Ask The Source

Help with disciplining a special needs student.

Every year we have a new batch of 7th graders enter our ministry. One of them is a special needs student. This student is mentally and emotionally challenged. Her parents are as well.

The last 3 Wednesday's this student kept coughing (loud coughs, some even sounded very fake. I called her grandmother and asked her to take her to a doctor since this has been going on for weeks now). I'd be nice at first and ask this student to get a drink. It has become a big distraction to me and our students during our Bible study. (This student doesn't cough at all during our “Hang Out” time!) We only run around 10 on Wednesday nights in a small room, which doesn't help the situation.

Any ideas on how to deal with special needs students? I have two in my group. I want to love and minister to this (coughing) student, but not at the risk of my other students missing out on the Bible studies. Thanks!

Tulsa, OK


Dear Zack,

Thank you for contacting The Source for ideas on having Special Needs students in your ministry. My name is Danette. I'm a volunteer youth leader and I answer many of the emails that come to The Source. I had a wheelchair-bound student in my last youth ministry. And, I agree, it's a challenge and a delicate balancing act when they are a distraction or when the parents want you to treat them “just like everyone else.” I commend you for trying to work this through, Zack, I really do.

So, the first thing I suggest is talking with your lead pastor, giving him or her a heads-up that you're facing this situation and wanting to handle it wisely. They may have helpful insight with this family. But mainly, you want your pastor to “have your back.”

Secondly, I'm going to recommend a book called Let All the Children Come to Me – A Practical Guide to Including Children with Disabilities in Your Church Ministries. Granted, it's primarily geared toward children's workers, but it was quite insightful and really made me think about dealing with kids with disabilities.

Thirdly, along with your pastor, set some boundaries which apply to all the students. For example, if a non-disabled student were hacking through the Bible study, you'd graciously address it just like you did the disabled student. And you might even pull them aside privately and ask them to bring cough lozenges to group with them.

I recently had a situation in which a bigger kid in my son's gym class, who has some kind of disorder, was being obnoxious toward my son, along with everyone else in the class. I sent a gentle email to the coach asking her advice and wisdom in helping my son respond in a Christ-like manner (Christian coach, so I could use that term) but stick up for himself when he needed to. In other words, take the, “I need your help with this,” approach with the parents.

Pray first, then talk privately with the parents – I recommend doing this with your pastor present. After you hear their “wisdom and advice,” explain that you want their child to be involved, but also want other students to benefit from the group as well. Tell them what you shared in your email, that he has no coughing spells until the Bible study begins, and that you're unable to minister to him or anyone else effectively when that happens.

With the wheelchair bound girl I mentioned above – she had cerebral palsy – she would bump into leaders with her wheelchair to get their attention. She couldn't talk, but her mind was sharp and she knew what she was doing! It was cute at first, but it got on our nerves a little the 2nd and 3rd times. So there were times we had to lovingly say, “Sherry, if you see me talking to someone else, just wait. I want to talk to you, but I can't always interrupt my conversation with another student.” All that to say, it's important to be gentle but very clear with students, disabled and non-disabled.

Zack, I hope this helps. I send this with a prayer for God's wisdom and grace for you in this situation. Thanks again for emailing us and even more for your investment in students!

Same team,

Danette Matty, Resource Correspondent
The Source for Youth Ministry


Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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