10 Safety Considerations for Special Needs Kids
Marie Kuck is a mom on a Mission. She’s the co-founder of Nathaniel's Hope, a growing national ministry that cheers on and assists kids with special needs and their families and helps churches get equipped to do the same. She anticipates being reunited with her son, Nathaniel, who moved to heaven at the age of 4 1/2.
It’s Sunday morning and Bobby shows up at your church. You start the intake process and suddenly realize that he may require some special support. He has special needs. But it’s okay, because you are ready! You have carefully thought through some of the potential challenges and safety issues and you have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, YOU CAN! Don’t wait until these kiddos come to put a strategy together. Be intentional and start thinking about it NOW! While disabilities may vary and can be mild or severe, here are 10 things for consideration to make your ministry a safe place for kids with special needs.
1. Get to know your child. Gather pertinent information on an intake form. Important information could include emergency medical info, special health care needs about the disability, likes, dislikes, communication needs, and behavior concerns. Though this is all great info on paper, remember that your parents are your best coach and can offer the best guidance to navigate their child.
Talk with them and learn everything you can about the child. Be sure this info is communicated to the teacher, buddy, and/or assistant and kept confidential. You may consider asking volunteers to sign a confidentiality agreement to protect all involved.
2. Have “buddy” volunteers assigned to assist kids with special needs who regularly attend. A dedicated “buddy” will not only help make the Sunday experience more meaningful for the child, but is also great risk management, insuring that someone is focused on the well-being of the child at all times. In addition, it is a good idea to have buddy volunteers “on call” to assist when a child with special needs shows up unexpectedly. Providing a buddy will not only bring support to your teachers, but will also allow someone to focus on the unique needs of the child and be able to respond quickly in any situation.
3. Have a “safe place” that you can take a child who might have a meltdown or begin to exhibit aggressive behavior. Be sure that the room has safe furniture, locked cabinets, no toxic items that can be eaten, and is free of loose objects that can be thrown. Never attempt to restrain a child if you have not been trained to do so. Just try to get them to a safe place and give them their space. It is not possible to reason with a child who is having a meltdown. Keeping them safe is critical.
4. In the unlikely event that a child “escapes,” have a plan to alert your team. Remember, you want to alert, not alarm. Establishing a code like “Code Bobby” can quietly notify your team of the situation and activate a search. Institute a plan to secure exit doors. Check favorite places that a child might like to visit.
For kids who might be runners, consider taking a picture of the child when they arrive so you can text it out to your search team. Be sure to delete the photo afterward.
5. Many kids have food allergies. Even the smell of peanut butter crackers can trigger dangerous allergies. Be sure you inquire about allergies and inform your team of the child’s situation. A simple colored dot on a nametag can raise awareness and provide a safe environment for the child. Consider offering an alternative snack. Make sure kids who are gluten-free are identified as well.
6. An accident is an unplanned event. In the event that you find yourself in the midst of this crisis, be sure that your team knows what to do. Do not attempt to move a child until medical personnel arrive and can evaluate the situation. Having a doctor or nurse on call from the church can help you respond rapidly. Be sure to document all incidents and communicate this with the parents and the church.
7. Liability release forms are a good tool to have both parents of the special needs child and your volunteer sign. Sometimes a child might demonstrate uncontrollable behavior, which could result in hitting or biting a volunteer. A liability release form will inform volunteers of the risks, as well as protect the church. Parental sign-off is also a good safety guard, as well.
8. Challenging behaviors can sometimes be a way that a non-verbal child tries to communicate that something is wrong. Perhaps the music is too loud and they are experiencing sensory overload, or maybe they have an unmet sensory need. Transitions are another time when children might have difficulty and display bad behavior. Try to understand the “triggers” that could cause a child’s behavior to escalate and modify what you’re doing.
9. Take a risk assessment of your ministry space: Look for potential hazards, escape pathways, etc. Are there adequate barriers to refrain a child from getting away? While kids can climb, half doors into a classroom can slow a child’s escape. Be sure to assess spaces and look for potential hazards.
10. Train your team. Help them gain a basic understanding about disability to help them overcome their fear of interacting with a child with special needs. Give them the tools that will help them feel more confident. Be sure you set realistic boundaries.
If you are working with a child who is beyond your comfort level to assist, consider contacting a behavioral therapist to assess the child and situation and give you some guidelines that will help you and your team. They may be able to identify things that trigger negative behavior and give you specific strategies for the child. Sometimes children may already be working with a therapist and you can arrange with the parents for them to come observe at the church. If not, bringing in a behavioral therapist might be a help to the family as well. There are great resources in the community to help better equip you. Reach out to them.
Evaluate often and act quickly to make adjustments to the environment. Doing so will protect your special needs kids, assure parents, and give your workers a satisfying experience as they minister.