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One effective plan for helping students with special needs, learning disabilities and mental health challenges be included in your children’s or youth ministry is a buddy ministry. In this comprehensive post on buddies, we’ll answer these questions:

  • Why should we have buddies?
  • Who can be a buddy?
  • How do we train them?
  • What do they need to be successful?
  • How can we help them feel supported and valuable?

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE BUDDIES?

Exodus 4:10-16 gives a biblical model for having help to fulfill what God calls us to do. Moses had a calling he couldn’t fulfill on his own. He said he was slow of speech and could not stand before Pharaoh and speak for God. God answered that he knew exactly what limitations held Moses back. In fact, he responded that even those limitations were part of his plan. Then God provided Aaron as a helper. Aaron was strong where Moses was weak.

This dependence on others is a major characteristic of the Christian life. We weren’t created to do it all on our own. This dependence also reflects “one body with many members” from 1 Corinthians 12. Having a buddy come alongside a person with a disability shows care and concern for that student. It reflects the interdependence we all have on each other.

WHO CAN BE A BUDDY?

At our church, teens over 14 years old and adults can be buddies. Teens must be recommended by the youth minister or a small group leader. What we are really looking for in our buddies is certain character traits. Those traits include kindness, patience, creativity, empathy and joy. We want buddies to be fun to be around and feel like a partner or friend.

HOW DO WE TRAIN THEM?

We have policies in place for all our volunteers that buddies also follow, including background checks for those over 18. There are additional policies about safety and privacy specific to our students that we follow. For example, we don’t allow our buddies to post pictures on social media of their time buddying unless they get proper permission. We also make sure they show respect to the students they buddy with when talking about them to others.

Post-COVID, our process for training buddies has changed. Now we do most of our training through videos. (You can check out my church’s training videos here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/8613015.) We also plan for them to shadow an existing buddy so they can see what’s expected. Respite nights and VBS are great times to train new buddies so they can get hands-on experience.

WHAT DO buddies NEED TO BE SUCCESSFUL?

First, buddies need to know their role and how they fit into the structure of the class and overall ministry. Who do they answer to in the classroom? Who do they check in with? Who do they find if there’s a problem? Answering all the questions ahead of time is important.

They also need to feel comfortable asking questions. “No question is a dumb question” is a good reminder for your buddies. They need a plan for lots of scenarios, including what to do during a meltdown or if a student is aggressive or self-injurious. Better to have a plan than for everyone to stand around while the situation gets worse. They need to feel empowered to make quick decisions, like taking the student in the hall, on a walk or into the sensory room for a short amount of time when the student is overwhelmed and needs to calm down. I tell our buddies, “Nothing you do is wrong!” even if we talk through what could be done differently next time.

I also think one of the most important tools they can have is a buddy bag. A buddy bag is worn by the helper (not the student being helped), and it’s full of things to make the child or teen more comfortable.

WHAT DO WE PUT IN BUDDY BAGS?

  • sensory toys
  • a visual schedule
  • noise reducing headphones
  • chew tubes
  • snacks

We personalize the buddy bags for each student and include an info card in the bags so the buddy knows how to best meet the needs of the child/teen. For example, here’s what could be on a student’s info card:

Name: Parent name and contact info. Allergies: none. Medical needs: none.

Likes: verbal praise, walks, Godzilla/dragons/monsters, the blue pop-it fidgets, blocks, building train tracks, sugar free candy, being active.

Needs help with: Keeping hands to self, sitting for lessons and paying attention, being quiet while teacher is talking and participating in class activities, giving other students a chance to answer questions.

In the buddy bag: fidget toys, extra chewy, visual schedule, dried fruit.

Sensory room breaks when needed, set visual timer (5-10 minutes).

ISP: (An ISP, or Individualized Spiritual Plan, is a document we create for each student that includes spiritual goals we have for him/her so helpers know what the expectations are.) Nathan has made a profession of faith and been baptized. His goals include participating in discussion with respect, completing activity sheet with assistance, sharing a prayer request, telling his buddy/parents one thing he learned.

HOW CAN WE HELP OUR BUDDIES FEEL VALUABLE & CELEBRATED?

Offer lots of specific, verbal praise, especially if it’s been a challenging week and they handled it well. You can give small thank you gifts. Consider opportunities for more training. For example, bring them with you to Inclusion Fusion or another disability ministry conference. Invite students/families to write thank you notes, especially after a big event like VBS or camp. Let the buddy know his/her help really made a difference in the life of the student.

I’m so thankful for the buddies who serve in our church. They help make the gospel accessible and help our students participate in class with their peers. Like Moses and Aaron, we all need a little help to live out the Christian life and fulfill the calling God has given us.

WHAT DO WE PUT IN BUDDY BAGS?

  • sensory toys
  • a visual schedule
  • noise reducing headphones
  • chew tubes
  • snacks

We personalize the buddy bags for each student and include an info card in the bags so the buddy knows how to best meet the needs of the child/teen. For example, here’s what could be on a student’s info card:

Name: Parent name and contact info. Allergies: none. Medical needs: none.

Likes: verbal praise, walks, Godzilla/dragons/monsters, the blue pop-it fidgets, blocks, building train tracks, sugar free candy, being active.

Needs help with: Keeping hands to self, sitting for lessons and paying attention, being quiet while teacher is talking and participating in class activities, giving other students a chance to answer questions.

In the buddy bag: fidget toys, extra chewy, visual schedule, dried fruit.

Sensory room breaks when needed, set visual timer (5-10 minutes).

ISP: (An ISP, or Individualized Spiritual Plan, is a document we create for each student that includes spiritual goals we have for him/her so helpers know what the expectations are.) Nathan has made a profession of faith and been baptized. His goals include participating in discussion with respect, completing activity sheet with assistance, sharing a prayer request, telling his buddy/parents one thing he learned.

HOW CAN WE HELP OUR BUDDIES FEEL VALUABLE & CELEBRATED?

Offer lots of specific, verbal praise, especially if it’s been a challenging week and they handled it well. You can give small thank you gifts. Consider opportunities for more training. For example, bring them with you to Inclusion Fusion or another disability ministry conference. Invite students/families to write thank you notes, especially after a big event like VBS or camp. Let the buddy know his/her help really made a difference in the life of the student.

I’m so thankful for the buddies who serve in our church. They help make the gospel accessible and help our students participate in class with their peers. Like Moses and Aaron, we all need a little help to live out the Christian life and fulfill the calling God has given us.