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Ministry to Children With ADHD

Barbara Beach

A roundtable discussion to help you effectively reach kids with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

A lot of these kids feel like nobody loves them and that they're always bad. We want to make sure that's not happening here at church.

Many parents are trying to find which church is going to accept their child because they've been tossed out or rejected from three other churches.

*Name has been changed.

Experts predict that three percent to five percent of children have Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)-or about one child in 20. The ratio of guys to girls diagnosed with ADHD is about 6-to-1. Today, ADHD is the most common reason a child is referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

ADHD results from a subtle malfunction in the intricate transmission of neurochemical messages between brain cells. The most obvious symptoms of ADHD are inattention, distractibility, inability to follow instructions, and impulsiveness. Hyperactivity is prominent in only 30 percent of children with ADHD.

In almost every children's ministry, there is at least one child with ADHD. Children's ministers often ask what they can do to more effectively reach these kids. So we asked three experts to help us understand ADHD.

Paul White is a counseling psychologist and has worked with ADHD and learning disabled kids for about 15 years. He does evaluations for private schools, has a son with ADHD, and lives in Wichita, Kansas.

Judy Basye has a master's degree in educational administration with a special emphasis in special education. She's been trained by Norfolk Institute of Learning Disabilities, taught school for nine years, worked in a learning assistance program, and is a children's pastor in San Mateo, California.

Donna Smith* is the mother of a child with ADHD.

CM: How do you know when kids have ADHD and not just a discipline problem?

PAUL: It's a tough call because it's a professional judgment. The characteristics related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-activity level, attention span, impulsiveness, distractibility-vary on an individual basis. You have to compare the child's characteristics on those issues to the same age and same sex of his or her peer group. The issue: Are the behaviors average? sort of a problem? a major challenge? so severe that they interrupt or disrupt the child's life and ability to function adequately at home, school, or church? The characteristics should be pretty consistent across settings.

Some people overinterpret and say kids have to be this way all the time. But there are clearly some settings where a child has a longer attention span. Generally in a structured setting such as a classroom, you're going to see the ADHD characteristics across different settings versus the occasional activity. So that would be one differential of someone who has ADHD versus someone who has a more general kind of behavioral problem.

JUDY: Here at church, I'd agree to all those. But I also ask parents how their child responds to some kind of activity at home, school, and church just to balance out what we're looking at. So I'd agree with Paul 100 percent.

DONNA: I agree with Paul too. I notice my son has a much longer attention span while he's playing Nintendo, watching television, or playing with Lego blocks than sitting at the dinner table or something else.

CM: How does having an ADHD child in the classroom affect teaching?

JUDY: It sometimes undoes the classroom, especially in the Sunday school environment. Sunday school teachers aren't trained as well as school teachers. On the whole, Sunday school teachers want the perfect classroom. Since they're volunteers, some don't want to take the extra time it takes for an ADHD child. In one of my classrooms, I have three boys who have been diagnosed with ADHD. And it's a very busy classroom. I have a public school teacher teaching that classroom and she's ready to quit.

In another classroom with an ADHD child, the teacher is a volunteer with no professional teacher training other than what I give her for Sunday Bible school teaching. And she's willing to go the extra mile for the child. The church is being challenged about how to remember that we're called to love these children. We need to figure out how to go that extra mile for these children and in the classroom setting.

We don't have the luxury like the school setting has to divide the children in the classroom. We only have one fourth-grade classroom, so all those boys are in one fourth-grade classroom. I work more with that teacher than I do with the other teacher who is willing to hug and hold and make things happen a little differently.

PAUL: I think teachers become discouraged more easily. Sometimes we need to help teachers develop appropriate expectations for what they can do for the class with that child or children in them. They may have to change their expectation of how much of a lesson they can get through or plan for more active things. We should free them up a little bit to do things differently than what they would if they had no ADHD children in the classroom at all. Otherwise, they get really frustrated because they never meet their goals or they never complete their lesson.

CM: What teaching techniques can Sunday school teachers use with kids who have ADHD?

DONNA: I know lots of praise really helps Mike a lot, almost to the point where I feel like I'm being real gushy about it. Another kid would see right through that and maybe think I was even making some of it up. It seems like he's always in trouble and has a low self-esteem. So the more praise Mike gets really seems to help him act good. I think teachers in the Sunday school classroom could have knowledge beforehand of who they're going to have in class and if any child has ADHD. They could then learn about what to do. Someone could tell them what things help ADHD kids, such as praise or awards. That would make the classroom go a little easier than constantly having to reprimand the child.

JUDY: We're doing some behavior modification with one of our fourth graders. We're also trying to bring the parents online. So we have some team strategies. The teacher and the parents need to be a team. We meet at least twice a month and talk about how children are doing, what we can do to help them, and how to help them know they're loved when they come to church. A lot of these kids feel like nobody loves them and that they're always bad.

We want to make sure that's not happening here at church. The children who have the teacher-parent team are working 100 percent better than the one child who doesn't have the teacher-parent team. If I have that team set up between the teacher and the parent, the parent realizes that the teacher will remind, praise, and pray for their child.

The teacher and the classroom children are another team. The kids want to help the ADHD child make it in the class. If the teacher has to send the child outside the classroom for a few minutes, the kids in the classroom begin praying for that child. I'm usually called, and I sit down and talk with one of the boys to learn what just happened. We pray and go back into the class.

So the teacher, the child, and I are another team. We're trying this team approach to help these children succeed in Sunday school so that Sunday school isn't another place they fail.

PAUL: Another helpful strategy for some ADHD impulsive kids who often like to get attention is to use them as a teacher's helper. The teacher, at least for part of the time, can give kids attention by having them help hand out materials or gather things up. It doesn't work with all ADHD kids, but it can clearly help limit some disruptive behavior for a number of those kids.

DONNA: Yes, I think the teacher's helper thing would be perfect for Mike because he loves that kind of thing. He likes to have lots of attention. I guess if he felt he wasn't getting attention, he might act out in other ways.

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