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. They encourage parents and teachers to engage with children as a way of earning their rapport before redirecting their behavior. This strategy is particularly important for kids who have experienced trauma and associate authoritative commands with danger.

A teacher might say, “Oh wow, those Pokemon cards are REALLY cool! Right now we are worshiping and we want everyone to be able to pay attention. It’s time to put up the cards now, but we will have some free time at the end of class to look at them.”

(5) Offer choices that ensure follow-through. Finally, it’s helpful to give the child some power and choice in how they want to participate in the class. But it’s important that these choices ensure the child will continue participating. You might offer a choice such as the following: “Do you want to sit with me or the class during worship?”

Utilizing strategies like these can help your classroom to be inclusive for all children. Try them out and be a part of helping your local church fling wide its doors for people of all abilities.

Seven Essential Policies for Children's Ministry… And a Free Sample Checklist.

At Sojourn Church Midtown where I lead, we use several different checklists for training. This first one covers the essential policies and procedures we want every volunteer who serves in children's ministry to be aware of. These are the most basic things that you don't want to leave out of your training. I've attached  a free sample checklist of general policies and procedures that incorporates each of the basics overviewed below.

  1. Check-in & Check-out Procedures. Deepak Reju reminds us, "In addition to teaching children, Christians also have a fundamental responsibility to protect them. We learn this... from God, who throughout the Bible has a special burden for the young, weak, and oppressed in society." A key area for protection is check-in and check-out. It's a key security pressure point. One tool we've found helpful are security sticker name tags. Check-in software systems like KidCheck or the check-in modules for church management systems like The City from ACS Technologies print security name tag labels with alphanumeric security codes and matching pick-up tags. For churches who have chosen not to use a computer system, there are great three-part security tags available from vendors such as ChurchNursery.com. The security name tag is placed on the child, and a pick-up tag with a matching code is distributed to the parent or guardian at check-in. Teachers record the code on the classroom role sheet as the child enters the classroom. They then match the pick-up tag to the child's name tag at check-out so that the child is only released to the same person who dropped her off. We train our classroom teachers to collect the sticker name tag as the children are checked out. This is a signal to the parents that we have released the child from our care.

  2. Food Policies & Allergy Precautions. It's essential to ask about about allergies on a child's first day in the children's ministry. Check-in software systems usually have a database for keeping track of allergies and they will sometimes print an allergy alert on a child's security tag. My daughter Lucy's tag has an alert for her teachers that she's allergic to strawberries. It prints on her sticker every week. I've also found it helpful (both for budgeting and safety purposes) to feed the kids the same snack every week. For us, this is usually Goldfish Crackers and water. I know some churches that have a similar policy but use Animal Crackers instead. There will be times when you want to mix up the snack as a teaching tool. During Advent, we'll sometimes have a birthday cake for Jesus for our entire children's ministry. When you do something like this, be sure to post Allergy Alert signs. These should list what is being served instead of the regular snack, and they should include any major allergens that item may include. Major allergens include dairy, gluten, soy, tree nuts, eggs, and peanuts. We don't allow peanuts at all. And we keep some allergy alternative snacks on hand for kids who can't have Goldfish as well; these are usually raisins or veggie straws.

  3. The Two-Person Rule. This is a big one. Gone are the days of having a lone ranger children's Sunday school teachers. Many church insurance policies now require that churches adopt the "two-person" rule. One adult should never be alone with a child or in a classroom, and, under no circumstances, is a child to be left in a classroom or anywhere unattended. This protects children from abuse, and it protects our children's ministry volunteers from accusation. Our policy is that two or more unrelated volunteers will staff all classrooms. It's not a problem if a husband and wife want to serve together, but we assign a third person to serve alongside them in their classroom. Often this provides a great discipleship opportunity if a more seasoned couple is serving with a younger single person. The most difficult time to enforce the two-person rule is during restroom trips. This means that another leader (such as a coordinator, director, or Sunday school superintendent who is free to float between classrooms) must be available to help out during these times.

  4. Sickness Policy. It's important to have a clear policy about when children should not come to children's ministry. When a child has been sick, the most loving thing for a parent to do is keep the child home so that other children are not exposed. We publish our sickness policy in our Parent Handbook, and we include it in our training checklist. During the Fall (when cold and flu season is beginning), we make posters that explain our sickness policy and post them near check-in and registration areas in our children's wing. If a child has been sick (temperature, vomiting, diarrhea, severe coughing, nasal drainage, etc.) in the last 24 hours, we ask that he not be checked into a children's ministry classroom. Also if a child gets sick during children's ministry, the parent is immediately paged so that the child can be removed from the classroom.

  5. No Photography Rule. With the advent of smart phones, everyone now carries a camera with them to their class. We make clear in our training that children's ministry volunteers should NEVER take photographs of children and post them online. In addition to the fact that this is a violation of privacy and upsetting to some parents, it is also potentially dangerous for some of the kids in our care. For example, when a child is in foster care, there is a need for added privacy. A child may have been removed from a previous guardian who is a danger to her safety. Photos posted online could inadvertently expose the child's whereabouts.

  6. Diapering & Toileting. The "two person" rule definitely applies when diapering children and during bathroom trips. Also, it's important to train children's ministry volunteers on how to change a diaper in the most sanitary way possible. Many young people are eager to serve in children's ministry, but they may not have much experience with young children. It's essential to train, equip, and prepare them. We have two other policies for diapering and toileting as well. First, for the protection of children and adults, we do not allow male volunteers to provide toilet assistance or change diapers. Lastly, we do not change the diaper of children over age 5 who are not potty trained. When a child with special needs requires additional toileting assistance, we will page their parents or another certified guardian. Often church insurance companies are careful to only allow a certified nurse or guardians to provide this kind of intimate care to children who are particularly vulnerable.

  7. Rules for Cleanliness & Sanitation. When I worked at McDonald's, I was trained on thorough hand washing practices. I think it's essential that we do the same in children's ministry. Moreover, I think it's essential that we train our teams to clean and sanitize all toys and areas that are in contact with children. It's essential that we keep disposable gloves and the necessary cleaning supplies on hand at all times.

Once again, here is the free sample checklist of general policies and procedures from Gospel Centered Family. Our goal in providing a resource like this for free is to serve you. Please take it and use it as you are thinking through policies for your own church community.

What key policies have I missed? What would you add? Leave a comment below to let me know.

Three Ways to Tell a Bible Story to Kids

What do the kids in your class remember after you’ve taught a Bible lesson? Who do they identify with in the story? Think about the story of David and Goliath. There are at least three ways to tell it.

1. An Example Lesson. You may have heard this story taught so the main point is to be brave and face big obstacles with courage. When we tell the story this way,  kids will remember all of the little details about David. He was too little for Saul’s armor. He took five smooth stones and a sling. David even cut off Goliath’s head! The kids will also remember to be brave like David! They will identify with him, because David is the example to follow.

That’s one way to tell the story. But if we just teach example lessons, the kids may only remember the key Bible characters. What will they remember about God?

2. A God-centered Lesson. As I've written before, God is the Bible’s main character. We shouldn’t overlook or forget about David. But focusing on David shouldn’t keep us from seeing that God is the true hero. David reminds us that God rescues his chosen servant from wild animals and enemies (1 Samuel 17:37). When Goliath came against him with a sword and spear and javelin, David didn’t start naming his weapons: “Well, here I come with my sling!” No way! David said, “I come against you in the name of the Lord” (1 Samuel 17:45). David’s weapons may be weak, but God is strong. The battle belongs to Him. If we’re listening to David, we’ll hear that this story has little to do with David’s example at all. It’s a story about God. That’s who we want our kids to remember.

It’s true. One of the first things we should ask ourselves when crafting a lesson is, “What is God doing in this story?” The Bible was written to show us God. He’s the main character. But when we’re crafting lessons, does that go far enough? 

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from   The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible     by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

Illustration and layout by Trish Mahoney from The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible by Jared Kennedy, (New Growth Press, 2017).

3. A Gospel-centered Lesson. I recently heard Marty Machowski talk about one of the best ways to craft a gospel-centered lesson. He said, “We want to help our kids identify with the people in the story who need the Good News.” In this story, that’s the Israelites. They have a strong enemy and a weak king. When Goliath marches out into the valley of Elah, he challenges king Saul, all of Israel, and Israel’s God. Israel needed a courageous hero to save them from their oppressors.

Enter David. Even though the people there didn’t know it yet, we know that David stepped onto that battlefield as Israel’s newly anointed king. He was the people’s representative. God won the battle, but he won the battle through David. In this way, David gives us a sneak peak into a specific way God saves his people. God saves his people by sending them a representative king. David points beyond himself to Jesus! After we’ve discovered what God is doing for his people in a story, we should look for how that action points to what Jesus has done. We should ask, as Jack Klumpenhower has phrased it, “How does God do the same for us--only better--in Jesus?” In this way, we can move from a lesson that is merely God-centered to one that is Gospel-centered.

Which of these kinds of lessons do you find yourself teaching on a regular basis?

The illustrations in this post are from my book, The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible. Check out the New Growth Press website to purchase a copy or learn more.

Kids and Classrooms, part 1: Love them. Don’t bribe them.

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Children’s ministry is a good thing. I would say it’s a necessary thing. But if we are going to do it, we should desire to do it well for the sake of God’s glory and the kids we are trying to reach.

But this still brings up the question of how to operate within a classroom full of children. Here are four essentials for children’s ministry classrooms. Three big DOs and one clear DON’T:

DO: Win kids’ hearts by loving them first

Building and establishing a relationship is where any and all true ministry begins. We must demonstrate our love and compassion for the kids we’re seeking to teach. As the relationship grows, the opportunities to speak truth directly into kids’ lives will increase as well. You don’t only need to know kids in order for your teaching to be effective. For them to hold on to and apply that teaching, the kids must know and trust you as well. Remember that we aren’t simply teaching head knowledge to kids. We’re preparing them to hear truth in hope that God will transform their hearts.

DO: Show kindness.

Another key to building a relationship with kids is showing kindness towards them. Remember, they are kids and sometimes there is loudness, and silliness, and random questions that come along with being a kid. We have to allow them to be who they are (within appropriate boundaries) if we expect to have an eternal impact on their lives. Showing them kindness builds rapport and communicates the attempt to understand where they are at.

DO: Teach with earnestness and excellence.

Loving kids well will also mean that our teaching is done with earnestness. Kids must have confidence that we know what we are talking about. The pathway to engendering this confidence runs through letting the lesson have its effect on us first. We can’t give away what we don’t possess; we can’t teach what we haven’t applied first in our own lives. When God works in us first and then through our teaching content, our teaching will be done in earnest.

A final loving thing that teachers can do is use illustrations and anecdotes. Getting (and holding) the attention of children is often a difficult task. We must be willing to teach in ways kids can easily understand. The use of these two techniques will help the children process and use what is being taught.

DON’T: Bribe them.

Bribes are sometimes used with children to either gain compliance or modify behavior. Neither is the goal of what we are attempting to teach. Giving rewards for hard work is one thing, but bribing doesn’t show love or concern, it shows that we are simply filling time until parents arrive.

A vibrant children’s ministry is an important ingredient to any healthy church. In order to keep this ministry vibrant, demonstrating love, winning rapport, and avoiding bribing students will keep kids not only interested, but opens the door for the Holy Spirit to work.