Ministering to A.D.D. Teens
By Rev. Kellen Roggenbuck
In the past two decades, Attention Deficit Disorders have become household diagnoses. Perhaps in your ministry you already have members who have been diagnosed with or are being medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Common symptoms you may have seen are blurting answers out without raising their hands, even if they’ve been told to do so, constant non-sequiturs, the inability to sit still or a need to fidget and a constant lack of following directions. Not every high-energy or inattentive student has an attention deficit, but these signs can point out who you might need to make further arrangements for. These things can be problematic for an educational setting, but they are not insurmountable, and as ministers to youth, there are things we can do. With a few simple considerations, you can make your ministry a productive, fruitful space for all students, even those with attention deficit diagnoses.
Whether the student is inattentive or hyperactive and impulsive, they are not doing it on purpose. It is helpful to take a breath before addressing disruption. Phrases like, “We’re not talking about that right now.” can be helpful for non-sequiturs. Have a plan and be ready for it to not work out as you prepared. If you can be overly patient with your attention deficit students when they act out or are distracted, the rest will be easier.
This may mean you have to change the amount of information you cover in a lesson or the length of a game. Giving breaks often can be very helpful, but it means you have to understand that you will have less time to do what you want to do, and that it’s alright.
Know the warning signs.
Each person is different, and each attention deficit youth will have unique challenges that will progress in a unique sequence. Know where each student begins and how it escalates. Does fidgeting lead to distracting those around a student? Does a not-sequitur lead to making fart noises? Does looking out the window often lead to trying to climb out of the window? Each is good to know to know when a student is on track to escalate and a course shift can occur.
Move it, move it!
When you teach, try to avoid remaining stationary behind a podium or seated on a stool. Moving around demands a more constant focus on you and can bring attention back to you for students who are distracted. I tend to be a bit of a wanderer when I preach anyway, so this works well in my lessons. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, try moving closer to students when they ask or answer a question. Consider putting your white board or paper pad farther away from where you normally stand, so that you have to walk over to take notes. It seems like a small change that might also be tedious, but it can make a big impact.
Ask, and you will receive.
Engaging students is one of the best ways of calling attention back without embarrassing or isolating them. Asking non-rhetorical, open-ended questions is a great way to engage students throughout a lesson. Ask questions often, and if you begin to see warning signs that an attention deficit student is beginning to escalate, engage them specifically. A simple “Simon, what do you think Jesus meant?” can mean the difference between a student remaining engaged and a student trying to see if he can throw a chip into someone else’s cup across the room. It’s best if the student knows the answer, but it’s okay if they don’t as long as you remember that you are asking to engage, not embarrass or shame. Don’t get frustrated with an, “I don’t know.” Instead, lead the student to an answer or engage the whole group to help answer.
I know that youth spaces tend to be loud, bold spaces with crazy décor and stuff everywhere (at least all of mine are). But, anything that pulls focus away from where you want it to be can be a problem with attention deficit students. If possible, simplify and order your space to provide less distraction. Arrange your chairs or couches so that they point where you want the attention of your youth to be. In my case, I teach in the round usually, and hold discussion-based lessons, so all chairs and couches point into the center of the room. Having the door shut if there are other things happening in adjoining space or in adjacent rooms can help minimize distracting noises or walk-ins. Having blinds or curtains over windows can help, too.
Having attention deficit students sit near the front, away from doors or windows and closer to the action can be helpful. You have a clearer view of them to look for signs of escalation, and they get a clearer view of what is happening. If you don’t want to arrange seats, having an adult sit near them would be an alternative that would give support and a clear view of escalating behaviors.
Visuals will be an important tool in these settings. Charts, maps, pictures, (short) videos, color coding…these are all ways to bring new focus to a lesson. Sometimes straight lectures or sermons can be too much for any teen, especially those with attention deficits. Use clips from television or movies as illustrations. Utilize online resources like Skit Guys. Transition the way you are teaching often and using different senses so that it forces teen’s brains to recalibrate, and you will see increased focus from your attention deficit students.
Another way to engage in the teaching or give an outlet to fidgeters is to give your students paper outlines to take notes. This is a small extra step for you, but it gives the students means to take notes and maintain higher focus, or doodle and channel their energy in a non-distracting way.
Direct while directing.
When you are giving game rules or other instructions, break them down into clear, short statements. Give them once, then repeat verbatim as necessary. If games are complex, consider what the minimum instructions will be to start and give them, and correct or adapt as the game progresses. It’s a good practice for any teen activity that instructions should be clear and expressible in under a minute, but for attention deficit students, this is crucial. Don’t stop the momentum of instructions for questions, address questions after you’ve shared all information. This can be tricky, as some attention deficit youth will blurt out questions or comments. Acknowledge the question but move on till you’ve finished the instructions, then address it. So, when a teen blurts out, “What about head shots?” while you are explaining dodgeball, resist retorting, “You should’ve dodged faster I guess.” until after you’ve finished with all the rules.
Maintain frequent eye contact with your attention deficit students while giving instructions. This is good to do while teaching too, but it’s even more important when you are instructing before an activity or game. Look for nods, smiles and other cues that they are listening, and if you are unsure, you can reengage with a statement like, “Does that make sense, Cora?”
These are not cures or universal tips. Each youth has unique levels of engagement, focus, activity and patience. Remember that their brains are still developing, and that they are often doing the best they can. If we are ministry leaders can work to help bring the gospel to those who otherwise would miss it due to a lack of focus, constant distractions or hyper activity, then we are doing what Christ intended when he commissioned us as evangelists. It’s our responsibility to frame the good news in a way it can be received, understood and embraced. And, dodgeball is more fun when everyone understands the rules.
Pastor Kellen Roggenbuck has been in youth ministry for over 11 years at both the local church, circuit and conference level. Currently he coordinates the Youth Delegation for the Wisconsin Annual Conference and will be serving as a delegate for the Global Young Person's Convocation next summer in Johannesburg, South Africa in addition to his local youth ministry. Kellen serves as head pastor of Immanuel UMC in Jefferson, WI with his wife and son, and enjoys teaching ukulele and writing in his spare time.