When are kids most at risk of aggressive behavior at church?

shutterstock_114356413Most 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
  • Anxiety
  • 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.

f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddLet’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


ADHD Series LogoKey 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.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to When are kids most at risk of aggressive behavior at church?

  1. Awesome! The information about evening programming and mental fatigue is especially helpful!


  2. LeRoy Katz says:

    Good stuff Steve. I trust we use this type of information as we plan activities.


  3. Thankfully, I’ve never been faced with an aggressive kid during a youth ministry class, but it’s something that I’ve always been a little scared of. I’m so glad that you took the time to write this blog post, and I plan to pass it around to my fellow youth ministers and volunteers. Whatever we can do to minimize aggressive behavior sounds good to me!


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