An important skill in disability ministry and any ministry with kids and teens is how to support positive behavior choices and decrease opportunities for distracting behavior. All behavior is communication. It’s our job to figure out what the child is communicating with the behavior and fill the need before it leads to distracting behavior. The most effective way to do this is to track the ABCs of behavior: antecedent, behavior, consequence.   

Goals of the ministry team to decrease distracting behavior (adapted from Leading a Special Needs Ministry by Amy Fenton Lee)

  1. Interpret the core need driving the behavior
  2. Solve the problem and work to prevent the problem from occurring again
  3. Work with the student (and parents when possible) to develop consistent and appropriate communication for expressing their needs 

Addressing Distracting Behaviors (a summary)

  • Behavior is communication (figure out the core need: a tangible object, a physical or sensory need, to escape a demand, adult or peer attention)
  • Track the ABCs of behavior: antecedent, behavior, consequence   
  • Remember you can change the antecedent (what comes before) or the consequence (what comes after), the student changes the behavior 
  • For more help: contact a BCBA to observe and offer a behavioral plan
  • Remember: you have this student for a limited time each week. You can’t solve every issue. You just need a plan for the time he/she is with you.

Common Challenges:

Won’t go in the classroom: What is the motivation? (reluctance to transition, adult attention)

  • Transition Mom & Dad away quickly
  • Make the hall fun
  • Give the child a task
  • Let him/her keep a security object
  • Show him/her a picture of Mom & Dad in the service or their class

Interrupts teacher or answers every question: What is the motivation? (attention, distraction, to speed up lesson time to get back to fun?)

  • Set a clear expectation of behavior – reward what you want to see
  • Offer alternatives for shouting out (whisper to buddy, write down a list)

Won’t join the group for the lesson time: What is the motivation? (doesn’t want to transition away from fun, wants attention from peers or adults, is embarrassed by not meeting expectations during lesson time, struggles to sit still)

  • Use a visual timer and visual schedule to help child know when lesson time will happen and what will happen after
  • Offer comfortable seating and a fidget
  • Give positive attention for joining the group 

Elopement: What is the motivation? (sensory overwhelm, attention, avoidance of expectations)

  • Decrease opportunities 
  • Have more obstacles in the way
  • Develop a response plan
  • Train everyone in the possible path

Won’t keep hands to self: What is the motivation? (attention from peers, attention from adults, sensory need)

  • Clear expectations during time it’s likely to occur (when standing in line, waiting their turn, sitting for circle time) 
  • Sensory need- put something else in their hands like a fidget, use seating with boundaries 
  • If it becomes aggression, block to protect other students

Aggression/Self Injury

  • Figure out what’s triggering the behavior and how to adapt the antecedent and environment to keep it from happening again 
  • Offer in-home respite care paid for by the church. If the family has a babysitter/care provider they know, the church could cover the cost of him/her coming while the family attends church. 
  • Develop a room clear plan (link to document we have adapted: room clear and crisis plan templates and samples)
  • CPI training ( is used in schools for non-violent intervention. Doc Hunsley of SOAR Special Needs is certified to teach church leaders and volunteers the same material 

What if your church can’t meet the needs of the child?

  • A ministry run with limited staff, limited resources, and volunteers will not be able to meet every possible need. 
  • We can offer alternatives (online worship, paying for in-home care).
  • We can communicate as lovingly as possible after working together for solutions. 
  • We can trust that God will overcome any obstacles to draw this family to Himself. We are not responsible for their salvation—the Holy Spirit works through bigger challenges than we face.

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