There are many ways in which churches can provide needed supports for children, teens, and adults who have disabilities. Often, the most effective practice is to provide adult or peer buddies to assist students with disabilities. Buddies help them learn more effectively, develop needed skills, and navigate church programming in all settings and stages of life. Sunday School, worship services, choir, and fellowship meals are the most common examples, but every ministry setting should be considered.
The primary purpose of a buddy is to help a student grow spiritually and become fully enfolded and assimilated into the church. The starting point for most churches is with Sunday School.
Not all students who have disabilities need a formal buddy to assist in classrooms, but every student needs healthy relationships with others. It is always good to strategically buoy those relationships by encouraging others to offer genuine friendship.
Here are a few thoughts if you are considering becoming a buddy to a student with a disability:
- Your overall objective in offering assistance in the classroom will be the growth and development of the student, both spiritually and relationally.
- It is not necessary to be an expert on an individual’s disability, therapeutic needs, or strengths and weaknesses. A teachable spirit is most important.
- A teachable buddy can learn to provide many kinds of practical supports: help with fine motor skills, reading, staying on task, taking breaks, recovering from stressful situations, navigating social relationships, and many other things.
- Buddies don’t try to do everything for their students. You want students to learn to do as many things as possible for themselves.
- The heart of being a buddy is taking an interest in and loving on the student just as he or she is, regardless of behavior issues or skill deficits. Students need to know that their adult or peer buddies believe in them.
- Being a buddy takes flexibility and adaptability. Your student’s needs—and thus your role and actions—may vary from week to week. More support may be needed some weeks over other weeks. Over time, as a student grows, the buddy’s role typically changes and decreases as fewer supports are needed.
It is easy to recognize ways that students with disabilities benefit from having a buddy in the classroom. We must not overlook the fact that there are mutual benefits to adult and peer buddies, such as growth in their own faith, Christlikeness, and compassion. Being a buddy will encourage you to step into new territory. You may not always know what to do, and you may not always think you can handle the needs that arise. But when you willingly step into areas that are uncomfortable, you will begin to love and serve as Christ did. The moment we step out in faith is when our hearts experience change and growth. Becoming a buddy will cause you to forget about your own problems, and it will give you insight into the challenges and unpredictability of life for a family touched by disability.
To be an effective buddy:
Always keep in mind your primary responsibilities:
- To keep your student safe
- To keep your student engaged and learning
- To continually love on and encourage your student
Remember the overall goals for your student:
- To become as independent as possible
- To grow spiritually as much as possible
- To make friends and be enfolded into church body life as much as possible
Determine the supports that are most needed by focusing on:
- Understanding your student’s needs and the areas in which you can best assist
- Learning what to do and not do to effectively support your student
- Increasing your ability to provide more of the supports needed
- Helping the student reach the overall goals above
Regularly re-evaluate the level of support that you give:
- Don’t assume that this week will be the same as last week or that next week will be like this week.
- Give students room to grow. Don’t do things for them that they can learn to do themselves. Help them stretch and grow in their abilities to do more.
- Gradually fade out your assistance as your student becomes more independent.
- Expect your role to change from one month to the next as your student grows.
Any size church can recruit and organize volunteers to be buddies. In smaller congregations, buddy ministry is usually organic while larger churches typically require a more highly structured approach. Whether your buddy system is simple or complex, your congregation can benefit from the exchange of lives between people with disabilities and their buddies.
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