Ask anyone who's worked with children and/or teenagers for any period of time and they'll tell you that yes, they've definitely worked with someone described as "that kid." You know the ones I'm talking about. They're the ones who are constantly disrupting when you're trying to get serious. They're the ones who you have to have a volunteer on "special assignment" to help out with. They're the ones who have a hard time focusing on something for more than just a few minutes, and even then seem distracted.
These kids often get a bad rap. Sometimes the adults who work with them think they aren't well disciplined. Or sometimes they just get labeled a "difficult kid."
Sometimes there are discipline issues or things stemming from exterior influences. But sometimes it's not that. All too often a large percentage of these kids actually do have the disorder known as ADHD, and they frequently go undiagnosed and untreated. The number of these kids is on the rise. According to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine now 9% of kids suffer from ADHD and a high percentage of them go untreated. You can read more about this study here.
I'm not an expert on ADHD, but I do have significant experience having worked with kids with ADHD in the Church. So I can't talk about why it's on the rise or even about treatment. But I do want to talk a bit about ways the Church might be able to help.
Start addressing Psychological or Psychosocial Illness in the same terms as physical illness. There has been a tendency in the Church to overlook Psychological/Psychosocial illnesses, or to address them in less-than-helpful terms. In some churches these types of illnesses are addressed only as "spiritual" problems. While our spiritual state has a dramatic impact on the state of our physical and mental well-being, they need to be addressed by professionals. Refusing to acknowledge these illnesses and to address them through trained medical professionals is just as detrimental as refusing to acknowledge that a heart attack is a condition that needs medical treatment.
Remove the taboos surrounding the issues. Often times in faith communities people with any sort of psychological disorder are looked upon as "weak" or "strange." Parents often have trouble coping with disorders their kids may have because of how others will see them. The church needs to be a safe place, a refuge for families in these situations. Encourage people to treat everyone as equals (this should go without saying) and ensure that no one is ever addressed as "weak" or "strange" especially in ways that are not vocalized. Additionally, make sure the way you yourself handle the person/situation does not show discomfort or anxiety because other people will follow your lead. And if a family is having trouble coping with such a situation, they may need to hear someone say, "There's nothing to be ashamed of."
Talk openly and honestly with parents. When we work with kids who are "difficult" for an extended period of time it can become difficult to deal with them objectively. This is even further complicated when their situation is undiagnosed or untreated. An undiagnosed or untreated kid can have expectations put upon them that are unfair or unattainable. It's easier to work with someone when you have a good understanding of their limits or their challenges. When working with an undiagnosed or untreated child and the problems/symptoms exist for an extended period of time, you may need to talk to the parents about it. I can't tell you when the right time to ask "Have you talked to your doctor about the possibility your child might have ADHD?" is, or even how to ask that question. But at some point it may need to be asked.
Don't jump the gun. While many kids with ADHD go undiagnosed or untreated, not every "difficult" kid has it. Some kids are labeled as ADHD when there are really other issues going on. This can result in more complex unresolved issues and even over-medication. Be careful not to assume that a kid has it. Like all disorders ADHD has a very specific set of symptoms that doctors and psychiatrists use to diagnose it. Unless you are one of these, don't tell parents their kid has ADHD. Remember, above I talked about asking, not about telling. Allow a professional to diagnose the problems. But if you think you need to refer someone, first read up here , or make an appointment with a mental health professional just to ask questions about ADHD and ways you can help kids/families in your congregation who are dealing with it.
Adjust your programming. While we can't make one program or model that miraculously fits everyone, we also have a responsibility to make adjustments for people. It's no different than putting in an updated restroom or a ramp where the stairs used to be. Without these things some people might not be able to fully participate. When you're planning your youth ministry programming be sure to take the kids in your group with ADHD into consideration. Careful consideration of their attention spans and ability to focus may change some of what you're doing. Make sure you're doing your best to help them participate as fully as possible. Also educate the rest of your staff/volunteers so they know what they're dealing with. Remember, the goal is not to single anyone out. The goal is healthy integration.
I'd also like to tag a few fellow bloggers to see what they have to say about working with kids who have ADHD, whether treated or untreated. Let's see what these folks have to say:
Brian and Jacob
And feel free to invite anyone else to this conversation, too.