by Jackie Mills-Fernald
We all know the child who comes into class and it’s like a massive tornado just hit – things go from calm to chaos. What was a room of order has now morphed into a state of confusion. Dealing with a child who has a high level of hyperactivity and impulsivity can be frustrating for children ministry workers and is disruptive or even dangerous for the other students in the classroom.
Sometimes we believe a child’s inability to sit still, focus or behave is a result of poor parenting or lack of discipline. However, it can be something very different. Welcome to the world of ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is more than a “behavioral problem.” Often, we label it as a discipline problem, but it is a neurological disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Children diagnosed with ADHD typically have a high degree of hyperactivity, which translates into “always on the go,” being in a perpetual state of motion. They tend to quickly move from one activity to another, touching anything in sight and often talking incessantly. Sitting still for any length of time is almost impossible.
Another common characteristic of the child with ADHD is a high degree of impulsivity. Impulsive children tend to act out without thinking through actions or consequences, such as blurting out inappropriate comments, displaying emotions without any filters, and being physically aggressive. Here are some of the typical signs of hyperactivity-impulsivity:
- A feeling of restlessness, fidgeting with hands, squirming, or wiggling while seated
- A need for extreme physical activity: running, climbing, and prone to leaving seated positions at inappropriate times
- Difficulty in taking turns or waiting
- Easily distracted or taken off track
- Difficulty organizing self or belongings
How can we as Christian leaders create environments in which all children, even those with ADHD, thrive, have success, and are able to learn the truths of God? First, begin by lifting up the situation in prayer. Ask God to direct your conversations and interactions with parents. Create a partnership with parents to work toward assisting the child and maintaining classroom order. Begin the parent conversation by sharing what successes their child has already achieved, followed by the areas of challenge. Let parents know how much you value and love their child. Parents are willing to share tips, tactics, and strategies that work in home and school. We may need to make a few minor modifications or adaptations in program or classroom environments to support the child with ADHD. These changes can enhance the experience and learning for all children. There are many simple things we can do to help the student with ADHD thrive in our children’s ministry programs. Following are some tips and tricks for including the ADHD learner:
- Make communication clear, think short, simple instructions
- Break down multiple instructions or steps into one item at a time
- Give extra prompts and reminders; don’t assume once is enough
- Vary modalities; incorporate visual, auditory, and hands-on tactics
- Plan for movement and gross motor play
- Keep classrooms well organized and labeled
- Remove clutter, limit decorations, posters, etc.
- Vary high and low intensity activities
- Use visual schedules and post rules
- Have timers and clocks to help with transitions
- Catch children doing something good, and give immediate specific praise
- Keep routine and structure
- Create a space for quiet or a chill out room
- Facilitate and foster peer relationships
- Be flexible with student goals based on ability levels
- Allow for doodling, fidget balls, chairs that rock
- If necessary, create a behavior plan
- Partner with parents to create success for the ADHD child
- Pray for supernatural patience and joy
One of the saddest stories I have heard from a parent was when their child’s Sunday school teacher, who was obviously frustrated and frazzled, admonished the parents at check out stating, “If you disciplined your child more, he would not act like that. You should spank him more.” This angry teacher neglected to engage the parent early on by lovingly sharing the challenges the teacher was having with the child. As weeks went by, things progressed until the child was in control of the room, and not the teacher. This young boy had profound ADHD and had been given a plan in school that included some basic accommodations, such as a visual schedule, strict routine each day, and short directions by his teachers. This plan had dramatically improved his behaviors. The parents received no feedback from church leaders for weeks and made the assumption all was well until this particular Sunday. At that point, the parents apologetically and with embarrassment picked up their child. Not wanting to confront or engage the children’s ministry staff they left and never returned to that church again. They ended up attending a different church 40 miles away. The church is known to intentionally reach out to all students, even those with different learning styles. They had a far different experience.
From day one, the children’s ministry leaders asked the questions: “Does your child have any special needs or disabilities? If so, how can we engage and support your child?” Right from the start children’s ministry workers and parents must form a partnership, a collaborative agreement. This will ensure the most successful experience for the child in Sunday school. It will be a place for him to grow and be nurtured in his spiritual walk, as well as to have a church life like any other student.
Remember, inappropriate behaviors, such as those associated with ADHD, are not necessarily bad behaviors but should be viewed as unmet needs. As children ministry communicators, it is our job to do our best to understand those needs and to create environments where all learners can learn God’s love and truths. Many times, this requires us to become flexible and creative. What works for one learner may not work for another. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made by God, our creator, who imaged us in His likeness.
Jackie Mills-Fernald is the director of Access Ministry of McLean Bible Church, one of the largest ministries in the United States providing programs and services for persons with disabilities. Through her advocacy for inclusion of the disabled in the church and community, she has become a sought-after international speaker, trainer, and consultant for developing disability ministries and creating an inclusive culture in the church.
She currently serves as Program Committee Chair for Jill’s House, a future respite care and therapy center for children with special needs due to open in 2010. Jackie is also an advisor to the Fairfax County government’s Long Term Care Coordinating Committee and serves on the boards of Virginia Ability Alliance and INOVA Care Connection for Children. Jackie holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and earned her Masters in Organizational Leadership