Not sure how to minister to children and youth who seem to lack focus or bounce off the walls? Learn the basics of ADHD for your small church.

The best news is: You don’t need a medical degree, education degree, or psychology degree! Behavior Specialist Holly Sharpe breaks if all down for us here, so we can understand the essential information about children and youth with ADHD, and how we can love them well in small church ministry.

Understanding ADD and ADHD

We live in a time where it is unusual for someone to NOT be familiar with these terms:

  • ADD
  • ADHD

Sadly, these terms may often be associated with these descriptors:

  • Out-of-control
  • Rude
  • Lazy 
  • Uncooperative 

If you are struggling to understand a child or youth in your small church ministry who has ADHD, I want to share some basic information about the disorder with you and give you some key ideas you can use to love and minister to them effectively! 

What is ADHD, anyway?

The first thing your small church needs to know about ADHD is what it is! Knowledge is power, after all. 

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can affect a person’s ability to pay attention or focus, control their body, control their behavior, process information, or make decisions.

It was once known as ADD, or Attention Defecit Disorder, but now three different forms of the disorder—inattentive type, hyperactive type, and combined presentation—are covered under the label ADHD. 

ADHD is almost always diagnosed in childhood, and lasts into adulthood. People with ADHD may struggle with:

  • Paying attention
  • Maintaining focus
  • Remembering details
  • Cause and effect
  • Being still
  • Thinking before acting
  • Managing strong emotions

On the flip side, people with ADHD may also possess the following strengths:

  • Ability to hyperfocus on areas of interest
  • Creativity
  • Intelligence
  • Resilience
  • Love for others
  • Strong sense of justice
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Spontaneity 

ADHD is not a condition that can be cured, but the symptoms can be managed and improved with teaching, practice, patience, accommodation, and sometimes medication.

People who have ADHD often describe it as the uncontrollable urge to move, or like the channel in their brain keeps changing and they don’t have the remote. There is hope for people with ADHD in new treatments and interventions that are being developed all the time!

What I tell my fellow small church volunteers when working with children who have conditions like ADHD is that we are NOT trying to cure them; we want to welcome them, accept them, and support them as they learn and grow in their relationship with Christ. 

Don’t take it personally!

The second thing your small church should know about ADHD is, it’s not personal! People with ADHD are not trying to cause problems. Unfortunately, people with ADHD are often associated with these labels:

  • Poorly parented
  • Wild
  • Defiant
  • Into everything
  • “Bad” kids

Symptoms of ADHD can be truly difficult to manage and respond to … but keep in mind, if it is hard for those of us on the outside of ADHD to deal with it, it is immeasurably harder for people with ADHD to deal with it!

More often than not, people with ADHD are working all the time to manage and improve the symptoms of ADHD that they struggle the most with. This is worth remembering—it will help foster compassion and empathy in you as you minister!

I am not giving a blanket excuse for kids or teens who have ADHD to just behave however they want, and I am not advocating that small church staff or volunteers leave them to their own devices. What often happens is that ADHD makes things too frustrating or too challenging, and sides form—adult versus child—and that creates division, which is NOT our goal as workers in our small church! 

When preparing to minister to people with ADHD in your small church, remember that whatever difficulties may be present due to the disorder, the child or youth in question didn’t choose this for themselves, and it isn’t personal. 

It isn’t hopeless, either, because symptoms or problems that arise due to ADHD can be improved, and that is the next thing I want to tell you about!

Practical ADHD Ministry

Here are the practical steps to successfully work with someone with ADHD in your small church ministry:

  1. Identify their strengths and areas of struggle
  2. Plan opportunities for success
  3. Teach, practice, and reward
  4. Repeat

1) Identify their strengths and areas of struggle

The first thing you can do to effectively minister to a child or youth with ADHD is to find out what they are good at and where they need your support.

  • Maybe you have a kiddo who can sit still for a lesson, but their mind wanders often and they miss details.
  • Maybe you have a kiddo that rolls on the floor, accidentally bumps into other kids, knocks things over while you are teaching, or walks around and distracts others but can repeat what you taught word for word if asked.
  • Maybe you have a kiddo who interrupts you, blurts out, walks away while you are talking to them, or can’t seem to follow the class rules you have, but they are far and away the child who is most excited for your class.

For each one of these examples, you can observe and discover the things they can do easily, and the things that they can’t. Once you know this, you can make a plan that will give them more opportunities to show off their strengths and work to help them improve their areas of weakness.

2) Plan opportunities for success

Once you know a person’s ADHD profile of strengths and weaknesses, plan for success.

When they can’t sit still

If you know you have a child in your class who cannot sit still to hear a 15 minute Bible story, think about how you can adjust your lesson plan or lesson structure so that they are successful.

  • You could decrease the amount of time required for sitting, or give the child an alternative to sitting—allow them to stand, give them a designated area to wander while they listen (mark it off with duct tape!), give them something to wiggle on like a cushion, or give them something to do with their hands like manipulate play doh or silly putty.
  • You can also change up your presentation–shorten your story, present it in a more interactive way that gets everyone up and moving a bit, or add a sensory component like painting.
  • When you consider that a child can’t be still for your typical lesson, and you change your requirements for sitting, you give them the opportunity to be successful!
  • When a child that is hyperactive has an outlet or you make the whole lesson interactive for everyone, you are spending your time ministering instead of fighting a losing battle to make a child with ADHD be still. 

When their mind wanders

Let’s imagine you have a student who sits just fine, but their mind wanders and you never really know if they are getting anything out of your lesson.

First, examine your lesson structure—Let’s imagine your student with ADHD has trouble paying attention during your lesson.

Consider your typical lesson structure: is it lecture? Reading? To compete with a child’s attention span, I recommend changing up your structure:

  • You can start with something calm like a story …
  • then move on to something with movement or action like a game …
  • then transition to an activity like coloring or crafting.

All of these activities can be related to the same topic you’re teaching in a day, and one of them is bound to maintain the attention of your student for long enough that they learn something!

Plus, it keeps things fresh and exciting, which benefits you and all of your kiddos. 

When they struggle behaviorally

Suppose you have a child that struggles behaviorally—they blurt out, interrupt, or get into things. What you do not want to do is spend your whole ministry time butting heads with them or repeating things like “Stop!”” or “No!” the whole time. You can support this child in the same way as in the examples above.

  • First, think about their strengths or what they do well. Maybe they are vocal and into everything because they can’t contain their enthusiasm!
  • Then, think about how to bring the focus onto their enthusiasm—put them to work! There are plenty of opportunities for helpers in a small church ministry,  and including these enthusiastic and busy kiddos is a great way to love on them and disciple them.
  • When they have a specific job to do, that will decrease the opportunity to get into other things. 

3) Teach, practice, and reward

When you have planned to let their strengths shine, think about how to teach, practice, and reward the behaviors you want to see.

Explicit instructions

When you want to teach a new behavior to a kiddo with ADHD, explicit instruction gets right to the point. Tell them what you want them to be able to do, and why.

  • You can lovingly explain to the child who blurts out that by raising his hand and waiting on his name to be called, everyone has a chance to share.
  • For the student whose wiggling on the carpet disrupts her friends, you can explain how standing or containing their wiggles to their own area helps everyone learn.
  • Maybe you explain to the child who feels big emotions that the best way to get help is to use words instead of tantrums. Always give them an ‘instead’—then you are teaching, not complaining.

Commit to helping them learn and remember the new behavior they are going to learn, and tell them how.

  • Will you hold up one finger to remind them to wait on their name to be called?
  • Will you give them a pencil and paper to write down questions to ask after you’re done with the lesson?
  • Will you give them a special cushion to wiggle on, so they don’t disturb their neighbors?
  • Will you prompt them to share their emotion, then help them address it?

There are endless ways to teach and practice new behaviors! Remember that this is a process; it takes time, practice, and patience for everyone. 

Rewards need to be immediate

Rewards come in all kinds of forms.

  • There may be a child who learns quickly if they receive a chocolate chip every time they follow directions or remember to raise their hand!
  • Maybe your student prefers to have your praise and attention when they are working hard to do their best.
  • Even still, some children would be thrilled to have earned a special privilege at the end of class for practicing new or more appropriate behaviors with you.

What is important to remember about rewards, whatever kind you choose, is that they should be as immediate as possible.

There are very few children with ADHD who can wait an entire class to receive a reward for positive behavior, and denying them anything for their hard work—even if they haven’t perfected new behaviors yet—can be cruel.

  • Small edibles like chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, or goldfish crackers are fun and easy ways to give a small immediate reward.
  • Stickers or stamps can also be collected and shown off for hard work.
  • Praise, hugs, high fives, and fist bumps are immediate rewards for kiddos who love attention.
  • Earning check marks, smiley faces, or tally marks to get a special privilege at the end of class can be a fun reward for children that love to be involved.

Try this idea to combine immediate reward (smiley faces) with delayed reward (special privilege) for hard work: maybe a child earns 3 smiley faces for practicing new behaviors and gets to give everyone a squirt of hand sanitizer before they leave for the day.

4) Repeat

Repeat. ADHD will not disappear! Get comfortable with the idea that considering your teaching methods, the child’s strengths, areas of struggle, and practicing/rewarding new behaviors will need to happen again and again so that you are spending your time ministering instead of struggling.

Read more on Special Needs Ministry in Small Churches:

3 Steps to Be Ready for Special Needs Visitors in Your Small Church

Understand 2 Types of Special Needs Ministry for Your Small Church

Connect with Holly & others in small churches

Solutions & Support for Small Churches – The Creative Little Church Community