By: Haley Hisle
Those who provide care within a school and church setting spend a lot of time with children and adolescents and can have a profound influence. These people volunteer in many different roles to help look after children while a parent is in a small group or church service.
Heather Sewell, Ministry Development Director, speaks with many pastors and families caring for kids from hard places. “I am finding that churches aren’t always equipping children’s ministry leaders or even small group leaders well to care for parents of kids from hard places. But, I don’t think it is because churches don’t care about children or their caregivers. No, rather I think it is an issue of not knowing how.”
Okay, Define, Hard Place..
“Any child who experienced a traumatic birth, early medical trauma, prenatal stress or harm, trauma, neglect or abuse,” said Karyn Purvis, founder of Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development.
For those of us in church communities, for the sake of our community we must do a better job of understanding the wide array of children who have these backgrounds. This understanding will show us the need to care for these children and support the parents of these children in the church. By learning how to do these two things effectively, we will be better equipped to care for these kids that mean so much to us.
According to studies done by Focus on the Family and Empowered to Connect, the risk factors that characterize a child from a hard place can negatively impact a child in ways that will continue to affect them throughout their life. Children from hard places often experience:
altered brain development
ability to process sensory inputs
lack of secure attachment
heightened levels of stress and fear
The Setting for Caring for Kids from Hard Places
There can be “triggers” for these children. We all have something that triggers us negatively. You may think of a situation that brings a trigger to mind. For these children, it could be odors, textures or a look someone gives them. The ideal situation that we, in church ministries, should strive for is having a connection with these kids where they feel safe coming into your classroom before these things happen. It is important to figure out the message the child is trying to get across behind the behavior, so that you can form a connection with the child and help him or her calm down. The most important thing to remember is, “when it is over, it is over.”
A child may react to a situation with fight, flight, or freeze behaviors. A child that is in a fight situation is going to act out in anger saying, “I won’t” or “no.” A child in a flight situation has escaping behaviors. This could be categorized as the class clown who gets easily bored and says “I’m out of here.” Lastly, a child that is in a freeze situation can act whiny, and clingy. They may withdraw from a situation or hide. Usually this type of child may say “I can’t.”
How to Respond when Triggers are set off in the classroom
There are 4 key tips in responding to a child during this situation. It is great to have playful engagement. This is when that child has mild behaviors you can redirect with playfulness. Structured engagement is when the child is showing moderate behaviors. This is a little more tense, so you want to redirect through choice giving.
Third is calming engagement, this is when the child is verbally aggressive; you want to redirect it with time or having them think it over. Lastly is protective engagement, this is when the child is physically aggressive and as a church caregiver you want to redirect it with physical interruption.
Bekah Mason, a single foster mom shares her experience with an educator that helped encourage her daughter in the classroom. “It has been helpful to have a teacher for my daughter who recognized quickly that typical classroom management plans aren’t particularly effective. Instead of trying to force her into compliance, her teacher adjusted how she interacted with her. When your child actually escalates troublesome behavior when trying to comply with disciplines like timeout or keeping up with a color chart system, having a teacher who is willing to take the time to find out what works for your child is a priceless treasure. It does seem to be rare to find teachers who are already trained in trauma informed discipline, but I’ve thankfully encountered teachers so far who are willing to learn. When I share from the beginning that my kids are not being coddled or enabled when I hold them close instead of putting them in isolating timeout, and especially when teachers see for themselves that it’s more effective, they are generally more open to learning. And for some, they’ve recognized that those strategies are more effective with “regular” kids, too.”
When and How to Support the Parents
Parents of children from hard places deal with struggles that another parent may not have. They may not have as much support as another parent. These parents with kids from hard places typically don’t want people to know that they’re struggling. Some parents feel abandoned by God because they felt God called them to adopt, and now are experiencing isolation or inadequacy. You can support the parents by bringing the parents dinner, sending them a text, and loving them like Jesus does, sacrifically.
Bekah explains the difficulties of being a single foster parent she shares her own word of encouragement for caregivers. “Cut yourself some slack! Parenting was never intended to be a one-person job, and no one expects us to do it alone. Be willing to be vulnerable with one or two people and share with them your weaknesses and moments you fail so that you can process those things and receive feedback from someone outside your home. Sometimes we need our perspective and expectations adjusted, and when you are the only adult in the house, that can be tough. Also, seek out other single parents who can be a support system for you as well. Taking my kids anywhere on my own can feel overwhelming, but even a trip to the park is more enjoyable when there are two adults, even if that means there are then four or five kids. Life is better when people are together, so live in community as much as possible!”
These verses proclaim that we, as the body of Christ, are called to care for everyone in our church and we shouldn’t take this lightly.
How are you going to show love to kids from hard places and their adoptive and foster parents? Help, Hope, Heal is a conference designed to help equip Christians as they care and connect with kids from hard places, save the date for October 28 for this Louisville conference.