IEP’s at Church: Yes? No? Maybe So?

I’m a planner.

Anyone who knows me well can attest to this. (In fourth grade, I apparently made a full plan for my birthday party, calculating the time each activity would take and taking into account that guests might arrive at slightly different times…I also made sure that there would be enough time to ensure everyone’s comfort.)

Good teaching takes good planning…I talk about this often during lectures at schools and churches. The Federal Governement thinks planning is a good idea, too. In fact, every student who is identified with a disability that affects learning has a plan called an IEP (Individualied Education Plan). This plan lists the child’s strengths, needs, and current levels of performance. In addition, the plan, formulated by teachers and school staff, includes goals and objectives that create the basis for the child’s school year. Finally, the plan includes all of the supports, accommodations and related services the child needs in order to make appropriate progress toward the identified goals. Every member of the child’s team–including the child, when appropriate–works on this plan, signs it, and helps to monitor the progress.

So, If a student needs an IEP at school, then we should definitely have one at church, right?

A planner like me inwardly, gleefully shouts YES! YES! A PLAN!! Let’s make a PLAN!

We do need a plan…but the way we form a special needs plan–and the kind of plan we form–  really depends on many factors…

It depends on the parents…Some parents are very excited to share their child’s needs with a church staff, and want to collaborate with the team about goals for church. Others just want Sunday to feel “normal” and would like their child, as much as possible, to just blend in with everyone else.

It depends on the church staff and volunteers. Some churches might decide that part of their mission and ministry is to offer as much support as possible to families. We won’t assume that these are “big” churches or churches with large budgets…nor will we assume that churches that provide in-depth, individualized planning or therapeutic supports are “better” than those that don’t. Those assumptions are not grounded in truth. Every church should approach this issue by taking into account a number of factors, such as  the church’s culture, staffing, facilities, vision of the senior staff, and availability of volunteers.

It depends on the child/student. Some students are eager to accept help as they work toward goals…others are just really ready for a day of rest and fun (and that is the purpose of the Sabbath, isn’t it?) And…I haven’t met any teens with disabilities who have told me that they really want to have extra focus on their needs during youth group time…that is a normal and expected part of teen development, and we need to respect it.

It depends on the plan itself. We need to remember that the purpose of a plan at church will most likely be very different from a plan at school, because the purpose of church is different that school or work. I believe that what kids are learning at church is way more important than anything that will be taught at school, so I do recommend that churches and families work together to create a plan for EVERY child’s spiritual growth (not just kids with special needs!) In our ministry, we have created this form to facilitate the process:
GROW Plan for Spiritual Development
This also allows parents, churches and students to develop shared expectations; when we communicate about what our hopes and plans are, we are more likely to develop strong relationships that facilitate growth.

Mostly, it depends on God
. Before we plan anything, we really need to ask God what He thinks about our ministry and where He would like to see it go:  “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, The plans of His heart from generation to generation.” Psalm 33:11 NASB

Will He give you the guidance you’re looking for?
You can plan on it.


“Get Your Gifts Unwrapped:” Why Connections Matter for Kids with Disabilities

This afternoon, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Edward Hallowell. Dr. Hallowell is one of the nation’s experts on attention deficit disorders. His book, Driven to Distraction, co-authored with John Ratey, and its companion book, Answers to Distraction, provide easy-to-read information and guidance about ADHD.

Dr. Edward Hallowell

Hallowell’s positive attitude inspires a different way of thinking about ADHD and other diagnoses. “Almost invariably,” Hallowell said today, “talents are wrapped in disability…and we need to be in the business of unwrapping gifts rather than treating disabilities.”

In order to do this, Hallowell said, children must feel connected. He cited his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, stating that in his research, the level of connection in childhood is a primary predictor of future contentment and success. (Not SAT scores, grade point averages, starring roles or varsity letters!!) In addition to feeling connected to their parents, Hallowell said that children must also feel connected in their neighborhoods and at school. Connection and community is so important, he said, that the lack of it can cause serious health problems. In his research, he found studies that show that social isolation is as dangerous a risk factor for early death as smoking cigarettes.

To explain the importance of connection, Dr. Hallowell related an experience from his own childhood. As a first grader, he struggled with reading fluency and was, in time, diagnosed with both dyslexia and ADHD. In the 1950’s, services and supports were scarce, and children were often labeled “lazy” or “slow.” Thanks to a special teacher, however, Dr. Hallowell persevered. He told about his first grade teacher, Mrs. Eldridge…every time he was asked to read aloud, Mrs. Eldridge sat right next to him and put her chubby arm around him. No one in the class dared to laugh or ridicule him, so protective was she. At the end of the year, Dr. Hallowell recalled, he was STILL the slowest and least accurate reader in the class. However, he felt a sense of pride and belonging because of his connection to this special teacher: “Mrs. Eldridge’s arm was my IEP.”

Despite his difficulties with language, Dr. Hallowell (still a slow reader) has made a career that is largely based on language…all because a teacher took the time to give him a sense that “it’s safe to be who you are.”

Dr. Hallowell said that when parents comes into his office, very often, they’ll say, “My child has a disability.” His response? “Great! Now, let’s work together.This is a place to get your gifts unwrapped.”

What a lesson for the Church.


Want to read more about this topic? Check out Dr. Steve Grcevich’s series…excellent insight from a doctor who cares.

Communication + Confidentiality: Web-based Tools

It’s been a  busy week here at Diving for Pearls…and such great fun meeting so many new friends who have stopped by! I’m so glad you were here.There’s still time to enter this week’s contest. Entries are due by 6 pm EST. I’ll announce our winner this evening…along with Five Facts for Friday.

As we wrap up this series, I want to share a few web-based tools that other ministry leaders use with their teams. Please have a look at these and see what might be of use to you and your team.

  • Ning     Mike Woods, Director of Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist Orlando uses Ning with his ministry volunteers. He says, “It’s a social networking site that for our ministry page is an invite only. We can talk, share information, post training videos and keep it only to members who are invited.”
  • Google+  Another way to create online group communication
  • Facebook  Facebook has an option for “closed” groups; this application might be helpful for GENERAL communication between parents, volunteers and Sunday School staff (e.g. posting Bible memory verses, links to curriculum activities or videos, outlines of plans, upcoming events.)
  • FreeConferenceCall   Another recommendation from Mike Woods: “We’ve been able to have volunteer or Buddy meetings from the convenience of everyone’s home.”
  • Yammer  Laura Haas who works in Children’s and Inclusion Ministry at Faith Family Church in Canton, OH recommended this resource (and, along with Mike Woods, helped with this series!)
  • Wiggio   Our friend and colleague Sara Moses suggested this tool; she used it for several groups, including an inclusion ministry.
  • LiveBinders  Recommended by Michelle Thomas-Bush, Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. This site allows you to upload documents, power points, links, forms and other information to share with your team.
  • Google Docs  Another method of sharing information, including training materials, spread sheets, presentations, even brainstorming lists. Google also has a calendar feature that team members can access and edit.

Remember, you can use these tools for a variety of different reasons; one web-based tool need not fit all of your needs. As you peruse these sites, keep in mind that the privacy is paramount. In your ministry, you’ll be privy to sensitive information about children and their families. As such, you cannot rely not only on the privacy capabilities of social media sites…your volunteer and staff training MUST include in-depth discussions about handling information with care. (including a rule that forbids volunteers from sharing ministry site passwords with friends, family or colleagues who are not directly involved in the ministry.) Privacy settings are only as sensitive as the people who are using them.

This post is NOT an endorsement of any site or product…please use the information as a springboard for research and discussion.   Find what works in your church’s unique culture (and what doesn’t work!)…and then tell me about it! I’d love to hear what you’re learning.

One final note…God created people long before computers ever appeared on the scene. People first. There isn’t a high-speed connection anywhere that can ever replace human relationships…and while technology, used well and wisely, can enhance communication, it won’t ever replace community.

Stay tuned: Contest winner announced tonight, along with Five Facts for Friday!