Most kids who display aggressive behavior serious enough in terms of frequency and/or severity to be of concern to church staff and volunteers will meet the criteria for one or more mental health or developmental disorders. Nevertheless, children’s and youth ministry staff and volunteers need to take steps to minimize antecedents to aggressive behavior without specific information about a child’s diagnosis or treatment. Many kids who are prone to aggressive behavior have never been evaluated or treated. Some who have been evaluated may not have been diagnosed correctly. Many parents will be reluctant to share detailed information with church staff about their child’s diagnosis or treatment because they fear the possibility of being stigmatized or don’t trust that information shared will remain confidential.
With that said, we may still be able to make educated guesses for individual kids as to what church activities or environments carry the greatest risk of aggressive behavior based upon general observations that can be made by staff or volunteers with little formal training in serving kids with disabilities.
We’ll examine higher-risk situations for kids with:
- Executive functioning deficits: Difficulties inhibiting behavior, regulating emotions, sustaining attention/focus, following directions
- Mood dysregulation: Irritability, frequent tantrums, meltdowns
- Sensory issues: excessive reactivity to light, sound, touch, smells, taste
- Social relatedness
Today, we’ll look at higher risk ministry environments for kids with executive functioning deficits, and address kids with mood dysregulation, sensory issues, anxiety and social relatedness during the upcoming week.
As a general rule of thumb, kids who struggle with executive functioning are capable of controlling their behavior and managing the ways in which they express emotions-it just requires much more mental effort for them to do so than it would for another child of the same age. You’ll hear parents and teachers throw around the concept that kids like this need “structure.” I’d define “structure” as clear and predictable rules, expectations and routines for task completion and interpersonal relationships. What “structure” does for kids who struggle to demonstrate self-control is that it allows them to devote cognitive resources and energy to the task at hand as opposed to having to expend those resources thinking through how to navigate the immediate demands of their environment.
Let’s apply this concept to ministry environments…For kids with executive functioning weaknesses, their risk for becoming aggressive will be reduced during predictable and familiar routines. As their environment becomes more chaotic, noisy, disorganized and unpredictable, their resources for maintaining self-control become more limited. Your staff and volunteers will want to address:
Transition times before, during and after scheduled children’s or youth ministry activities. If kids with executive functioning weaknesses walk into a room where peers are yelling, jumping, wrestling or becoming physical with one another, their ability to maintain self-control will become more limited. These are the kids who “don’t know when to stop.” Having adults in ministry environments well in advance of the scheduled start times for scheduled activities to maintain fun with order will help reduce risk of aggressive behavior. This supervision is especially important at drop-off and pick-up times. Another high-risk environment can be transition times between large group worship and small group breakouts or activities. Dismissing kids to their assigned area of the church building in as organized a manner as possible helps kids with self-control deficits to maintain appropriate behavior.
Participation in high-energy activities: Most kids experience multisensory, high energy worship and ministry activities as engaging and fun, and learn well in those ministry environments. Such environments are more of a challenge for kids with executive weaknesses because they can deplete the child’s cognitive resources for maintaining control. Having kids predisposed to aggressive behavior doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change the environment for everyone. But you might consider alternate activities for kids with weaknesses in their capacity for self-regulation during those times in your programming. One of my patients became a highly valued member of his church’s parking team. Around the time he was done helping to park cars, the light and sound show with worship was completed, and he’d go back in the church for his large group teaching and small group discussion.
Evening activities: Because kids with executive functioning weaknesses expend more cognitive resources to maintain self-control, they may experience mental fatigue more quickly than their peers. As a result, kids who do OK during the day at church or school in managing their behavior and emotions might have a more difficult time doing so under similar circumstances later in the day. A kid who does OK on Sunday morning in age-appropriate programming may need more individualized support in order to maintain self-control in the evening.
Next: When are kids with mood and/or sensory issues most at risk of aggressive behavior at church?
Updated February 21, 2014
Key Ministry has assembled a helpful resource page for church leaders and parents addressing the topic of ADHD and spiritual development. This page includes our blog series on the topic and links to helpful videos and resources for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents. Access the resource page here.