“I used to think that those two kids in my class were trying to be sassy,” a dedicated Sunday School teacher shared with me last year in Ohio. “I started thinking that they didn’t have very good manners, and maybe they didn’t know how to follow rules. Then I learned about ADHD…I wonder if these boys might have it…”
Sadly, kids who have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are often judged by their behavior. On the surface, their actions might appear to be defiant or silly. These children might also be very quiet, appearing to “daydream.” They might struggle with impulse control, turn-taking, following directions, or staying with the group. In addition, children with this diagnosis may find it difficult to sustain attention, especially when learning new material. When discussing strategies for students with ADHD, my colleague, Child Psychologist Dr. Sherri McClurg commented, “ADHD is not really about attention deficit,” “It’s more about attention dysregulation; kids with this disorder may have a tough time focusing on the task at hand, and become overly focused on other things.” All of this can make church very stressful.
Fortunately, ministry leaders and pastors can employ some simple strategies for increasing attention and helping kids with ADHD feel successful at church. Recently, I spoke with Dr. McClurg, along with Sherri Halagan, a master teacher and consultant for Responsive Classroom, and Rebecca Hamilton, a special needs ministry leader to discuss some practical ways to accomplish this.
Seven Tips For Teaching Children With ADHD
1. Set clear expectations
Kids with ADHD respond well to structure. One effective way to create predictability is by including students in the process. When kids formulate rules, they take ownership in how the class works. During a conversation about classroom management, Sheri Halagan, a veteran teacher and consultant for Responsive Classroom suggested, “Stick to just a few basic rules, and refer to those rules during class to remind kids how to act and how to take care of each other.” Halagan notes that students benefit from practicing procedures, such as preparing for worship time or walking down the hallway: “Teachers shouldn’t assume that kids know what to do,” she noted, “Remember that teaching them how to manage materials and relationships is an important part of the curriculum!”
2. Show and tell
Most children like to know what to expect. Post a schedule of activities and review it with the group at the beginning of class. When they know what to expect, children will be better able to focus. One caveat: refrain from posting a time schedule. When kids expect to change activities at a specific time, they may focus too heavily on the clock rather than the curriculum. Instead, list activities in order to give a succinct schedule that helps rather than hampers the flow of the class.
3. Provide some “merging” time
Getting to church on time can be challenging for families affected by ADHD. Kids may struggle to manage a different routine, and sometimes have “melt-downs” because they would prefer to stay home and play. This intensity of emotions is common in kids who have difficulty controlling impulses, and can result in making the entire family late (and discouraged!). When families arrive, classes and worship might be in progress already. Consider having some less-structured activities at the beginning of class time: puzzles, free reading, and coloring pages. By starting the formal instruction a bit later, families affected by ADHD won’t feel like they’ve missed the “main event.”
4. Tap background knowledge
As with knowing the schedule, most children learn best when they can connect new information with something they already know. In addition, kids can pay attention more capably when they have an opportunity to explore how previously learned (and familiar!) material relates novel concepts. A proven strategy: The KWL Chart!
Before teaching a new concept, use this chart to get kids prepared. For example, ask children, “What do you KNOW about King David?” What do you WONDER about him?” As they give answers, the teacher can write down the information on the chart. After the entire activity is completed, have children discuss what they LEARNED, and also revise any inconsistencies in what they thought they knew. Again, this kind of activity taps background knowledge, creates anticipation for new materials, and allows learners to review new concepts.
5. Offer frequent breaks
The chance to get a drink of water or take a bathroom break can help kids to relax and re-focus. Build in such breaks by adding them to the kids’ individual schedules; this helps them to stay with the group for short periods of time because they know that a break is forthcoming. For safety reasons, be sure that kids are supervised when they head to the restroom or water fountain.
6. Plan for “hands-on” activities
When planning activities for children with ADHD, be sure to limit the amount of time they need to sit still. Instead, provide activities with a multi-sensory mindset. Rather than having kids listen to a story about Moses and the burning bush, for example, give each child a streamer of flame-colored crepe paper. Allow the kids to wave the “flames” during the story, and then glue them onto a piece of chart paper later, to help them remember the story. Remember, too, that children don’t have to be seated in chairs or on the floor to participate. Some kids prefer standing while they work on crafts or papers, while others like to lie on the floor. Offering choices can help kids with ADHD regulate their bodies and remain comfortable.
Another way to provide “wiggle room” for kids is by offering fidget toys. Easily acquired at dollar stores or websites, fidgets give kids a way to keep their hands busy as they listen to a story or sermon. One parent shares, “The fidget toy gives my child something to do while listening. (I know he’s heard it because he often recounts the Bible story to me afterwards)!” For best results, allow kids an opportunity to learn how to appropriately use fidgets without throwing them or taking them apart. For a great selection of fidget toys, visit www.therapyshoppe.com
7. Try some “screening.”
The rapidly changing stimuli in video games or movies can be captivating for kids with ADHD. When possible, include a video component in lessons. This allows kids to absorb information in a format that is both appealing and easy to process.
Although kids with ADHD may require some extra help, they also can provide a delightful energy and exuberance. By applying these strategies and recognizing the gifts of every child, ministry leaders can help kids to know the love of God. Special Needs Ministry Leader Rebecca Hamilton notes, “We believe God made these kids just exactly as they are…and we can’t miss out on the wonderful gifts they bring to our church.”
For more information on ADHD:
A ministry and educational consultant, Katie loves helping families, schools, and churches work together to make every child feel included. In addition to her consulting work, Katie is a writer whose articles have been featured on The Huffington Post, the Power of Moms blog and in K! Magazine. Katie is currently a columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine, and serves on the special needs curriculum team at Standard Publishing. Her first book, Every Child Welcome (with co-author Jolene Philo) will be published in 2015.
She lives in Chagrin Falls with her husband, Tom, and two children. You can find her online at katiewetherbee.com.