Essential things your small church needs to know about teens with ADHD … and 4 ways to do youth ministry better

No idea what ADHD is or how to minister to youth and teens who can’t sit still or don’t seem to pay attention? Have no fear! Behavior Specialist Holly Sharpe shares essential information and practical strategies to minister to youth and teens with ADHD.

Attention Youth Pastors! Do you have youth or teens with ADHD in your small church youth group?

Or, are you wondering…

  • What’s ADHD?
  • You mean kids who don’t pay attention?
  • What can we do for youth and teens who have it?

ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed conditions in the US. It affects organizational skills, time management, planning, predicting, impulse control, behavior, emotional regulation, and bodily activity. Although most cases of ADHD are diagnosed in childhood, it can persist through adolescence and into adulthood—meaning our small churches need to be ready to minister to these unique thinkers!

Three Types of ADHD:

  1. Inattentive Type: people with Inattentive Type ADHD have difficulty focusing or paying attention, or may get “zoned in” on an activity and have trouble breaking their concentration.
  2. Hyperactive Type: people with Hyperactive Type ADHD are unusually active, do not tire easily, and are often fidgety and on the move. 
  3. Combined Type: people with Combined Type ADHD experience difficulties in the areas of focus/attention AND hyperactivity. 

The Struggle is Real

Youth/Teens with ADHD may struggle to:

  • Listen to all the directions given for an activity
  • Draw their attention away from even a brief distraction
  • Remember what has been said to them before
  • Control their thoughts or behavior once an idea enters their mind
  • Sit still
  • Regulate strong emotions
  • Not take correction/feedback personally

Youth/Teens with ADHD might:

  • Pace or fidget
  • Talk excessively and change subjects frequently
  • Blurt out in class
  • Be very sensitive
  • Become easily frustrated
  • Miss small details
  • Forget easily

In children, ADHD often looks like plain old bad behavior—unless you know a child has ADHD, their behavior might make them just seem difficult to deal with, rather than in need of understanding and support. 

>> Click here to learn more about ADHD for Children’s Ministry

For youth and teens, ADHD can look like uncooperative behavior, emotional immaturity, being overly sensitive, disinterest in class, or laziness.

ADHD is an invisible disability

ADHD is an invisible disability, which means it may be difficult to know if someone has it—whereas when a person has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair, you know just by looking at them.

Hyperactivity in youth and teens may mean that they pace or prefer to stand rather than sit, or they may gesture or fidget frequently. They may talk a lot, talk fast, or change subjects every other word. Hyperactive behavior may cause teens or youth to act before thinking, even though they do understand cause/effect or right/wrong. 

Inattention in youth and teens may mean they stare off instead of making eye contact, they may appear lazy or need prompting to get started or stay on track with an activity. They may be easily distracted and have trouble bringing their thoughts back to the present. They may also be forgetful or have trouble staying organized. 

No matter how ADHD manifests in our youth and teens, it is important to remember that they are working hard all day every day to do their best! They need the understanding and support of the Body of Christ. 

ADHD Strengths

Youth and teens with ADHD have their share of challenges to face every day, but they also possess valuable strengths, such as …

  • A colorful personality: people with ADHD can be real characters who live, laugh, and love BIG!
  • The hyperfocus of a person with ADHD can accomplish great things when working toward a goal.
  • People-pleasing in a good way: people with ADHD often love to make their friends and loved ones feel safe and happy
  • People with ADHD can use their unique brains to share their creativity and ingenuity—they are often full of amazing ideas! 
  • Spontaneity and willingness to take risks make people with ADHD valuable members of their youth groups!
  • Being misunderstood inspires many people with ADHD to develop a strong sense of fairness and justice for others—they make great teammates.

Bottom line—don’t miss out! Make it your mission to know one of these dynamic individuals!

Now that you know more about ADHD and how it manifests in youth and teens, let’s talk about what to DO!

4 Ways to Minister to Youth/Teens with ADHD in Your Small Church

  1. Stick to a routine
  2. Ditch the lecture
  3. Play to their strengths
  4. Encourage

1) Stick to a Routine

ADHD makes it very difficult for someone to consistently predict what might happen in a given situation. ADHD also makes it difficult to remember how it all played out the last time they were in that situation. That’s why routine matters!

You will be doing youth and teens in your small church a HUGE favor by taking the mystery out of your services or activities—create a routine, schedule, or flow so your youth and teens know what to expect—give them the gift of a brain break!

Even a general flow makes a routine

A routine doesn’t have to be a strict schedule that you follow, but if that is your thing then go for it! Maybe you have a general flow for how your services or group activities go—such as social time, worship time, teaching time, prayer time, and dismissal. Keep it simple. If you don’t have something in place, there is no time like the present to think about how your services and activities usually go—and adjust it or make it your official flow/routine. 

Put your routine in print

Once you have established your routine, write it down! Get it in writing and get it posted where your youth and teens can easily see and refer to it. Put the events/activities in the order they will happen, and bonus points if you can include times or time intervals for each activity. For example, maybe you have worship time right at 7pm, or maybe you allocate 20 minutes for your teaching time. The most important thing is to write it and make it visible. You can even make a poster board routine for all to see, then have smaller printed routines for individuals who can take one and keep it in their pocket to refer to if needed. 

Refer to the routine often

Refer to your own routine often—it is a great way to keep things moving along and to manage your own time. When you are modeling time management and organizational skills to your youth and teens with ADHD, you are helping build important skills!

2) Ditch the Lecture

Listen, I’m a teacher—I love lectures and I definitely see the value in them! However, so often our youth and teens with ADHD are totally burnt out on sitting still and hearing someone talk about a subject for minutes on end—which means their ADHD symptoms may be more difficult to manage.

Teaching can be done in different ways. You can deliver important information as well as make it easier on your youth and teens with ADHD to really learn what you want them to know.

Utilize project-based learning

Project-based learning is a great option for youth and teens with ADHD—and it is likely that your neurotypical (non-ADHD) youth and teens will be excited about this, too! Pick a topic, keep your lecture or direct teaching time to 5 minutes or less, and then let everybody get to work!

For example, at my small church, our youth group leaders did a unit on the Tabernacle of the Old Testament—this involved reading the dimensions and descriptions of the Tabernacle in scripture, then the youth got to draw and create models of it!

This was fun! It incorporated the strengths of all of the youth in one way or another, and it was ADHD friendly because there was lots of flexibility with movement. In addition, some of the kids could hyperfocus on certain things to help complete the project. Plus some of the kids got support for organization or memory from their peers and they learned research skills that brought a concept to life in a meaningful way. It got everyone excited about church!

Media and visuals are a win

Media and visuals are almost always a guaranteed win for youth and teens with ADHD. Many individuals with ADHD are visual/kinesthetic thinkers, meaning their brains prefer visual and movement-based learning. Incorporating short videos or live action components to teaching can capture the attention of a youth/teen with ADHD and make a meaningful impact.

After 5-10 minutes, videos might seem like a lecture in a visual format…so keep it brief and to the point. In our youth group, teens may perform dramas for the group or the youth pastor may use a short video to illustrate a point.

There are no shortage of media resources available for churches, but bonus points if you can get your congregation or your youth group in on the creative action! For example, what about having members of the church or youth group make ‘commercials’ for lesson topics to replace lengthy lectures?

If you must lecture…

If you must lecture (because truly, some topics may best be presented with direct teaching) then you can accommodate your youth and teens with ADHD:

  • Keep it 20 minutes or less
  • Provide a handout to go along with the lecture with notes
  • Provide time to practice/apply what you taught
  • Allow flexible seating: in chairs, on the floor, on cushions, standing, etc. 
  • Summarize when you are finished—hit the key points in 2 minutes or less
  • Check for understanding and follow up—what did they hear? What did they learn? What questions do they have?

3) Play to Their Strengths

Think about where your youth/teen with ADHD really shines, and how you can incorporate that gifting or ability in the services or activities your church hosts for youth and teens.

If your teen has trouble sitting still

Do you have a youth/teen who has trouble sitting still? Make them your helper! Let them set up chairs, pass out materials, work the sound booth, set up props, etc. Give them opportunities to move—even allowing them to stand or pace in the back while listening to the service. Invite them to participate in movement based activities—dramas, games, worship team, etc. 

If your teen is a talker

If your youth/teen with ADHD is a talker, ask them to greet newcomers or regular attendees each service! No matter how long you have been attending a church, it is always nice to be greeted with enthusiasm from a fellow member! You can also encourage youth/teens with the gift of gab to use it to pray for and with their youth group members. Call on them when you are wanting some audience participation and you won’t be disappointed! 

If your teen is a creative or an encourager

You might find that someone has a talent for thinking up games, presenting information in a new or creative way, hyperfocusing on worship and thus encouraging others to go deeper in their worship.

The possibilities are endless when we shift our focus from how to deal with symptoms of ADHD to how to incorporate the giftings of youth/teens with ADHD!

4) Encourage

If you have worked with children, youth, and/or teens with ADHD before, then you know it is no walk in the park. It can be difficult and trying at times for adults. You can be assured it is much, much, much more difficult and trying for those precious ones who actually have ADHD! 

Youth and teens with ADHD are likely to be hearing reminders to get organized, work harder, don’t be so forgetful, calm down, and sit still everywhere they go. They are truly working their brains very hard to thrive in the world. It can be disheartening to hear the same things from their church as they are used to hearing from the world. 

We can love these youth and teens well by looking for opportunities to praise and encourage them, as often as possible.

  • That can be as simple as greeting them with enthusiasm or making sure they always get an invite or are included in what’s going on.
  • Take time to get to know them so you can accommodate their needs and give them the opportunity to shine with their gifts and abilities.
  • Offer support when they are struggling, and really listen.
  • Show them they are loved and valued with your actions and willingness to change things up.. 

The Bottom Line

ADHD won’t disappear! Focus on establishing routines, changing up your teaching methods, zeroing in on strengths, and making it your mission to encourage if you want to love your youth/teens with ADHD well!

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