In a breakout I did on invisible disabilities, I got a question about how you can tell the difference between disobedience and disability. Are they choosing to disobey or are they unable to obey? That’s a tough one, isn’t it? And one we may get a lot from children’s ministry leaders, especially those who have been teaching and volunteering for decade.

Here’s my answer: let’s put behavioral supports in place and see what happens.  

If it’s a disability, the supports will help. If it’s disobedience, the supports will help! If a kiddo won’t join us for lesson time, let’s figure out why and make it easier for him to “obey” and join us. His behavior is communicating something! The quick transition from what he wants to do (play) to what he doesn’t want to do (sit and listen) may be challenging for him. He is communicating that by refusing to stop playing and join the circle. We could try different supports to see what help, like a visual timer.

Steps to take:

  • Track the behavior using the ABC method: antecedent, behavior, consequence. You can change what comes before the behavior (the antecedent) or what comes after (the consequence). The child can change the behavior. Can you figure out what’s triggering the behavior or what he/she gets as a result of the behavior and make changes?
  • Train a buddy to support the student, decrease anxiety, and encourage positive behavior choices.
  • Talk to parents about what’s working at home or at school. Communicate with them in a caring way about the behavior that may be a danger to volunteers or other students.
  • Create a room clear plan if there are signs behavior may escalate.
  • Get training in de-escalation methods through CPI (often offered yearly through your school district)

Whether it’s disobedience or a disability, we have the opportunity to encourage and disciple the parents. If it’s rough for us at church to get him to comply, it’s probably rough at home too. Instead of telling Mom and Dad all the ways their son or daughter missed the mark during Sunday school, let’s share how we put supports in place and had success! It could sound like this, “Jacob often struggles to stop playing and join us to listen to the Bible story, but today we set a visual timer so he could see how long he still had to play and wasn’t surprised when it was time to transition. He did great! There’s a visual timer app on your phone if it would help at home too. I’ll text you the link!” 

We know that kids sin. They deliberately disobey to test boundaries or for a dozen other reasons that come down to being fallen humans in a fallen world. (The same is true for adults!) We may not be able to tell the difference between disobedience and disabilities, but we can support positive behavior choices so it’s easier for the child to follow our lead. It’s the posture Jesus took again and again as He was patient with the disciples when they learned to obey in new ways. When He ascended, He left them with a Helper—the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit lives in and works through us as we disciple kids and their parents. Ask Him to help you see “disobedient” or “naughty” kids through His eyes, offering love and support as we help them realize their need for Christ and His work on their behalf. 

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