We were all designed for relationship—not only relationship with our Heavenly Father, but also with one another—we need one another, so we can't go it alone. But did you know that people with disabilities are the largest population group missing from the body of Christ? Today I would urge families who are homeschooling children with special needs to consider participating in a local, homeschool co-op which can be a good place to find assistance and encouragement! I would also like to encourage families who are serving and participating in co-ops to be welcoming and inclusive of those with disabilities. The Lord Jesus was always reaching out to the blind, lame, deaf, and sick, showing love and compassion. And, we who are Christ's followers are called to do the same.
Many parents voice concern about having their child with special needs participate in a co-op due to the child's challenges. I would like to offer some suggestions that I hope families will find helpful.
- Explore the options; as a parent, go visit and observe first.
- Start slowly; perhaps select one class or unstructured activity at a time.
- If your child does well in a more structured environment, seek out an activity or class you think will be a good match.
- Ask about having a buddy or peer mentor.
- Take your child to the co-op environment when there are no other students. Allow them to see the room and practice walking in. Take a picture of your child in their “classroom”.
- Place your child in an activity or class that is an area of strength—an activity you are quite sure will be met with success. So often our kids will special needs feel badly about themselves or their abilities and can have much frustration. By placing them in an area of talent or gifting, we can really allow them to shine.
- Offer practical strategies to co-op parent-teachers, but don't be overly demanding. Share about your child's challenges and be positive offering statements such as, “While writing is difficult for my son due to his poor fine motor skills, he is really adept at giving oral narrations and we have found by allowing for dictation he is able to be successful. Perhaps this is something we can try here at the co-op.”
- Keep in mind the child may have good days and bad days. Teach and model positive statements or re-frame statements such as “So I/you were not able to do thus and so today, but I/you were able to do or did this and so wonderfully!”
Today I also want to encourage families who are already participating in a co-op to be open and welcome to those with disabilities. We can demonstrate the love of Christ by having empathy, compassion, and putting aside our own fear and uncertainty when interacting with people with various disabilities. We must include these wonderful children and remember Jesus' call to “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.”
Some practical things that co-ops can do to make children with special needs be included are:
- Seek to look beyond the “disability or diagnosis” and get to know the person as a child of God, created in God's image.
- Focus on what the child can do rather than what he or she can't do.
- Allow the child to participate at his/her own pace, level of comfort, and ability.
- Lend a listening ear and/or prayer support to parents who are homeschooling children with special needs.
- Provide ways for the child to be a helper by giving him tasks and responsibilities he is able to do.
- Find out the child's strengths and weaknesses.
- Work with parents and allow for modified assignments. Know that the child may need to use adaptive equipment or assistive technology in order to fully participate. Helps, such as communication boards or systems, e-readers, books on audio, or other technology tools that parents provide will probably be necessary and should be welcomed.
- Train other “veteran”, co-op students to be peer buddies or mentors.
For other great ideas on this subject, I invite you to explore these resources-
- Key Ministry free training materials geared toward assisting churches and ministries to include the disability community.
Joni and Friends International Disability Center offers support, resources, education and training and much more in their goal to share the message and love of Christ to people impacted by disability.
Christian Learning Center Network has resources and training materials available to assist in building support systems that enable people with varying disabilities to be included in all aspects of life. I recommend their G.L.U.E. Training Manual and DVD, as well as their guidebook titled the Church Welcome Story. While these are geared for churches it is extremely applicable for co-ops and other ministries, such as homeschool support groups.
Be sure to check out the books Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities by Barbara Newman and Let All the Children Come to Me by Breeding, Pemberton, and Whitworth.