The family where there is a child with additional needs is like any other family – clothes still need washing and meals still need to be prepared. But additional needs place extra demands on the whole family. There can be good days and tough days, but the feeling of being alone and misunderstood can at times be particularly overwhelming.
Parent and toddler groups are often a great way of building positive relationships between parents, children and the church. Here are some ways you could help support parents who have children with additional needs to feel more included in the life of the group or church.
More than anything the parents that we speak to really want someone to talk to who is genuinely interested in them, any other children they have, and their lives in general. Parents are looking for people who will listen and affirm their parenting without judging. Speak about any ‘issues’ or ‘difficulties’ but never ask what is ‘wrong’ with their child.
In a group situation, other people may be anxious about the unpredictable behaviour of some children with additional needs. The child’s parent can pick up on that tension and a sense of isolation can develop. Lead by example in your own response. Ask the parents about potential triggers and techniques that help a child to cope if they become upset. This will help you to support them appropriately and demonstrate that you accept them as they are.
As the children in your group grow, the child with additional needs might not hit all of the same developmental milestones as his or her peers. This can be really painful for parents, especially as it might be part of the realisation that their child is ‘different’ in some ways. Your awareness and sensitivity could make all the difference. You can also help them by celebrating their child’s individual achievements.
Parents want both themselves and their children to be included in conversations and activities, and many especially want the children to be invited to other children’s parties. Please understand that sometimes a child’s health might mean they are not able to participate in events at short notice, but do keep asking them, they would probably love to come when they can.
Parents will feel encouraged when you talk to the child with additional needs as you would to any child, even if it is apparent that the child cannot reply. Ask parents if touching, hugs, handshakes, eye contact, etc. are helpful or not. Also be aware that there can be hidden additional needs that may not be apparent from looking at the child. Listen carefully to what the parents tell you.
When you are setting out your play space it might be useful to have a quieter area for children who find noise and activity a sensory overload. One idea could be a pop-up tent set up a little bit away to provide that safe place. Specialist sensory toys can be expensive, but you can pick up some lovely things on the high street which don’t have to cost the earth, such as beanbags, soft blankets, playdough or calming lights. Ask the parents what is appropriate for their child.
Take time to get to know the family and earn the trust of all of the children, then you will be in a good place to help the family, perhaps by offering to arrange for appropriate people at church to help with childcare, providing meals or doing laundry. Remember that these parents face a lifetime of coping and they may need support every step of the way, particularly during times of change. Friendships that develop between parents in toddler groups are often strong and long term, and you have the amazing opportunity to help facilitate these support networks that could be there for the long haul. Go for it!
For more information on additional needs, visit our Additional Needs Support home page.