It’s the beginning of a new school year and teachers in my school building are pulling out all the stops to prepare for their incoming students. As I pop into classrooms, teachers point out their quiet rooms, flexible seating options, visual schedules, and class rules displayed around the room. With 11% of children in the United States diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), teachers are adjusting their instructional methods to meet the needs of these learners. ADHD is a neurological condition that impairs a person’s executive functioning skills - planning, organizing, focusing, and inhibition control. In children this may manifest as difficulty sitting still, blurting out, carelessness, failure to finish tasks, tantrums, and sometimes aggression.
In this first week of school I’m called in to discuss a 4th grader with a profound expression of ADHD. Joey* paces at the back of the classroom, talks almost incessantly, and focuses only long enough to write his name on his worksheet. Our school team brainstorms strategies for Joey. A final plan includes one-to-one instruction several times a day, frequent breaks in the classroom, and a staff “buddy” to meet daily with Joey for the sole purpose of developing a positive and caring relationship.
Fortunately, Joey has landed in a supportive school environment where his teachers understand he’s not a “bad” or defiant boy; rather, he lacks the neurological tools to comply as other children might. Sadly, too often children with ADHD come to see themselves as failures. Katie Wetherbee, a parent and contributor to Church4EveryChild explains, “My kids with ADHD often get very frustrated and discouraged and start to see themselves as a disappointment to parents and teachers.” Too many children with ADHD feel unworthy and unloved.
While schools are learning how to adapt their classrooms and teaching techniques to accommodate children with attentional deficits, often church remains problematic. Traditional Anabaptist values include peacefulness, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and self-control. Our worship services are often orderly, restrained, and sometimes liturgical. Our church’s way of being is often in direct contrast to that of a child with ADHD’s way of being.
With this disconnect, how do we ensure our children with attentional difficulties feel love and belonging in our congregations? Even more foundational; how do we create a space where parents of children with ADHD even want to walk through the doors?
Here are a few ideas to start with:
See the gifts: ADHD presents challenges, but also many gifts! Boundless energy and enthusiasm, creativity, tenacity, inquisitiveness, passion, and playfulness are often characteristics of children with ADHD. Identify, name, and nurture the gifts of each child in your church with ADHD.
Embrace messy: Children with ADHD may lack the executive functioning skills to sit quietly through an hour-long service. My own childhood congregation discouraged clapping, dancing, or speaking out. But kids with ADHD need to know that their squirming, pacing, blurting, or laughing isn’t wrong or sinful. In fact, the liveliness and authenticity that these children bring is often what younger generations are seeking in a church.
Multi-modalities: In a service or Sunday school class, use a variety of materials to engage children. Hands-on learning, manipulatives, music, dancing, games, pictures, or videos will make the lesson more accessible. And bonus - all children will benefit from engaging materials!
Errorless teaching: ADHD often impairs children’s short-term memory. It can become frustrating to continually answer questions incorrectly or misunderstand what is being requested. Errorless Teaching is an instructional technique that provides a prompt before asking a question so that the child easily responds correctly. Provide training for Sunday school teachers: Sunday school teachers are often volunteers who lack specific training in teaching or disabilities. There are many strategies that can help children with ADHD engage the material, such as visual schedules, a predictable schedule, weighted choices, or transition markers. Check out additudemag.com, Thriving with ADHD, and the Whole Brain Child.
Denise Reesor lives in Goshen, Indiana where she works as a school psychologist. She is passionate about the inclusion and belonging of all peoples and families in the church. Denise is a field associate for ADN and attends East Goshen Mennonite church along with her husband Tony.