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It is important to provide a child with additional needs with someone they can trust who can help them understand what is happening, where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing.
It’s festival season, a time of year when across the country people are heading to events themed around everything from music to food, cars, sports or lifestyles.
There are, of course, lots of Christian festivals and summer camps held at this time of year too, but how can these festivals be inclusive for children and young people with additional needs, whether they are coming with their families or with their church?
Here’s some ‘Additional Needs Blogfather Top Tips’ to follow, whether you are a festival or camp organiser, taking a group of children or young people to a festival or camp as a youth leader, or are going along as a family or as part of a church group.
Of all the strategies that a festival or summer camp can put in place to support children, young people, and also adults with additional needs or disabilities, the single most important and impactful is to have someone who ‘owns’ this. Where an Inclusion Champion is in place it can be transforming.
The person fulfilling this role doesn’t need to necessarily have an in-depth health, social care or education background, but be willing to think about the things happening at the festival or event through the experiences of the children and young people that you have with you. What is hard for them to access? What do they struggle with? What simple modifications can be easily made to make things more inclusive?
For example, an Autistic young person may find that coming into a festival meeting place or marquee at the same time as everyone else very hard as their senses are overwhelmed by the noise, number of people etc. Could it be arranged for them to come in 10 minutes earlier, accompanied by a support worker or a trusted ‘buddy’, and to have a familiar ‘safe place’ where they can settle as others gradually come in?
The Inclusion Champion could look out for these opportunities and help to put things in place to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Having an Inclusion Champion doesn’t mean that everyone else leaves it all up to them; it’s all of our responsibility to look out for the needs of everyone, but having an Inclusion Champion means there is always a focus in this important area among all of the other calls on our attention and time.
ONE-TO-ONE SUPPORT ‘BUDDIES’
Many children or young people with additional needs can become anxious and stressed if they are left to cope on their own. Not knowing where they are in the programme, what is happening now and next, what is expected of them, all can build up to the point where they struggle to cope with the feelings they are experiencing and this may then result in a meltdown which can be hard for them and for others. This can be especially true in an unfamiliar environment with a very different programme, such as will be experienced at a festival.
Having one-to-one support can make a big difference, providing a child or young person with someone they can trust who can help them understand what is happening, where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. To check that they are coping well and to know what to do to support them if they are struggling.
One-to-one support team don’t have to be typical children’s or youth workers; their primary role is not to run activities, but rather to support an individual child or young person. Someone with a caring, loving, empathic approach is ideal. We sometimes have to fish in a different pond for these people, looking outside of the usual children’s work demographic to other groups of people. The grandparent generation can be really great in this role, as can other young people as ‘buddies’, with appropriate supervision and support.
SENSORY SAFE PLACES
It is important to provide safe ways for children and young people with additional needs to be able to calm and relax. A safe sensory room or zone, maybe a gazebo, appropriately supervised, and equipped with calming lighting, soothing sounds, comfortable seating/floormats etc and with safe things for children to engage with to help them relax, will be helpful. Sensory overload can be a common issue for children and young people with a range of additional needs and so providing ways for them to manage and regulate this sensory input is essential. A simple pair of ear defenders can make the difference between someone being able to enjoy the programme or being in physical pain because of the noise.
Most of us learn best when our learning is fun, engaging us in activities that we enjoy and are good at. It’s no different for children and young people with additional needs. Using what they enjoy to help them learn during festivals, summer camps etc. will often deliver great results. Having some resources to support them in the sensory safe spaces will allow them to learn and develop in an environment that they feel comfortable in. Whether they enjoy responding through art or craft, through Lego, through sensory activities (making a rainmaker, or using a battery fan for the wind, for example) or whatever works for them, equip this space with the resources to help them make the most out of the teaching themes of the festival. Maybe have some graphic, picture based, Bibles in there too.
The Inclusion Champion and Safeguarding Leader make a great team, working closely together to ensure the safety of everyone, being points of contact for families who need to talk to someone about the support needed for their child, ensuring that the whole team think about these two vitally important strands of children’s and youth work together.
Clearly it is important that any one-to-one support team or buddies are suitably safeguarding vetted and trained, both for their protection and the protection children and young people. Some of them may need to help with toileting, or in a festival or camp setting with showering or getting dressed, and suitable guidelines to protect both children and adults will need to be considered, to ensure that no adult is alone with a child in a toilet, shower block etc.
Some children or young people with additional needs may find it harder to communicate effectively, which raises the risk of them being unable to alert someone if they are being abused. All of the usual signs to look out for when working with any child will apply here, but with an increased duty of care due to the vulnerability of the child or young person. Understand how they prefer to communicate, is it through symbols, signing, pictures, text, speech, a blend of these and more? Help them to communicate effectively by learning how they do it.
It is easy for us to focus on the challenges around supporting children or young people with additional needs or disabilities at festivals or summer camps, but this would be to ignore the amazing benefits that doing this well can have for everyone. Getting this right makes the festival, summer camp, or event a place of belonging for everyone; a place when people are missed if they can’t come, for all of the right reasons. The culture of caring, supporting and inclusiveness that this creates is wonderful to see and is transforming for all. Have a blessed festival season!
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.