Why do some families like mine opt out of VBS?
1. You never gave them the opportunity to opt in.
I know you pour your heart and soul and time into VBS planning each year. Truly, I do. I've done it myself. But as you plan the stories and crafts and schedules and games and songs and so on, did you stop once to think, "How will this work for kids who think or behave or interact or communicate or move differently from typical kids?"
If you didn't, then you haven't proactively considered families affected by special needs, because disabilities affect one of those areas of development. And if you're not planning with kids like theirs in mind, then you're unintentionally saying, "Our VBS is only for kids without special needs."
I know that hurts to hear, because you are working so hard to plan an awesome week for all those typically developing kids. But it hurts even more for those parents to hear the message you're accidentally communicating, which is that church is not for their child.
Tip: Next year, reach out to families affected by disability in your church (or, if none are currently at your church, in your community) and ask them to be involved in the planning stages so you can be more thoughtful. Also, trust me when I say that one-on-one helpers for kids with special needs who need that support are just as crucial to an inclusive VBS as class teachers; your volunteer roles might need to be a little more diverse to include our families well.
2. A lot of kids with special needs don't handle new environments well.
Even if your church is their usual environment on Sunday mornings, VBS is different: Louder. Longer. Busier. Bigger. Maybe at a different time or in a different part of the church than other children's ministry programming. During summer, which is already a time in which family routines are thrown off and kids are often in a state of major dysregulation.
Simply put, that's hard for a lot of our kids.
Tip: Respect that some of our families, just like some families with typically developing kids, will happily opt out of VBS without any hurt or hard feelings. For those who want to come but feel like they can't, offer two helps: (1) invite the family and child to walk through VBS before it starts, either by physically visiting the church beforehand or by sharing a social story - with pictures of each area if possible - that describes step by step what will happen from the moment the child arrives until the moment he or she is picked up and (2) let families know that they are welcome to try it out without any expectation that their child will come for the entire week.
3. Kids with special needs often have full calendars already.
Let me share what our week looks like during VBS:
- Every morning: Arrive with my six kids at 8:45(ish), take them to their classes, and then go serve the other kids I love.
- Monday: Pick Zoe up at her class at 11:15, drive home for her physical therapy at 11:30, check in with Lee to make sure he has all the room numbers to pick up our other five when VBS ends at 12 noon during his lunch break from work, and welcome our other kids home around 12:30 as our therapist is heading out.
- Tuesday: Pick up all the kids from their classes at 12 noon, have one of the big kids feed Zoe a light snack/lunch in the car, arrive home to put her down for a nap, do lunch for the rest of us, and then wake Zoe up for another snack just before speech therapy at 2:45, which I had to reschedule with the therapist since it usually would have been smack dab in the middle of Monday's VBS time.
- Wednesday: Same as Monday.
- Thursday: Pick up all the kids from their classes at 12 noon, have one of the big kids feed Zoe a light snack/lunch in the car, arrive home just in time to meet our occupational therapist at the house at 12:30, and feed the rest of the crew while Zoe has OT.
- Friday: Same as Thursday, except it's speech at 12:30 for Zoe and then Robbie (once again, at a rescheduled time because our usual time conflicted with VBS).
Side note: Local friends, forgive me if I disappear next week. I think we all might need some time to recuperate and regroup after this very fun but very full week!
For some families, their child's educational special needs have them in a school setting during the day even when other kids are out for the summer, which might conflict with a morning VBS. For other kids, medication wears off by the evening or bedtime routines are sacred for everyone's sanity, so an evening VBS might not work. (For example, our family has to keep a strict nighttime routine because our son with epilepsy is less likely to have seizures if we protect that time. That means we skip a lot of evening events at our church for the sake of our entire family, because seizures are disruptive and scary for all of us.)
In other words, some families affected by disability won't come to your VBS because it doesn't work for them, so don't take it personally. Do, however, make sure you extend the invitation to let them decide. Invitations mean a lot of our families.
Tip: Make sure your families know that it's okay if they can't come every day. Even if you're pretty certain that a child won't be able to come because of conflicts with their specialized schooling, therapies, or routines, INVITE THEM ANYWAY. You don't want these families to feel left out!
All of the pictures in this post are from our church's Facebook page. In the first three days of our church's VBS, we've included a whole lot of typical kids as well as precious ones with Down syndrome, global developmental delays, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, ADD/ADHD, anxiety disorders, HIV, and autism, all learning together about Jesus.
If your church is including kids with disabilities at VBS this summer, I'd love it if you leave a comment sharing what you're doing! Or if you're a parent of a child with special needs, how can churches like ours welcome you and your kids?
All for His glory,