Maybe your church likes the idea of getting families involved in foster care, but you know that sometimes children in foster care have tough behaviors. Or perhaps you want to minister to families that have difficult histories, but again… those tough behaviors.
Finding volunteers for children’s ministry programs is difficult enough, but what about when children with difficult behaviors start showing up? How can you love these children (and their families) while not running off your already worn out volunteers? And how do you show these children, who have often experienced neglect from their parents, that God loves them?
We are here to help!
The first thing you need to hear is this: GRACE. You need grace for yourself, for your volunteers, and for the children and their families. Jesus has covered all the frustration, anger, mess ups, and sins both in the past and the future with his blood. Take a breath and soak in the beauty of this truth.
It’s important to remember children’s behaviors are communication. It can be irritating communication, but it is still an effort to share information about their needs. Big behaviors might be related to something that has triggered their fear center (the amygdala) with a result of fight, flight or freeze. When you see children running off, yelling, being physically aggressive or simply freezing, try to remember that their bodies are likely registering a fear. They need help regulating, not more punishment. Some children may have other sensory issues that are only seen at church. Because church is a different environment than they are used to on a weekly basis, these may be difficult to uncover. Their responses can give you clues to what is wrong.
The following suggestions can be scaled to whatever degree is necessary and whatever your budget allows. Every church is on a different journey and has different needs. We’ve made this Super Simple with three “S”s: Safety, structure and sensory.
Safety: This is very important, but often overlooked, especially in small towns and churches. Be sure that you have safety protocols in place to protect children and families and volunteers. Be sure that two adults are in every room. Have a check in system and know who is allowed to pick up children from classes. Make sure that you have a system in place for runners and all chemicals are put away. If there are children in foster care, know who can have their pictures shared, and what other privacy or safety concerns the foster family might have. Your system can be as simple as a process followed by the children’s ministry team, or something more robust with fancy buzzers and walkie-talkies.
Structure: This is important for children whose lives are chaotic. Help children know what to expect, what the rules, expectations and consequences are, and who is in charge. If they don’t know who is in charge, they will try to be because they need to know that someone has control. It’s best for it to be an adult! Prepare them for any transitions in the program, including leader changes throughout the night or even week to week. Pre-teaching is helpful and helps children process and prepare themselves for changes.
Provide a variety of learning opportunities for different learning styles and ranges. Children with difficult life experiences may need more tactile learning as opposed to listening. Their brains might process slower. They may need to incorporate movement into the lesson in order to be engaged. They might be behind academically. They are biologically different than children from in-tact stable families. Do not expect them to be flexible and adjust, you should be flexible to meet their needs.
Consider how messaging might come across to a child whose family is socially, economically or racially diverse. Whether you are sharing a bible story, a new program, or a service project, keep these children and families in mind.
While making activities as exciting as possible seems like a great idea, often they can heighten a child’s arousal. When they get too excited, it can be difficult to calm them down, resulting in a meltdown (for you- or their parents at bedtime!) yikes! Beginning the program with activity and busyness can help get out the wiggles, but by the end of the time, they should be engaged in quiet activities so that they are ready to transition home.
Candy is a popular reward for children’s programs, but for some children it can create mayhem. Children from hard places tend to have bigger reactions to sugar, dyes and even glucose because of the stress that their bodies have been under. They cannot process these things well, so giving them sugar could trigger big behaviors.
Finally, change the way you think about discipline. When you remember that the child’s behavior is communicating something, it is easier to be less punitive. Classroom management is important, but the end goal is creating a safe space for all children to understand Jesus’ love for them. The only time we see Jesus angry is with the religious elite who made it hard for people to come to God and the disciples when they tried to push the children away.
Unfortunately, this blog will oversimplify discipline ideas, but here is a start:
- Make a connection before you redirect or discipline. Find some way to connect with the child and communicate that you care about them before you address the behavior (unless the behavior is unsafe, of course.)
- Use time-ins vs. time-outs. The basis of this is to maintain a connection with the child versus alienation. God draws us to repentance with his kindness, and the same will work with children with difficult behaviors in your programs. As a Sunday School teacher, I will ask the children who are having troubles behaving (most often the pastor’s kids!!) if they want to sit by me. Rather than sending a child to the corner to process things by themselves, I ask them to sit with me so I can help them regulate. After a few times of having certain children come sit by me, they often just assign themselves to my right and left. They know that is where they feel the safest and the most comfortable, and they know I care about them.
- Playful engagement is perhaps the most fun way to discipline. This requires creativity and good humor and works best when you start to notice that a child is agitated rather than when you have full blown behaviors. Children cannot be afraid and playful at the same time.
Sensory: Remembering that children’s behaviors are communication, helps us keep in mind that some children may not have words to tell what they need. Often, they are unsure of why they are upset, so it is our job to decode their messages. Two common issues with children who have experienced trauma are proprioception and vestibular dysregulation. Some churches and many schools have sensory rooms for children; however, you can scale sensory activities to whatever level is best for your church and whatever your resources allow.
Proprioception is the body’s spatial awareness. This is the most common we see with children in foster care.
Signs that children need help with proprioception are disconnection to their bodies, constant movement or fidgeting, or even lack of emotional control. To help children re-regulate their bodies, engage them in “heavy” work activity.
- Push-ups or burpees (children are a lot more excited about this than adults!)
- Ask children to show you how strong they are by trying to push the wall over, or ask them to try to knock you down by pushing on your hands.
- Sing a song or play a game that involves stomping or pressing their hands together as hard as they can.
- Children who are constantly dysregulated often like to have a weighted item on their lap or shoulders.
- Adaptive seating options are helpful, such as bean bags, balls or rocking chairs.
- Bubble gum (sugar free!) is heavy work because of the big chewing involved. This is a good option for older children.
The vestibular system has to do with the inner ear. When children are craving movement, some of these tools can help. Notice that some children can respond well to some but not others.
- Spinning (in a swing or by dancing)
- Hanging (on a bar, from a chair, in a swing)
- Obstacle course
- Wheel barrow walking
- Swinging (these are inexpensive and fun to have in classrooms, if your space allows.)
Other factors to keep in mind that might help are noise, lights and smells. These can be agitating or calming to a child. Many children are sensitive to loud noises, which are common in churches. Noise canceling headphones can be very helpful. Having a few pairs on hand can help everyone enjoy the service much more.
Another option is allowing children with sensory issues to be invited into cry rooms or other quiet places during services.
Consider lighting and other visual stimulations. Too many flashing lights or too many people can overwhelm children. Again, creating a quiet place like a cry room can help children when they are upset.
Remember, behavior is communication. Try to be a detective to find out what a child needs and give them the tools to share that information. Meeting a child’s needs, especially when they have had adverse experiences with caregivers neglecting their needs, helps repair damage and helps them see that the world is a safe place, people are loving, and most of all, that Jesus loves them and cares about them. When children know they are loved and safe, their brains are ready to learn and to hear the lessons you have prepared for them.
If you have more questions, we would love to be a resource to you! Contact us at Savannah@COMPASSnebraska.org or 308-440-6759.