Courtney on prom night.

Courtney on prom night.

I loved how Kurt made the point in the video blog last week that all of his students have “special needs.”  However, the reality is that some of our students have a unique set of challenges that require forethought, perspective and creativity in running our youth programming.

How do we approach those labeled with “special needs?”

Every disability Is Different:

Working with a student who has mental, emotional or processing delays may require you think differently about teaching and interacting.  Just because a parent shows up an tells you it is “Autism”  or “Down’s Syndrome,” that could mean a variety of things.  A person in a wheel chair may need you to help with the dynamics of getting in and out of spaces.  The blind and hard of hearing need to make sure they are not left out of movie clips or object lessons. Think of each individual as an individual.


Build a relationship with the parents:

Kurt and AC touched on this, but IT IS VITAL. Meet with the parents to discuss the students’ needs. You want to know what  type of physical  care is required?  Are there elements of their personality you need to learn?   Let them tell you everything.  Is the student prone to angry out bursts? What works at school? Would it be best to find a one on one mentor that is with them?  Keep communication lines with the parents open.  What is and isn’t going well?  They will have some insight.  Let them know you are on their side and love their child.  Remember they have been in this for awhile.  Treat them with love and respect.

Be Inclusive & Creative:

Let’s be honest.  This is a difficult topic because fully including a student with physical and mental challenges into your group takes work.   You may need to think through scenarios before you act on them.  The kid in the wheel chair wants to go with you to the amusement park?  How do you make that happen?  How do you play music for someone who is hearing impaired.

Don’t treat the “differently abled” student like they are a “Special Project:”

Yes,  we need to think about how to include them.  Yes, we may need to be creative in approach.  HOWEVER, Most of the time they are fully aware that they stand out already.  Be aware of talking down to them and about them, or being patronizing, even when you don’t mean to.

Be prepared for hard conversations:

My sister was entirely aware of what she did and did not have in her body and in her mind.  She wanted to know why it had to be this way.  Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.  Just let them remember they didn’t sin.  Their parents didn’t sin.  (Remember the story of the blind man in John 9).  We live in a fallen world that isn’t always fair.  None of us get it. Higher functioning students often suffer from depression and can even become cutters.  They desperately want to be “normal.”  Cry with them and point them to the one who has a love that is high and wide and deep and wraps them with hope.


Get to know both the students.  Let the sibling be their own person here, and if at all possible create an environment where they are not a care taker.  Each of them are struggling with their own sets of “challenges.” Avoid making assumptions about their personalities, abilities and relationship.

My sister passed away at 32 years old, the oldest living survivor of her condition.  For the last four years of her life she belonged to a body of believers who just loved her.  They embraced her for who she was.  She went to Bible study and they loved her insight and laughed at her terrible quirky jokes.  It was all she had been looking for.  A group of people who called themselves Christians who just thought of her as Courtney.  A group of people who got what it meant to love their neighbor as themselves.

For more great information on specifics of including disabled students into your programming,  check out these articles at Conversations On the Fringe:   CLICK HERE!

How are you walking with the disabled students, their parents and siblings in YOUR ministry?



Don't hate on the hair. My family.

Don’t hate on the hair. My family the 80′s


After watching the great video blog by Kurt and AC on the topic of special needs students HERE I was inspired to share some  more thoughts on this topic from a slightly different point of view.

My Mom suspected that the pregnancy wasn’t quite right.  She had chicken pox in her first trimester, but the doctors assured her everything would be fine.  Courtney arrived in 1975 as was one of 7 recorded cases internationally to be born with Congenital Varicella Syndrome. There was nothing about her that should have survived. . Here’s a quick run down of  how my sister entered the world several months early at less than 2 pounds:  She was blind, had one disfigured leg, no feeling in her left hand, urinary and digestive tract problems and was mentally delayed.  Yet, she was born a fighter and lived when the world said she should not survive.  To her doctors, teachers, caretakers and my parents she was a phenom. To me she was baby sister.

I want to contemplate for a moment if we had entered your youth group.  She would have been a Freshman when I was Senior.  What would you have done?

Here is what you would have seen from the outside looking in:

My Sister:

Here comes the sweet, vibrant kid in the wheel chair.  She was the outgoing one. She loved Anime and romantic comedies.   She was obsessed with country music.  However, upon meeting her you would not have immediately caught on that Courtney was developmentally delayed.  Maybe you would see a girl who was a little immature for her age. Then there were her medical challenges.  Her electric chair was huge and cumbersome.  She couldn’t see you, except out of the corner of her right eye.  Her left hand couldn’t grasp anything.  Someone,  a nurse, a parent or myself had to take her to the bathroom to deal with tubes and bags.


Then you would meet the highly overachieving perfectionist sister.  I loved my sister deeply,  but inside I struggled.  I grappled that I felt like I had to make up for what she could never be.  I wrestled with the injustice of both of our situations in life.  All Courtney wanted was to be a “regular” kid like me.  I always knew the attention my sister received was out necessity, yet it still hurt.  I felt left out.  I felt never good enough for anyone, because  I was  not born the anything “case” in the world.   You would not have ever guessed any of it.   At 17 I was entirely wonderful at keeping all adults at arms length.  If I was smart enough,  performed well enough,  and articulate enough,  then you would leave me alone.   I was very, very good at maintaining my polish.

My Parents:

Enter the parents. I read a statistic recently that 80-90% of parents with a disabled child end up divorced. By some insane miracle my parents have reached beyond 40 years of marriage. However, the pressure of living like today might just be the day that your child dies wears on you. My sister had numerous near death hospitalizations. Her leg was amputated at 2. Her eye was removed in her teen years and replaced with a glass one. All my parents did was give up themselves until they became a shadow of who they were.  They were physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted all the time.  However,  what you saw were these people who desperately wanted their daughter to belong. Could you give her a chance?  Could you let her be a part of your youth group?  I mean they were fighting for her in every other area of life.  Church should be a place where they could rest and well you, youth worker,  you just HAVE to love her.

You as the youth worker have no idea how to handle this. Larger churches have the luxury of separate ministries for “special needs” students.  Smaller churches rarely have this luxury.

Who gets your attention?  Who gets your compassion?  Whose needs get met?

Stay “Tuned” on Monday for some practical thoughts on approach.

lets talkWe went to the email bag with this topic. Remember email us at with your questions or topic suggestions. This is a topic that needs more attention and dialog. We decided to talk about it in the context of our on ministry.  Also, we probably give the best advice that we have on the topic towards the end.  Let’s keep the conversation going. We would love to hear how you approach this topic within your ministry.


hope it helps

kurt & ac

I recently read an article called #FAIL in youth ministry and how to deal with distractions while preaching (you can read it here). Students need to understand the rules and when they don’t follow them during service, a youth leader needs to come along side and correct that behavior.

The illustration that was used in the article turns out to be a special needs student who was the distraction.  Granted, the youth pastor or the leaders didn’t know about this student at the time, but the lessons learned from this situation didn’t reflect that they were a special needs student who couldn’t control their actions.

So here are some lessons that could have been learned:

1.  Our youth service is not more important than people.  I don’t know of very many churches that accept special needs children and their families.  If they do, they are very rare.  My son, who has special needs, makes all kinds of noises in church that would definitely count as a distraction, but people have grown to accept my son and love on him every time they see him.  ::You should see him worship God :D ::

2.  We can use that situation as an opportunity to teach students to love and respect everyone.  Teenagers love to be in their groups that are comfortable.  Let’s get them to get out of the coziness of their friends to reach out in love to these students.  This is not a one time love, but it has to be shown over time.

3.  After knowing that the student has special needs, why not create a buddy system for these students where a student would be with them the entirety of the youth service.  It would create a sense of peace in the parents to know that someone cares about their child, and buddy would be able to help curb the response of the peers wondering what is happening.

These are just a few suggestions.  I am still trying to figure out how to minister to special needs students and their families.  I know that it is a huge mission field for sure. If my oldest son didn’t have the needs, I might have reacted the same way.  It is my world that I live in all the time, and for a church to rally around these students would shine brightly for Jesus.

Bill Peterson is the youth pastor of Crossfire, a ministry of the Worship Center in Leesburg, VA.

This week Kurt and I are going after a youth ministry fail in our lives in the past season of ministry, and sharing what we learned from the incident. You got to revel in Kurt’s mistake yesterday—here’s mine:

I was teaching a few weeks ago in youth group and during the talk we had a disruptive student. It was a little disruption at first, but a few minutes later we had a full-blown problem on our hands. A student was making all sorts of comments and noises from his seat—students were staring, whispering, and generally completely distracted by the situation. We found out later the teenager has a special medical need and didn’t have any control over what was coming out of his mouth. But the point is our team didn’t know what to do…so no one did anything.

FAIL: We weren’t ready to handle this situation. I’m left on stage trying to teach while this disruption is occurring and everyone is frozen or in a silent panic trying to figure out what to do.

LEARNING: The next week we put into place a simple 4-step process for dealing with disruptions during youth group:

1) The speaker never addresses the situation. Whoever is on stage models grace and pretends like nothing is going on. Motor through.

2) Don’t wait. Will someone else jump in? Let’s just take the “wait and see” approach to see if it gets worse. No…take action when any disruption occurs. From the giggles in the back of the room, to a full on meltdown, do something; don’t just stand there.

3) Take it outside. Ask the student to step outside of the room with you as discreetly as possible. Usually a knowing look or a fierce glare from a youth leader corrects poor behavior. When those don’t work, invite them to the exit for a talk.

4) Investigate what to do from there. Could this situation be fixed by simply reseating the person? What discipline is needed to correct this behavior? Handle each situation with incredible amounts of care and grace but balance firmness.

General rule of thumb: don’t let one ruin it for all. Where have you failed and what have you learned recently?

This post was written by Josh Griffin and Kurt Johnston and originally appeared as part of Simply Youth Ministry Today free newsletter. Subscribe to SYM Today right here. Tomorrow look for a special guest post on ministering to a student with special needs that will be helpful to unpack that area for ministry as well. In hindsight it would have been wise to use another student as an example in this post. #FAIL

So, how might you adapt a grade-level textbook religious education lesson for a child with special needs? Here are some handy tips to help you along the way.


  1. Read through the Children’s Book lesson.
  2. Read through the Teacher Guide lesson that accompanies the Children’s Book.
  3. Think about what you might be able to accomplish with the time you meet with the child. Can you teach the whole lesson during one session? Do you think it might take two sessions?  Plan with your time-frame in mind.


  1. Take an inventory of all of the learning tools you have, including balls, puzzles, pictures, toys, and so on. Gather the ones that might work well as you teach this grade-level Children’s Book lesson.
  2. Allow yourself the freedom to adjust the lesson in a way that will work well with your particular student.  Imagine alternative ways to share the information in the Children’s Book.
  3. Mark up the Children’s Book and Teacher Guide with sticky notes. Record notes for yourself about what and how you want to teach this lesson. For example:
  • Children’s Book: Mark the pictures in the children’s book that you want to talk about with the child.
  • Children’s Book: Mark the articles, features, or stories that you want to paraphrase or read aloud to the child.
  • Teacher Guide: Mark the spots where you want to veer away from the book and do an activity.
  • Teacher Guide: Mark the spots where you will use learning tools to help you teach. For example, maybe you’d like to use the dolls to act out a story with the child.
  1. In advance, gather all your materials and make any physical samples of art projects that you want the child to develop during the lesson.


When you work through the grade-level Children’s Book session with the child, consider doing the following to make the most of the lesson:

  • Make learning as active as possible, but in a way that will not raise the child’s anxiety.
  • Vary your vocal tone and volume to match the message of material you are reading aloud.
  • Make your face and voice congruent and match up with the content. For example when you are discussing something happy, look and sound happy.
  • Give the child plenty of time to respond to questions. Accept all forms of attempted communication including talking, gesturing, sign language, pointing to pictures, drawing, and so on.
  • Provide exact models of what you want the child to say or do.
  • Describe everything the child does using simple sentences.
  • Take breaks as needed. If a technique is working, move on.
  • Give verbal praise when an accomplishment or milestone has been reached.

Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.

Over the past two years, I’ve had the honor of working with parents and practitioners who minister to children and adults with disabilities.  Time and time again, main themes emerge as potential roadblocks to working with those who require something a little different than your average presentation of the faith. Three themes follow, along with some wisdom I’ve gained along the way

Creating a Welcoming Environment
One common roadblock is a congregation or a class that doesn’t fully welcome an individual with special needs. Sadly, individuals or families may sometimes be turned away from attending services or classes or receiving sacraments. Here are a few tips that might help change minds and hearts so all of God’s children are welcomed in community:

  • Invite experts in the field of disability to speak to your audience about the importance of welcoming those with special needs. Invite speakers to emphasize that an individual with special needs does indeed have a spiritual life and should be invited to participate.
  • Help others use “people first” language in which words place the person before the disability, such as she has autism versus she is autistic. A simple Internet search can provide many positive examples.
  • Adapt spaces and seating arrangements so everyone can feel included.
  • Provide adaptive faith-related materials, such as The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit or The Adaptive Reconciliation Kit by Loyola Press.

Teaching to Strengths
Teaching individuals with disabilities requires us to look at each person uniquely, to identify his or her strengths, and to differentiate our approach. Try these ideas to help teach to a person’s strengths:

  • Talk with family members. Find out what works and what doesn’t in school and social settings. What motivates this person? What calms him or her? What causes anxiety or discomfort? What assistive materials might help this person?
  • Watch for feedback, facial, physical, or verbal. Being a careful observer can help you assess a person’s level of comfort or understanding.
  • Modify and adapt your approach. For example, if a person has a physical disability, consider presenting ideas visually or verbally. If a person has difficulty maintaining attention, make the learning hands-on and active.

Recognizing Signs of a Disability
Take some time to learn about the disabilities of those you serve. Pay attention to characteristics that might be misinterpreted as irreverence or inappropriate behavior. Chances are, these behaviors are signs of a disability. These characteristics are often signs of a disability that should be received with tolerance and compassion:

  • involuntary movements such as tics, tremors, or vocalizations
  • lack of eye contact
  • inability to give a verbal response or a confusion in providing a gestural response (such as shaking head no when the individual means yes)
  • difficulty swallowing
  • holding ears, pacing, or other gesture that signals sensory issues

So let’s remove the roadblocks and work together to help those with special needs experience the richness of a relationship with Jesus and with those who share their faith. We all have different abilities. We are all needed. We are all valued.

Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.

If every teen you ministered to were the same, life would be easy.  But, each person that walks in through the door is different.  They are different by things in and out of their control and when you can embrace what makes them unique it will lead to some dynamic and powerful ministry.

Chances are there is at least one family in your church with a child who has special needs.  It can be an intimidating situation to approach because it’s something you’ve never prepared for facing.  You are conflicted because you want people to know that you are loving and open; however, you also don’t want to disrupt the flow of how you do ministry.

I’ve been blessed to have ministers and a coworker with a special needs educational background who have shown and challenged me in creating capacity for special needs in ministry.  Three pieces of advice that they have shared with me is to:

Find People With Passion – You care for special needs teens just as you care for any teen that walks in through your door; however, there are people in your community who are passionate for them.  What you want to do is plug these adults into your ministry as small group leaders or mentors.  Have them bridge the gap and kill any stereotypes or suspicions that the teens or other adults might have.  Pick their brains and learn from them so that you can be more educated on the subject.

Be Inclusive – Certain special needs provide certain limits; however, that should not prevent you from inviting them to be a part of your ministry.  If they are high functioning you really won’t notice much of a difference.  If they do require assistance ask their parent or another minister to give them direct support.  Either way don’t close them out because it’s complicated, embrace the relationship and allow God to lead.

Communicate With Parents – Every parent (whether of special needs or not) wants their child to fit in.  When you talk to the parent of a special needs child, chances are they will want to work with you because they want what is best for their kid.  Allow them to give you wisdom on their situation and insight on how to handle other teens.  Learn what might trigger their teen to be more comfortable or distracted.  Get to know their individual child so that you know how to best serve and guide them.

How you minister to that child and their family will depend on what the need is, who the parents are and what resources you have available.  But, if you truly want to be a ministry for Christ you need to make sure it’s filled with God’s unconditional and accepting love.  It might be a challenge to have special needs in your ministry; however, it’ll only make you better.

How are you approaching special needs in your ministry?  If you aren’t why?

Chris Wesley is the Director of Student Ministry at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, MD. You can read more about his ministry and life on his excellent blog Marathon Youth Ministry.