Including Children with Special Needs in Children’s Ministries Part 1: The Rationale

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-58-09-am WHY INCLUSION?

The numbers of children with special needs is growing in our country. Autism alone  has increased 119.4% since the year 2000  (autism-society.org)    ADHD is also on the rise with a 42% increase between 2003 and 2011 according to the most recent data (cdc.gov). We are seeing more and more children with varying disabilities coming into our churches. While there are growing ministries available to students with special needs, many of them are separate from the other children’s ministries in the church. This population, already rejected and isolated by the world, may be better served through inclusive ministries contributing to feelings of safety, acceptance and love.

– A BRIEF LOOK AT PUBLIC EDUCATION:

In public schools, these children are being identified then served in a variety of ways. They may be evaluated and provided with one of several legal documents detailing their needs. (For more information on this process, click here IDEA 504).  The students will receive their accommodations/ services in the LEAST RESTRICTIVE ENVIRONMENT. The least restrictive environment refers to the educationally appropriate setting  which most closely resembles that of same-aged peers. For example, a student with mild disabilities may receive services that are pushed-in to his class. A special education teacher or therapist would provide services in the general education classroom. Another student may receive pull-out services one or more times per week. She would leave her general education classroom to meet with the teacher or therapist individually or in a small group. Another scenario may include a small group of identified students within a general education classroom run by two teachers: a general education teacher and a special education teacher. Students with more significant needs may be placed in a self-contained class, a class with only special education students and a small student to teacher ratio. Numbers of students may vary from 4-15 depending on the students’ needs, and the type of curriculum taught may also be different.

Public school districts may use any combination of these programs to serve a particular student. For example, a student may be pulled out of the general education classroom for occupational therapy, but may also have a special education teacher push – in to the classroom to work with him and two other students during math and ELA. A high school student may have a self-contained Global History class, an inclusion English class and  general education art or music. In the 2013-14 school year, about 13% of all public school students received special education services. Of those students, only 14% spent less than 40% of their school day in the general education classroom (nces.ed.gov)

Public schools are academic forums and have the purpose of providing each individual student with the greatest opportunity to reach their highest academic potential. Schools are evaluated by their success in this area and may need to segregate some students with more challenging needs in order to accomplish this goal.

– AND THIS MATTERS BECAUSE?

So what does this have to do with serving children with special needs in our church ministries? I bring out this information for two reasons: first, to highlight how a major provider  to special needs students handles the situation, and second, to delineate their purpose in the provisions.

With approximately 6.5 million special education students attending public schools (2013-14 school year), public education dictates that about 87% of those students spend more than half of their school day with typically developing peers. Environments where students are included are modified in various ways to accommodate their needs. Students that are taken out of the general population are placed elsewhere primarily to meet academic needs, but only after it has been documented that this is the best way to accomplish that goal.

– OUR MISSION:

While every church has it’s own specific mission, I think it is safe to say, that we all have one purpose in common: To win souls to Christ. It’s our Great Commission…“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15 NIV). Each church has it’s own way of doing this but again, I think it’s safe to say that we have at least one method in common: Love. The second greatest command tells us to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, (Matthew 22: 39). We do not have the burden of teaching our children to read and write; we have the joy of teaching all of our children that they are loved.

This is so important. Children with special needs, and their families, are often confronted with rejection, failure, misunderstandings, isolation and ignorance.  Churches are places where these feelings should not exist. Yet whole families leave churches because they feel that they do not fit in. I had one parent express to me that she and her autistic son, “…just don’t belong anywhere.” Of course they belong somewhere. Right here in our churches. We need to welcome children and families with special needs. We need to show them that we are not led by a spirit of fear or ignorance but rather with a spirit of love and acceptance. We need to let them know that they are valued, they can teach us, and that they are us.

Many, many churches across the United States are responding. Special Needs classes and programs are popping up everywhere. But we need to be careful. Although sometimes necessary, segregated programs are just another way to isolate or reject a child with special needs. Good intentions may lead to negative feelings. There is another way for most children with special needs.

– THE LEAST RESTRICTIVE CHURCH MINISTRY ENVIRONMENT:

We saw in the public school setting how about 87% of students identified with a disability spend more than half the day in general education. School is about 6 hours. Most of our children’s ministries take up much less time than that and while there may be academics such as reading and writing involved, they are not the ultimate goal of the ministry. Most students with special needs can and should be included in ministries with their peers. And by included, I don’t mean putting an eight year old in the nursery or preschool class. I’m talking about same-aged peers. Children with special needs are more like their peers than they are different. Even the teens that I teach who are in self-contained classes 8/9 periods during their school day following a Life Skills curriculum enjoy music, playing games, using the computer, watching videos, and reading stories.  Most of them can spend an hour in super church with an extra adult or a buddy to help them to participate, along with a few minor changes such as lowering the volume on the music and a clearly defined space.

With training for the ministry leaders, and accommodations/ modifications made to the environment, curriculum or materials, most children with special needs can be learning that they are loved and accepted right alongside their same-aged peers. Using the model of an individualized plan, our special needs students can receive their Christian Education by participating in all or part of the ministries we provide to everyone.

CONCLUSION 

Statistics demonstrate that only a very small percentage of the general population requires a self-contained learning environment. With some effort and training, most special needs students can be included in some or all of our church children’s ministries. This version of Christian Education not only benefits the child by countering feelings of rejection but also liberates the child’s family by relieving isolation. Ignorance is shattered as “us” and “them” become “we.” Our Mission moves forward.

Coming soon: Including Children with Special Needs in Children’s Ministries Part 2: Creating an Inclusive Environment.

 

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Oh! Toddlers

 

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Toddlers need appropriate opportunities to move and do.

I came across this article I wrote 20 years ago and thought it was still relevant today. I was running a Christian preschool/ child care in my home and at the same time running the Sunday morning Nursery Ministry at my church, ( serving kids 1-1/2 to about 3 or 4). I have tweaked it a little, but basically, this is a reprint from June 1996.

What is it at the end of our day that has us exclaiming, “Oh! Toddlers.” Could it be that all of the contents of our cabinets were all over the floor all day long, no matter our efforts to clean them up? Could it be that our backs are killing us from continually lifting the 18 month old in our care off the table? Maybe it is all of the so-called “help” we received which made our routine activities, well, extraordinary.

One extraordinary evening I was holding a very ordinary, staff meeting at my house. This time, as in the past, my cousin and my son, both around 2, were present. During my meetings, I was always up and down checking the kids to see that everything was OK, and everything always was. With this in mind this particular evening, I checked them, well, less. Everything was so quiet so I assumed that all was well. Very sweetly, the two children walked into the meeting room. They were just glowing with pride as they announced, “We cleaned the bathroom!”

Hiding my horror, I allowed the tots to lead me to the place where they had worked so hard.

What I walked into was anything but clean. There was wet toilet paper wrapped around the toilet bowl brush and all over the floor. Murky water filled the bowl, and, of course, there was a flood. The bath mats had received a bath and I had two sun-shining faces smiling up at me. Oh! Toddlers.

The obvious innocence of our toddlers makes it easy to forgive them. Sometimes, however, their innocence isn’t so obvious. Sometimes, they don’t seem innocent at all. How then should we deal with these precious souls? Is there a guide to help us through these trying times?

In  Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. Seven times? Jesus responded in the hyperbole, “seventy times seven.” Wow. Jesus expects us to have unlimited mercy. These verses are easily applied to toddlers because no group is more notorious for being repeat offenders, (remember the 18 month old continually climbing on the table). This calls to mind another scripture. Romans 6:1-2 states, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in our sin that grace may abound? God forbid.” Perhaps it is unjust to show continual grace and mercy. After all, we don’t  want them behaving notoriously forever. Here we have reached a dilemma. Where do we draw the line? How gracious is too gracious? Where does the teaching begin? I think that the answers begin with the question of their innocence, and that answer begins with basic child development.

To start with, it is important to clearly define the children we are talking about. Toddlers, as discussed here, are children between the ages of one and three. Experience with this age  group brings to mind adjectives such as active, ritualistic, stubborn, and impulsive. These children have limited communication skills and limited self-control. Basically, they live by the moment and every moment, to them, is too interesting to let pass by. They are often caught up in what renowned developmental psychologist David Elkind refers to as “frames.” The toddler is immersed in his present activity, (emptying the cabinets, climbing on the table), and is unable to stop until satisfied. This irregular state of attention can be frustrating for adults because distraction is a near  impossibility. In turn, our disruptions frustrate him.

Toddlers are also learning through imitation. With good intentions they will repeat what they have seen. However, as demonstrated by the bathroom incident, due to perceptual differences the end result is not always the same.

It would be difficult to describe toddlers without mentioning their physical development. They are very active and growing quickly. They are learning to use their large muscles and their finer skills are weak. Their clumsy bodies cannot always execute what their curious minds want them to often resulting in frustrating accidents.

And they are accidents. The toddlers that we care for are not out to get us. They are not being manipulative. When a two-year old tells us “no” it is part of her self discovery and independence, not necessarily a usurption of your authority. Perception is key. When we judge tots according to our world rather than their unfolding one, we miss their innocent intentions.

Therefore, to answer our first question, forget the line. Dealing with these babes is not a cut and dry issue. Each child is developing differently and brings her own level of understanding to each situation. Secondly, regarding grace and teaching, there needs to be a balance. We need to be the gracious teacher at all times guiding our young ones towards maturity. Let’s work with the children encouraging growth rather than eliciting confrontation. Obviously we cannot allow inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Provide alternatives that are safe and acceptable. When that 18-month old is climbing on the table again, recognize his need for large muscle stimulation and bring him outside to play. Is little Sara dumping her juice every day at snack? Put a lid on her cup and provide opportunities for scooping and pouring in a water basin.

Working with toddlers can be frustrating and tiresome. It can also be exciting and fun when we choose to look at the world through their eyes and guide them with our experience. Look forward to my next series of posts on serving children with special needs.

For more information on toddler development, click here:

Developmental Characteristics of Toddlers: Livestrong or here:

Developmental Stages: Wisconsin

For more information on David Elkind and his theories, read his book, Images of the Young Child, or click here:

David Elkind

 

Positive Behavior Guidance: Top 10!

 

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Preschool girls working together at Vacation Bible School.

In children’s church, the kids may not stay in their seats. In Girl’s Ministries, incessant talking may be the problem. In the nursery, they fight over toys or have trouble keeping their hands to themselves. Whatever your ministry, whatever age group you work with, you will encounter behavior problems. These problems can really interfere with the message being shared.

Everyone wants their class to run smoothly. Sometimes that is not as easy as it sounds. It takes a lot of hard work and discipline to maintain that equilibrium which yields a positive environment. In previous posts we discussed how eliminating factors that instigate behavior problems can significantly reduce those avoidable issues. You can read those posts here: Encouraging Positive Behavior: Developmental Factors, Part 1 Encouraging Positive Behavior: Developmental Factors, Part 2 Encouraging Positive Behavior: Environmental FactorsEncouraging Positive Behavior: Be Prepared In this post we will share what to do when eliminating factors just isn’t enough. Here are my Positive Behavior Guidance Top 10.

#1 Establish Limits

According to Fred Rogers, “It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits” (fredrogers.org).  Children of all ages need to know and understand the behavioral expectations imposed on them. One way to make this happen is to  involve them in the process of creating the rules. A skilled ministry leader can easily elicit appropriate responses from her students and come up with a strong list of regulations. (In other words, have an idea of what your expectations are before you present the students with this task). The rules should be stated  positively,  clearly and concisely. The students should understand the rationale behind the rules, be aware of the consequences and be constantly reminded of expectations. Many well-run ministries have a set of rules posted in their rooms.

#2 Watch your Mouth!

The first expectation I always share with my students is, “Respect each other.” This rule doesn’t only apply to my charges, it applies to me! When we are surprised or frustrated by a child’s behavior, it shows. We may respond with sudden, harsh or overly loud words. Worse, very often with teens, we may use sarcasm. (Sarcasm is never appropriate to use with children. They may not get it, and the more sophisticated kids that do will be hurt by it). Instead, directives should be given politely and respectfully. By controlling yourself  when correcting a child you are using that moment to teach him how to react during a stressful moment. You are modeling good behavior.

#3 Help Children to Obey You

Let’s face it: sometimes we frustrate children. We give them tasks that are too difficult, we  have expectations that are too high and we use verbal prompts alone. And, as much as we complain about kids wanting instant gratification, we want it too. Instead we need to help the children in our ministries to obey.

First, every task or directive we initiate must be attainable. For example, directing 10 or 12 three year olds to clean up a messy classroom is unrealistic. There are too many toys and no one knows where to start. Nothing gets done. More appropriate is this: after a warning that clean up is about to begin, assign individual children specific clean up tasks. “Molly you need to pick up all of the red blocks and put them in this container. Henry, you find the yellow blocks and Adam, you will collect the blue blocks and put them in this container.” Now the students know exactly what to do and the room will get cleaned up. Next, demonstrate what needs to be done. In this same scenario, the teacher would show Molly a red block and put it in the container, modeling the expectation. There may be a child who still cannot comply with the directive. This child may need increased prompting such as continued modeling or even hand over hand assistance.

In order to avoid frustration, and maintain a level of order, we must always help the children to obey us. Attainable tasks, modeling behavior and extended prompting will help us to achieve this goal.

#4 Acknowledge the Child

Sometimes, when a child of any age misbehaves, he has a reason for it. Naturally, the behavior is still  unacceptable but it is important to acknowledge the child’s feelings. “Sammy, I know you are angry, but you need to keep your hands to yourself.” If possible, remove the object of frustration. Separate an instigating child; eliminate the unnecesary background noise. We tend to direct our attentions to the child that is making the most noise, but he may not necessarily be the cause of the problem.

#5 Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

– Praise: Since the 80s, we have all been chanting, “good job!” This indiscriminate praise really does little to reinforce positive behavior. Use praise that is specific and acknowledges a child’s effort. For more information on appropriate praise, check out the chart in this article bykidsmatter.edu.

– Natural Reinforcers: Sorry, I am not a fan of stars, stickers and smiley faces. The reinforcement is temporal and not real. Natural reinforcers, on the other hand, offer a student a realistic outcome to behaving appropriately. Reminding children that when they sit for the Bible lesson they will have time to  develop a praise routine for worship acknowledges the cause / effect relationship between their appropriate behavior and having time for less structured fun. This type of reinforcement more correctly reflects real life.

#6 Use Natural Consequences

Natural Reinforcers, just discussed, are the pre-emptive side of Natural Consequences. There is also a corrective side. Natural or logical consequences to negative behavior:

– are directly related to the behavior (“You have not joined us at the worship center so I cannot start the music. When you join us, we can sing the song you requested”).

– are a direct result of the behavior (“You chose to stay in the bathroom longer than you needed and now there is no time for you to complete this activity”).

– fix damage caused by a behavior (“You wrote on our tables, now you need to wash them”).

#7 Offer Appropriate Choices

When a student is having difficulty complying with a directive, it may be appropriate to offer a choice. No more than two choices should be offered, and what you offer you need to be willing to give or make happen. For example, during a difficult transition for a particular child you might say, “We are going to play Bible Trivia. You can join us in the game or you can sit quietly with this book.” Offering choices empowers children to be in charge of their own behavior, the ultimate goal of positive behavior guidance.

#8 Redirect

Redirection is important in that it provides the child an option to the inappropriate behavior. Often when we say “no”, or “stop” the child sort of freezes for a moment because they do not know what to do, then they just continue the undesirable behavior. It is necessary to offer that child an alternative. First, remind her of the expectation then offer an alternative or choice. For example, in my nursery, there are always kids who want to climb onto or into the sensory table. It’s the perfect height for their little bodies which makes it quite the temptation. In this case, I will remind the child of the expectation, (“Sara, our feet stay on the floor”), and then offer an appropriate alternative or choice, (“You can scoop and pour at this table or you may choose to play with the blocks instead”). This is usually very effective, but don’t forget that some children may need you to help them to obey you, ( see Tip #3).

#9 Choose your Battles

Kids do things… lots of things. If we tried to redirect or correct each child for every little action that we did not plan for in our time with them, we would never teach anything. Our classroom environment would be negative and unappealing to our students. Just ignore those non-disruptive inappropriate  behaviors. Is a child tapping a pencil? If it’s not bothering anyone let it go. Is someone else standing towards the back while everyone else is sitting closer to the front? Who cares? As long as he is not disruptive leave him alone. He will probably get more out of your lesson where he is. If the child’s behavior is not important, move on. Likewise, do not feed into annoying or attention-seeking behaviors with negative attention. That will cause escalation. Instead, encourage appropriate behavior, (see Tip #5).

#10 “Can Do” rather than “Don’t Do”

Children, particularly young children or those with learning disabilities, understand positive directions more quickly than negative directions. Think about it: a positive statement such as  “You need to wait your turn to talk” tells the child what to do. The appropriate expectation is built in to the statement. The negative statement,”Stop talking” leaves the child to figure out what she is supposed to do on her own. There are two steps involved creating a longer processing period and more room for error. This justifies Redirection, (Tip #8), and also provides another way to help the child to obey you, (Tip #3).

BONUS ITEM!

DON’T LOSE YOUR COOL!

Working with children of all ages is challenging. It takes a lot of discipline on your  part to create a positive, loving environment. But it can be lost in a moment. Once you lose your cool, you lose the battle… and more. It just takes one incident when you show anger or frustration to upset the respectful atmosphere of your ministry. And it’s not that easy to get back. Sure, the kids will forgive you, but first they may be a little fearful. Older students may have an altered perception of you. It will take time to bring your class back to that beautiful balance. Make sure that you are spiritually prepared to lead your ministry each class. Leave your family, work or relational issues at the feet of Jesus and give your students the best of you.

Look for my next series of posts on Serving Children with Special Needs.

For more reading check out these articles and websites:

–  http://www.fredrogers.org/parents/everyday-experiences/everyday-limits.php#sthash.1ZixWMgY.dpuf

– Encouraging and Praising Children

Encouraging Positive Behavior: Be Prepared

Encouraging Positive Behavior: Environmental Factors

Run lap around table
A poorly placed table creates an attractive running space for younger children.

Space for ministry in an active church is usually a challenge.  A classroom may actually be a luxury and if we have one, it is often shared with several other ministries. Sometimes too much emphasis is put on the space itself; it’s what is done with the space that counts. Everything in and around that room will wind up affecting the behavior of the class. The point is, you need to do the best you can with what you’ve got.

Safety First  Wherever your space is, you must first ensure that it is safe for anyone who may enter. You must make sure that the room is free of hazards and that there is nothing in there that an angry child or teen can use to hurt someone else. There must also be an appropriate number of adults to children. For suggested adult :child ratios click here. Behavioral issues are just compounded when safety is also an issue.

Define Your Space Whether or not there are walls, a class needs to have a clearly defined  area of its own. Within that area, boundaries for the different activities that may occur must also be present. Without general boundaries, kids may wander away or just be distracted by what is happening someplace close by. The teacher winds up spending a lot more time than necessary just trying to keep her kids where they belong and on task.

Furniture placement is  key to creating a productive environment. Placing a table in the middle of a large room seems like a great idea, for example, until you notice the kids have started running laps around it. Instead, strategically place tables and other furniture to avoid large running spaces. You can also use furniture like portable cabinets and book shelves to create smaller spaces within your classroom area.

Environmental cues can assist in managing routines, signaling new activities in the same space,  designing work stations, and keeping students on task and oriented. Colored masking tape is an excellent tool for shaping an environment. You can use it to section off an area or designate walking trails within the room. The tape provides a visual cue to students reminding them of where they are supposed to be. Trays, cookie sheets and placemats also help to visually define a space for a particular activity and help keep kids from touching each other’s stuff. A tray can help a child to keep playdough off the floor or out of the lego table. Combining the tray with a verbal prompt such as,  “We only use playdough on the tray,” contributes to its success. Another issue avoided. Trays are also useful for arts and crafts, writing activities, snack, or for any activity where a student may need to have his own, or stay out of someone else’s, personal space.

Prepare Your Space Preparation for ministry, or any potential learning experience, is of primary importance. That notion extends to the environment. Yes. It needs to be prepared. Environmental concerns such as light, temperature, sound and where to sit have a huge impact on the behavioral tone of your class. Imagine being the student who sits across from the window during the Bible story. He is trying to pay attention to you but  your head is lit up by the sun streaming through that window. His eye contact is disrupted and now he has the opportunity to be distracted by something else. Obviously, you will need to move his seat, or yours, but is that what you should do during a lesson? The interruption is an opportunity for others to lose focus on the task at hand. Behavior problems ensue. This issue should have been thought out before the students entered the environment.

Similar matters come up with poor temperature control. A space that is too hot or too cold will inspire irritability and interruptions, which will lead to behavior problems. Be careful placing those space heaters and fans. These attempts at correcting one problem can cause another. Not only do they present safety hazards, but they can also encourage  behavioral mishaps.  Picture papers flying across the room, (with kids flying after them), or teens arguing about who is in direct line with the source of comfort.

Seating is often an issue that causes superfluous behavior problems. If you expect the kids to sit down, make sure before hand that there is an appropriate place for them to do just that. Make sure there are enough chairs for all of the young worshippers before the children’s service begins. Be sure that your “circle” for circle time has enough room for all participants to sit comfortably. Lining up for a group game? Make sure that the colored tape you have set up as a cue is long enough for each set of toes. Avoid pushing, arguing, needless complaining, and last-minute rearranging, by planning for everyone expected… and then some. Another issue with seating is who is sitting where. If you are having trouble getting kids focused on your lesson, or if there are side conversations, or if some kids just aren’t getting along, you may need to consider a formal seating arrangement for particular activities.

Any time there is a disruption related to the environment, you have relinquished your environmental control and therefore have paved the way for behavior problems. It is your responsibility to thoughtfully plan out your ministry space to avoid unnecessary pitfalls  and opportunities for things to go wrong.

Organize Your Space As an Early Intervention provider, one of the first things I did  upon entering a home with a new student who had behavioral concerns was ask the parent to see her room. At least 9 out of 10 times, I was greeted with huge buckets or a toy box overflowing with toys, books, puzzles randomly “put away”… or not. Well, of course “not.” There was no order. Mom would inadvertently mumble something about clean – up time becoming a huge battle… daily. Well, of course. There was no order.

Controlling one’s own behavior, following directions, making good decsions, remaining calm, cleaning up, etc. are all skills that require focus and concentration. When the environment that surrounds you is disordered, it interferes with these skills. It is difficult to concentrate or focus when you have no place to rest your eye. For some children and teens who may be distracted more easily, these tasks are extremely difficult. Self-control, following directions, making good decisions, and remaining calm become nearly impossible. It is unfair to expect them to behave in a particular way when you have made it hard for them to do so.

So, instead, let’s help our kids to behave. Be mindful of how the designated ministry area appears visually. If you share a space with another ministry, work together to clean it up. Make sure that only what is necessary for the ministry is contained in the space. Items that are necessary should be stored in a way that is logical and orderly. Like objects go together! This is especially helpful in classrooms with younger children where clean-up time is an important transition and needs to run smoothly. Keep materials that are not being used behind closed doors if possible, or at least out of sight. Organize bulletin boards and countertops so that they are free of clutter and restful on the eyes. Use color to your advantage, but sparingly. Too many colors in a classroom is overstimulating and will contribute to hyperactivity. If your ministry is a club with theme colors, try to use those colors as the theme for the room, or for your area of a shared room. This will help students to maintain focus on what pertains to them.

The physical environment for ministry is often overlooked in terms of having an impact on student behavior. However, it is an element that will serve as a positive tool for classroom management should you choose to regulate it. Simply put: control your environment, control the behavior within the environment. It is one more factor in behavior that can be reduced before the children even arrive. (See past posts for the other factors discussed in the Encouraging Positive Behavior series.) Look for my next post, Positive Behavior Guidance Top Ten! where tips for dealing with poor behaviors will be discussed.

 

Encouraging Positive Behavior: Be Prepared

“Common sense isn’t common to everyone.” My father has always said that. As he has been a teacher, Pastor, and ministry leader for over 60 years, I consider him a very reliable source. And he is definitely right here. I would think that common sense dictates that we cannot control someone else’s decisions or actions. Yet, when I am leading a workshop or discussing classroom management with other ministry workers, it surprises me to find that a main goal for many who work with children is to control their behavior. Well, let me just say right here and now that if your goal is to control children, you are on the wrong side of the issue. You cannot and should not try to control children. You should be teaching them to control themselves. That, however, is another blogpost. This article is going to focus on what you can control: YOU.

Monkey surprise face
That’s right. YOU are a major factor causing behavior problems in your ministry. Photo credit: filmtangent.com

There are several factors that contribute to poor behavior. Some of those factors are unchangeable. (You can read more about the unchangeable factors in the previous posts entitled Encouraging Positive Behavior: Developmental Factors Part 1 and Part 2). Internal factors, however, are totally within your control. This means you! These factors involve what you are bringing to the ministry, how you are bringing it and why. In short, are you prepared?

It’s Wednesday night, or rather, it’s that Wednesday night. You know, the one towards the end of the month when I have to stay an additional two hours at work before leading my girls ministry group, (a lively and active bunch of sixth through eighth graders who are  looking for the opportunity to take over). Do you have a night like that? Who feels like working on a lesson after an extra long workday? Not me. But what is going to be the consequence of my decision to just wing it? This is a typical situation that affects over-extended ministry workers everywhere. The result is that sometimes we arrive to our post unprepared for our students. Not only is this unfair to the kids who arrive expecting, but we are setting ourselves up for behavior problems.

To me, preparation includes two major categories: Spiritual and Practical. Let’s start with the spiritual because without being spiritually prepared, it really doesn’t matter if you are practically prepared.

Spiritual Preparation

Spiritual Preparation begins way before that  Wednesday night after an extra long workday. It is a life style choice that should be a staple for every Christian. As a children’s ministry worker you should be spiritually prepared to:

Pray: 1 Chronicles 16:11, (NIV) “Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always.” You do not have to do this alone. Working with children and teens is hard work. Thank God we can depend on Him. We just need to ask.

Cleanse: 2 Tim 2: 21 (AMP) “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things [which are dishonorable—disobedient, sinful], he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified [set apart for a special purpose and], useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.” A bad attitude can certainly qualify as dishonorable and it is something that can creep up on ministry workers dealing with behavior problems in their classes. If you are doing the happy dance when a particular child is absent, chances are you have a bad attitude. There are a host of reasons why a child may be acting out. The attitude with which you approach him is going to set the tone for your class. “How can I help this child get the most out of my class?” rather than, “I wish he would be absent again. It was so peaceful without him.” You need to turn it around; cleanse.

Study: 2 Tim 2 :15 (KJV) “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” In order to teach the Word of God, you need to know the Word of God. Enough said.

Answer: 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV) “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” Put God first in your life and be prepared to defend your faith.

Disciple: 1 Peter 5: 2-3 (NIV)  “2Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock..” Discipleship denotes the idea of teaching over a period of time. It involves investing time perhaps outside of your ministry; it involves being a role model. Are you willing? Are you Spiritually prepared to encourage, to influence another human in her Christian walk?

Practical Preparation

Once you are spiritually ready you can think about the practical preparation; the preparation needed to actually run your class. I know that most children’s ministry workers are busy volunteers and that it is difficult to find the time to prepare as much as is needed, but the alternative is likely an ineffective ministry with behavior problems to boot. You need to have a plan.

The Plan: A good plan is age appropriate, supplies more than enough activities, and is routinized. Believe me, the kids know if you have not planned out your lesson. If you have a curriculum guide, you need to actually read it. Make sure that the lesson of the week is age appropriate for your group. If it is not, you may need to make some adjustments. You may also have to modify the lesson for students with special needs. (Look for a future blogpost on how to modify curriculum to include children with special needs).  Next, you will want to make sure that you have more than enough activities planned to take you through your class period. It’s fine to leave out activities that you don’t have time for, but it can be disastrous if you are scrambling for time fillers at the last minute. Third, make sure you have established a predictable routine. For example, in my church nursery on Sunday mornings, class informally begins with Free Play Centers as children are coming in during adult worship. It officially starts with the sermon, so everyone is in by then; it is time for clean-up, then snack. As children are finishing snack, they have the opportunity to go to the book center to browse while they wait for the others. Bible Story Circle Time is next followed by structured, small group activities. If time allows, play dough comes out while the children wait to be picked up. The story is different each week. There may be puzzles put out with the books. The structured activities will change. The overall routine, however, is comfortably predictable for the children. They know what to do during the transitions and they know where to go next.

The Materials: The best laid plans will never get off the ground if you haven’t prepared your materials. After you have made your plans, look through them and gather everything you need to successfully carry out your plans. Some materials may be in your classroom already; make sure they are easily accessible and in stock. Make your copies of coloring pages and cut out your templates before the children arrive. If you are planning to use technology, cue it up before class starts and make sure it is functioning properly. While the children are sitting and waiting is not a good time to change the batteries of your cd player.

The Environment: In another post I will more specifically address how environmental factors impact behavior. For now, prepare a clean and organized space. Work areas should be separated from play areas as much as possible; this could be as simple as using a tray or colored tape to define or designate an activity center. Arrange furniture to avoid running loops. Also, check the lighting and temperature of the room. This is often overlooked. As the adult in charge, it is your responsibility to prepare a comfortable learning environment for your students. A child who is hot and bothered by the sun shining in his eyes is not going to be paying attention to you and becomes a potential behavior problem.

The Discipline: Trying to prepare on the spot creates confusion and hang time for the kids. This is an opportunity for them to take out their phones, annoy the kid next to them, remember that mommy is not in there, become frustrated, or think about that favorite toy on the other side of the room. Being prepared will cut out most of the behavior problems you encounter in your ministry. But what about the rest? Sorry, it’s still up to you. You need to be prepared to appropriately discipline. That means you need to understand what discipline is and be prepared to follow through. You need to prepare a plan of action for dealing with particular behaviors. You need to establish expectations and consequences for the students of your ministry… and stick to them. This could mean war, so it is important to choose your rules carefully. Don’t create rules and consequences for things that are really not that important. Don’t create expectations that are out of reach for any student in your class. Most importantly, be prepared to discipline out of love and never out of anger. Anger will escalate any situation and may lead to poor handling of the child. As I stated earlier in this article, you cannot control any child, but you can- and must- control yourself.

Working with children of any age is a huge responsibility. You, (what you do, what you say, how you act), have a great impact on the children you serve. You are a major factor in the overall behavior of your group. Preparation, both spiritual and practical, is key to running a smooth ministry. Look for my next post entitled, Encouraging Positive Behavior: Environmental Factors, where I will continue to discuss eliminating factors impacting the behavior of your students. Coming soon: Positive Behavior Guidance Top Ten!

 

Encouraging Positive Behavior: Developmental Factors, Part 2

jesus-children-13262904One child. One beautiful, sweet, charming  and…frustrating child. This child is disruptive, or can’t keep up, or daydreams, or … there is just something different. You feel like you are not reaching him. This child has developmental delays; another unchangeable circumstance has walked into your children’s ministry.

Atypical child development is quickly becoming a visible issue in children’s ministries. According to the CDC, Autism Spectrum Disorders, for example, are found in 1 in 68 children. In fact, 1 in 6 children have some kind of developmental delay in the United States (cdc.gov).  This means that it is very likely that you will encounter a child in your ministry that has special needs.  The Bible clearly teaches us that the gospel is for everyone, even those who seem unreachable: Jesus said, “…Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation…” (Mark 15:14). We are commanded to teach everyone, therefore; it may benefit you to make some changes in your approach in order to include them.  Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22 “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”  Your teaching and management strategies need to consider the unique needs of your particular group.

Well, where to start? Developmental delays, or other factors contributing to atypical development, generally cover four basic domains: Physical, Cognitive, Language and Social/ Emotional (naeyc.org). Each of these domains will have an impact on the ability of a child to function in a small or large group setting as well as participate in any given activity. How you present your lessons will affect the behavior of the students in your group.

Physical Factors: The Physical domain covers large and small muscles, all of the senses, body awareness and balance, the ability to integrate skills, organs and organ systems, neurological issues, and the list goes on. So, if you have planned a video for your children’s church songs that includes flashing lights, for example, that will be a problem for the child who has a seizure disorder. Likewise, if your getting-to-know-you activity includes shaking hands with the person next to you, the child who is hypersensitive to touch may become upset. Are you asking students with poor fine motor skills to cut or write responses in small spaces with thin pencils? These difficult tasks will discourage those children and contribute to undesirable behavior.

Cognitive Factors: According to Merriam-Webster.com, a simplified definition of cognition is: conscious mental activities : the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering. That includes our rudimentary academics like reading, writing and math. While all of these can create difficult situations, reading ability is a factor of primary importance. When a student is a fluent reader, she easily can participate in most activities that require cognition. She is usually confident and wants to participate.  When a student struggles with reading, it has a far reaching domino effect on her ability and willingness to participate. Usual Sunday School activities like stories and worksheets, for example, become overwhelming and uninteresting. Let’s face it, no one wants to be the last one done. So, let’s read it together, right? That’s a great alternative as long as students have the option to pass on reading aloud.

As ministry workers, we want to encourage our students to move forward in their learning skills, but let’s remember our purpose. We are here to share the Gospel. We want to present our lessons in non-threatening ways that stimulate the students’ desire to learn more… and come back. The questions you ask, the responses you expect, the activities you prepare all need to consider the cognitive development of the individuals in your class. If you are teaching a seventh grade group and you present your Bible story on the seventh, fifth and third grade reading levels, you have created an atmosphere where everyone can access that text.  Offering alternatives, or differentiation, is one helpful solution to reduce or eliminate developmental factors. I will provide more information on differentiating instruction in a future post.

Language Factors: There are many definitions of language. For our purposes here, I am going to break language down into three subdomains: Expressive Language, Receptive Language and Pragmatic Language.

Expressive Language is the way a person conveys meaning.  This communication can be verbal or non-verbal. A child, even an older child or teenager, who has difficulty expressing their wants, needs, feelings, or other information, often experiences frustration. This child may act out, withdraw or become non-compliant and may not be able to tell you why.

Receptive Language is the way a person receives and understands information. Often a child who has a receptive language delay or disorder may offer untimely responses. It may take him a while to process the question or direction. What seems like an incorrect answer to a question may really be the answer to the prior question posed. He also just may not comprehend what is going on. Again, withdrawal or acting out may be a natural consequence of a receptive language issue. Perceived misbehavior may also come into play here as a child who cannot understand may have difficulty following directions. These are subtle issues with sometimes overt outcomes.

Lastly, Pragmatic Language is most easily defined as social language. It is how a person actually uses language to communicate with others. Remember, communication is a two way street, so Pragmatics includes both expression and comprehension. A child who struggles with pragmatics usually stands out from the crowd. That’s the kid most often described as “socially awkward,” or the one who “doesn’t get it.” That social awkwardness comes from the inability to use language to approach others. She may try, but does so in a socially unacceptable way resulting in rejection from others. Or, she may not understand the nuances of someone else’s social communication, also resulting in some form of rejection. A student with pragmatic issues may have difficulty working in groups, playing on teams or interacting with peers in general.

Social/Emotional Factors: As God created each individual as a whole, it is important to acknowledge the interdependence of one domain on another. As Psychologist Jean Piaget noted, as a child goes from laying on his belly, to his stomach, to sitting up, to crawling, to walking, etc., he has the ability to observe the world from a whole new perspective and therefore learn different things. Simply stated, physical development has an impact on cognition. In the same way, physical, cognitive and language factors take their toll on a student’s social/emotional state. When a child is struggling, she may not be accepted by others, or she may lack confidence in herself. As a ministry leader, it is important to be aware of this and encourage all of the children to support each other. It is also essential to help that the struggling child to find his strengths and encourage him to use them.

On another note, there are other types of social/ emotional factors that can affect the behavior of a child. A child’s family situation is often a concern and an area of great stress on her. Anxiety and depression are growing among adolescents. According to a recent government census, 1 in 4 children ages 13-18 suffer from anxiety (cdc.gov). Anxiety may show up as inattention, restlessness, disruption or difficulty answering questions.

In order to encourage positive behavior in that beautiful, sweet, charming but frustrated child, it is important to determine the factors behind the behavior. Hopefully, this overview will provide you with a foundation for finding those factors affecting your ministry. Look for my next post entitled Encouraging Positive Behavior: Be Prepared, where I will address factors that are well within your control. Later, I will post tips for dealing with all of these different behavioral issues.

For more information on some of the information discussed in today’s post, click the following links:   NAEYC Position Statement on Developmentally Appropriate PracticeDisability Terms and Definitions (CEC)Speech and Language Definitions (Pediatric Therapy Network), Anxiety in the Classroom

Encouraging Positive Behavior: Developmental Factors, Part 1

Some developmental factors are not going away any time soon.
Some developmental factors are not going away any time soon.

Developmental Factors are unchangeable. A three year old is a three year old, and he comes with all of the beauty that is his three year old temperament. A teenager is a teenager and she comes with her very own teenage – like qualities. A child with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder and he comes with his own unique set of unchangeable circumstances.

These are circumstances under which we, as teachers in children’s ministry, do not have control. These are circumstances under which, we sometimes find ourselves with a behavior problem on our hands. But it’s ok. There are tools we can use to help us to navigate through the issue.

First, we need to understand typical development. What are children like at different stages of life? How should we expect them to behave? What are appropriate expectations we should have for them at a given stage? If we want to effectively work with children, these are questions that need to be answered. For example, a typical three year old requires short, active lessons including a variety of quickly changing activities honing in on a single concept, while a typical teenager can tolerate longer lessons relying on independent learning, and including several different points.

It may seem obvious that we should not present a lesson geared towards three year olds to teenagers, nor should we attempt a preschooler lesson with adolescents; common sense tells us that it just won’t work.  Incoming… behavior problems.  However, less obvious examples are commonly, and mistakenly practiced.  Although close in age, developmentally two and three year olds are vastly different and therefore, require distinct presentations of information and activities.  In terms of language, a typical two year old has a speaking vocabulary of about 50 words and may comprehend about 300. Socially, they like to watch  other children play and may join in briefly. This is a child who is unlikely to participate in large group activities like a structured circle time, and has the ability to provide limited answers to questions. This child will learn best through one-on -one or short parallel interactions. He requires choice of activities all pointing to the same concept. A three year old, on the other hand, speaks in full sentences with a command of around 1,000 words! She can follow two unrelated directions and is interested in others. This child can answer literal questions related to a simple Bible Story and can begin to participate in simple large group activities for short periods. In many churches, like mine, two and three year olds may be in the same class. That’s fine as long as we do not impose the expectations of one age group on the other.

Use the following link to find specific details about the developmental stage of the children in your ministry. This chart covers children from birth through 18 years old.

Stages of Development

So, to avert unnecessary behavior issues, it is important to consider the ages and stages of your typically developing students. Being prepared with appropriate activities and expectations will reduce the potential for undesirable behavior. As teachers and ministry workers, we need to be prepared to meet our students where they are. Still, this is not a cure-all formula. Every child is different and we need to get to know each one. In Part 2 of this article we will address strategies to encourage positive behavior  in atypically developing children.