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Tips for Ministering to Children With ADHD

Experts on ADHD speak up in this roundtable discussion to help you effectively reach kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


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.

Experts predict that seven 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. (*Name has been changed.)

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. There’s only 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.

CM: What discipline should teachers use if kids with ADHD consistently ignore basic class rules?
JUDY

In the classroom with the three boys, we have a yellow card/red card system. The teacher hands them a yellow card for a warning signal. Because they’re fourth graders, they understand and think “Oops! I need to hold it back and get it together.” And if they can’t hold it together, they get a red card and I’m called. They sit outside the room in a secure place where I talk to them, pray with them, and help them enter back into the classroom. I also talk to the parents. If the situation is one where they have become so impulsive that a chair flies across the room, they automatically earn a red card. I’m called and I call the parent and discuss what should happen.

CM: How can teachers learn about ADHD?
JUDY

I have a teacher training about all different styles and kinds of children. As we go through that training, one of the types of children I talk about is the ADHD child and what might happen when one of them is in the classroom. We also talk about the perfect child and what’s going to happen when a teacher has one of them in the classroom. All children need to succeed in Sunday school. I really try to train my teachers that Jesus has called them to teach all children. All of us as adults haven’t made it either. We need to train our teachers and remind them that we’re all on a path together. There’s no difference between an ADHD child, Sally Slow Learner, and Billy Bright. They’re all here for a reason.

CM: How can churches approach parents who have ADHD kids?
PAUL

An important point for teachers is to not use the label but to describe the behavior. Parents typically react to labels, but they’ll agree to the characteristics you describe. Teachers could describe Johnny as (don’t use the term “fidgeting”) always moving his feet, or tapping his hands, can’t sit in a chair for very long, blurts out and talks a lot, can’t keep his hands to himself, doesn’t really respond to discipline, or gets distracted off task really easily. Teachers should describe what’s going on and mention that all kids have these characteristics, but mention that Johnny seems to be struggling more than most.

I think teachers should be honest with parents regardless of how they think parents will respond. If teachers base their input on how parents will respond, they may not be totally straightforward with them. Lots of times it takes parents two, three, or four different kinds of input from different places before they start to realize or accept that there’s a problem. If teachers withdraw or withhold information, they’re possibly slowing down the process of getting that child some help. Be honest and describe the behavior. Parents may react to the Sunday school teacher and think their child has ADHD and needs to be put on medication.

JUDY

I agree that we need to be honest with the parents and describe the behavior. We also need to be honest with the parents’ feelings. Many of these parents are church-shopping with their child. They’re trying to find which church is going to accept their child because they’ve been tossed out or rejected from three other churches. Those parents are also hurting. We as children’s pastors or professionals need to come alongside and minister to those parents. They need a peer group and a support group.

PAUL

Usually, they feel very blamed and guilty. They’ve been told they’re bad parents and they just need to discipline more. So a lot of them are really hurting and discouraged. They maybe don’t realize that it’s not so much their fault, but it’s that they have a very difficult child to deal with.

DONNA

I agree that you shouldn’t put labels on the child when you tell parents, but I can tell you that parents already know how their kids are behaving. They know; they don’t need to be told. Who knows their kid better? They know their kid is more hyper or impulsive or whatever.

My husband won’t admit that our son has ADHD. For him, if he can’t see it, it’s not real. The doctor has said that’s what Mike has, and he’s on medicine for it that obviously helps him. But my husband thinks that simply giving medicine or drugs to someone will make them change and act differently. He thinks Mike has a discipline problem. And if he has more discipline, he wouldn’t act that way. He’s been disciplined forever, and nothing worked with him no matter what we did. The behavior would still come right back.

It wasn’t until I started giving Mike the medicine that his behavior changed enough to where he could sit still and really focus on things in school. It made such a major difference that it was obvious to me that he needed it. I really can’t be involved in support groups. Most meet in the evening and I wouldn’t want to go without my husband.

CM: What should parents who have an ADHD child expect from the church?
DONNA

It’s good if teachers know the child has ADHD and know how to deal with it. I think it would be great if teachers would sit down and read a book about it so they know what it’s all about. But obviously, they’re not going to do that if it doesn’t affect their personal lives.

I think the team thing is a real good idea. If the teachers could learn from the parents what message works best with their child, it might lessen the disturbances in the classroom. It would also help the other kids to not make a child an outcast or the bad kid. I know Mike has very few friends compared to my older son, and it’s hard seeing it.

PAUL

I have an ADHD inattentive son who is 10 years old. It’s reasonable for teachers to have at least some baseline information about what ADHD is so they can understand the challenges that might occur in the classroom. I don’t think it’s realistic for all Sunday school teachers to handle all different situations, but at least they’re trying to understand ADHD characteristics and what small changes could make the classroom go more smoothly. I’d appreciate that kind of information from the church.

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7 thoughts on “Tips for Ministering to Children With ADHD

  1. Avatar

    I’m very interested about methods to help kids with ADHD in my church. However, attempting to read the entire article has been an EXTREMELY frustrating experience!! Popups appeared urging me to purchase Group curriculum every time I went to the next page of the article. And sometimes 2 popups per page!

    Very disappointed that Group would sanction this sort of thing. Once during the article – I understand that. Repeated popups?? Not good. And not what I expect from Group.

    • Jennifer Hooks
      Jennifer Hooks

      Hi Tracey! Thanks for bringing this to our attention. We have corrected the system to prevent this from continuing. Thanks for your patience and for being a valued reader!

  2. Avatar

    I was just searching this topic because it is becoming a little issue in our Church. Thank you so much for the article BUT sorry we need more than articles to help our kids in the youth ministry. Are there any seminars or workshop about ADHD in Youth Ministry?

    • Avatar
      Christine Yount Jones

      Emerson, we’ve checked with our youth team and no one is aware of seminars specifically for ADHD in youth ministry. Please let us know if you find anything.

  3. Avatar
    Serenity Oakes

    I am a homeschooling mom of 6 kiddos, 5 diagnosed. I myself have ADHD and struggled horribly with church until I walked away at 13. As a mom and Sunday school coordinator at our last church my focus has been how can we make lessons fun, interactive and relatable to kids like me and mine. This has been most interesting read for me as a parent of so many who does not medicate at all and instead works with the ADHD children to teach them how they naturally learn. God made each of us the exact way we are, for me ADHD is a gift that I have learned to work with and have chosen to help others with it as they struggle because everyone seems to want to fit the ADHD child into a box called “normal”. ADHD kids need a short (usually 10-15 minutes), interactive (movement, conversation), Hands on (craft, color sheet, anything) lesson. They need a friendly but consistent adult with a good schedule and points system in place. I would genuinely love to do seminars to help people dealing with ADHD kids in ministry, they are my soft spot, and I never want to see ANY child walk away because they feel they aren’t wanted in church.

    • Avatar
      childrensministry.com

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and tips, Serenity! We appreciate it!

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