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Addressing Aggressive or Unsafe Behavior

April 18, 2010

Question:  “Our children’s ministry has a participant with identified special needs that exhibits aggressive behavior.  Our volunteers and other children’s parents are understandably expressing concern.  What do we do?”

**DISCLAIMER: This blog provides general information from a variety of sources.  Nothing presented in this blog should be construed as legal advice.  Churches may need to pursue advisement from their insurance carrier and/or attorney to determine the best steps forward. **

This post is meant to serve as an idea starter and the below tips may or may not be followed in any particular order.

  • Do a “gut check”

Ministry is often not pretty to any population, let alone special needs.  Ask yourself and everyone involved “is than an issue of inconvenience or legitimate safety?”  Let’s face it, avoiding inconvenience is our natural, human inclination.  And very often, appropriately accommodating a child with special needs is possible when a solution is pursued in earnest.   Make sure that the concern is tied to the behavior and not the special need.  Ask yourself (and ministry servants):  “Would we have these same concerns if a child without a disability exhibited the same behavior?”  If the answer is “yes”, proceed toward finding a solution and pray sincerely for God’s discernment and wisdom.  Submit any personal hindrances before the Lord and petition Him for clarity.

  • Document behaviors

Create a log, journaling the child’s conduct.  For the log, split the page into three columns (for a template of the log, click here):

A – Antecedent. Note what happened immediately before the inappropriate behavior. Use this column to see if a pattern develops.  Is there something triggering the behavior?  For example, is the child displaying inappropriate behavior at the same time or just prior to doing an activity he or she doesn’t like?  Is the child’s medication wearing off?  Is the child feeling hungry or tired?  Sometimes basic physical needs and an inability to recognize/communicate those needs are often at the root of a problem.

B – Behavior. Document the child’s actions and reactions through the situation.

Gather this information in order to determine the message of what a child is trying to communicate by his or her inappropriate behavior.  For example, did the child want a toy and lacked the language to ask for it?  Was the music too loud?  Was the child over-stimulated?

C – Consequences. Describe what happened immediately after the behavior.  Note how teachers or caregivers reacted to the behavior and what consequences were enacted. Are the reactions or consequences of the caregivers unintentionally feeding the inappropriate behavior?  Did the undesirable behavior escalate as teachers addressed the behavior and/or enacted consequences for the child?

Discuss the journal of noted behaviors with parents or carefully share general details without violating confidentiality with consulted special needs professional(s).

  • Craft a solution with the help of the parents

Begin the conversation with the parents by talking about the positives of having their child involved in the church.  Introduce the need for a dialogue by saying:

We want to create a safe and successful church experience for your child and for every children’s ministry participant.  We need your help figuring out how we can ensure that Johnny, his peers, and his caregivers are enjoying a safe and successful experience each week.”  

Present the need for a conversation in a non-alarming tone while conveying the idea that many children need some individualized strategies for successful church participation.  Make sure you are communicating assurance that the church cares about this child and their family.  Be sure no sensitive discussions occur over email or phone.  You may want to use a standard ministry form to as a tool to guide the conversation and work towards  a solution.  Keep the conversation focused on the core issue of providing a safe environment and away from the issue of a suspected of confirmed special needs diagnosis.  An example form from Capital Christian Center’s Champions Special needs Ministry can be found here:  Emergency Plan.

For situations where the child has exhibited unquestionably unsafe or threatening behaviors, consider requiring parents to accompany their child in the church environment until the concerning behavior has ceased for three times.  By requiring parents to be present until the physically threatening behavior has stopped:

1) The parents may be able to interpret what is causing the problematic behavior and help the church craft a more effective and expedient solution;

2) Caregivers and teachers can see how parents prevent and/or extinguish the problematic behavior;

3) For the benefit of everyone, parents may share in the ownership of the solution.

Please note that if a church instills this policy requiring parents to attend children’s ministry environments in cases where a child has exhibited unquestionably unsafe behaviors, it must be applied uniformly across the population of typical children and students with special needs.  It is important to keep the conversation and goals centered around extinguishing the unsafe behaviors and not around any disability.  If a behavior is unsafe and unacceptable for a child without a disability, then it is unsafe and unacceptable for a child with a disability.  (Pray for discernment as you define “unsafe” and “unacceptable”.)

  • Invite consultation from outside professionals

Call on professionals in the public school system and medical community.  Carefully discuss generalities without revealing names and/or sensitive information.  Many special needs professionals (even nonbelievers!)  will happily advise a church in order to help with special needs inclusion.  Often non-church members are the best ones to consult because this better protects the privacy of everyone involved.  One cannot underscore enough the value of developing relationships with experienced special education teachers, school counselors, and pediatric therapists (speech, physical, and occupational) for the purpose of working through issues associated with unique learning or behavioral challenges.

  • Think outside the box

Most of the time an accommodation plan can be devised where everyone wins. If valid safety concerns remain, consider taking church outside its four walls and directly to the individual and their family.  Occasionally there are instances where a child is more comfortable in their home environment.  And providing a physically safe environment is absolutely paramount for the church.  Search for ways the church can still assist the child and the family in their spiritual formation.  Extend a willingness to be inconvenienced and get involved in the life of the family off campus.  Involve other church ministries and provide lay counseling, meals and physical support.  Similar to a box-lunch, prepare a box-lesson, delivering a copy of the materials, crafts and curriculum used each week.  Visit the home and either present the lesson to the child or help the parent so that they can convey and teach the material effectively.  Just because a child struggles in a classroom setting, it does not mean he or she lacks the capacity to learn!

  • Revisit the plan

Keep in mind that there may come a time the child is ready to re-enter regular participation in onsite programming.  Be willing to re-evaluate and welcome a child back into programming.  It is not uncommon for a child to outgrow a behavior.  Similarly a child’s participation in intervention or a new medical regimen may spur considerable improvement in his or her behavior management.

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Remember, the church’s goal is to promote the spiritual formation of every participating individual and in a safe environment.  When those objectives are compromised, everyone in the church suffers in one fashion or another.  And in those cases where hard conversations and evaluations are required, act in love and compassion!

This post was written with the help of several experienced ministry leaders and education professionals including Jackie Mills Fernald, Director of McLean Bible Church’s Access Disability Ministry (McLean, VA) and Dr. Alyssa Barnes, Assistant Professor specializing in education law and education policy at North Georgia College & State University.

For more on this topic, see When a Child Shows Signs of Autism

Like this post or any of its content?  See Rules for Repost.


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