During the summer I started a new job, taking me to new ground: working with children that have special needs. Specifically, these kids have various developmental and cognitive disorders. I wasn’t sure at first if I would be effective in ministering to these children, as I have not had any previous experience with special needs. As I adjusted to this new job, however, I have learned some things that may be of benefit to others that find themselves with children that have special needs.
1. Though training is beneficial, it is not required to help children with special needs. My first trepidation as I started this new job was my complete lack of training in this area. Despite this, I was able to connect with the children and quickly learned what their needs were. If you find yourself ministering to children with special needs, take heart. You can learn as you go. If, however, you have the opportunity to learn up front, take advantage of it. Knowledge is power.
2. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping children with special needs. One thing I quickly learned is that different children require different approaches, even if they have the same disorder or condition. For example, one child would always answer, “no” to any question. I learned that in this situation I should ask her to choose from two equally acceptable choices. Another child, however, refused to make choices. It is very important to get to know the children to understand the motivations, desires, preferences, and nuances of each one.
3. Even if a child looks normal, it does not mean that he or she does not have special needs. Some of the children in the program appeared normal in every way. They even performed normally. Their conditions did not manifest themselves until situations came up that tested their patience. Some had difficult times controlling their anger when they would lose a game. Others found it hard to keep hands and feet to themselves. These traits would not be evident by simple observation of a child’s appearance. Only through interaction and taking time to become acquainted with each kid do these issues become known.
4. Patience is a virtue. It is often tempting to expect the same performance or social ability among some of the kids in the program. Their cognitive disorders, however, make such expectations unfair. Patience is important for those working with any child, but even more so when special needs are involved.
5. Even good kids have bad days. In a perfect world every child would experience steady, consistent growth over time. Such is not the case in the real world. Just like adults, kids have good days and bad days. When ministering to children, especially those with special needs, it is important to keep things in perspective. Grace and compassion must be demonstrated to children who aren’t on their “A-game”.
6. Kids can tell if you care. Nothing says, “I care” more than investing time in children and showing genuine interest in them. They take note. Even kids with severe cognitive disorders know when adults care. Training and experience can be of great benefit, but only in the hands of someone who cares.
Even if you have not encountered children with special needs, it is likely that you will at some point. Training is helpful to understand how to meet the various needs that kids may have. However, with no training at all, a loving adult who truly cares about children can learn to have a positive impact on these special lives. Do not let ignorance or fear drive you away from life-changing service.