This guest post was written by INCM board member Kim Botto.
I’m often asked by children’s ministry leaders, “When is the right time to train volunteer teams on how to respond to kids who have experienced trauma?” My answer is always the same – NOW.
Regardless of the size of your ministry, the church’s location, or the backgrounds of the kids in your church, you DO have kids who have experienced trauma.
Our journey at Crossroads Church, with sites in Kentucky and Ohio, to be a trauma-informed children’s ministry started nine years ago. The kids and student teams of my church gathered as we shared what we believed was God’s vision for our upcoming ministry year. We did this annually; sometimes we were all over the place, and other times a common theme was apparent.
That year, almost every single person shared visions of us being a place for all kids, regardless of their background or unique needs. Others saw kids who were not welcome at other places being greeted with open arms. We saw adoptive and foster families pouring into our buildings.
We prayed for God to fulfill this vision. And He did. When those kids with challenging behaviors, hard backgrounds, and unique needs walked in our doors, we were not equipped to respond in healthy or effective ways. Those kids changed us personally and changed the DNA of our ministry.
We began reading books, attending training sessions, and talking to experts, learning all we could, especially about kids who had experienced trauma. As we learned together as a staff we began training our volunteer teams. The results were incredible. Kids who didn’t fit in at other places found a home and came to know and love Jesus. Families who weren’t particularly interested in Jesus heard we were a safe and fun place for all kids, so they tried us out.
Throughout the process, whole families felt welcomed, met new friends, and started to follow Jesus. We began to work with other churches, helping them build teams that welcomed all kids too.
There were a lot of things we learned along the way; here are the steps we take when training teams:
Consider Your Mindset
What are the beliefs we have about kids? Do we believe some kids are too far gone? Or do we have boundless hope for every kid? Being a ministry that is trauma-informed begins with a mindset that God can use us to help a child heal and reach their full potential.
When we have empathy for kids, an understanding of some of the adversity they’ve experienced and how it’s affected them, we are in a position to build relationships with them and create spaces where they feel safe. We build empathy in our teams through science and stories.
Through science, we have learned that kids who have experienced trauma are often living in survival mode, and their behavior reflects that. Through stories, volunteers better understand some of the adversity kids have experienced. When sharing stories, protect the kids by sharing without attributing the story to a specific child.
Share Practical Strategies
When we have boundless hope and an understanding that every kid has a story and their behavior reflects that story, we are ready to try some new strategies. Traditional discipline strategies for the classroom like “time out” or “three strikes you’re out” are often ineffective.
As a staff team, we’d attended days and days of training, but we knew most volunteers did not have the capacity to attend in-depth training. So we made a list of a few practical and easy ways to execute strategies to respond to a child who is displaying challenging behavior. The bonus is that these strategies work with ALL kids (and even in our adult relationships).
These new methods do require some practice so that we automatically respond to the most challenging situations in a way that promotes relationship and healing.
Becoming a trauma-informed ministry takes work and commitment. I believe the biggest opportunity for the church today is to build teams that can create safe and welcoming environments for all kids. We can model truth and grace, just like Jesus, as we build relationships and speak truth.