Unless your ministry is located under a rock, you’ve had firsthand experience with at risk children. Although I do not like labeling kids, we teachers need to know what challenges lay before us. Children who fall under the “at risk” category tend to act out, even dangerously, to gain attention while other children remain resolutely hidden in the background. At risk simply means the child has a likelihood to follow a negative life path, often because of a family history of abuse, addictions and the like.
In some situations, you may suspect a child is at risk by their behavior towards you or other children in your ministry. Aggression and chronic cursing are two big indicators, at least in my experience. Reaching at risk children is tough and requires a commitment from the teacher or pastor. However, we are bringers of the gospel–the good news is that Jesus saves and makes children whole!
So what are some good tips for reaching at risk children?
Expect resistance. If a child is at risk, he’s probably not going trust you, simply because you are an adult. Don’t expect hugs and smiles, expect resistance. Be patient and practice loving the child from a distance. Kind words, even structured, fair discipline are ways of showing you can be trusted. Always point to Jesus in your lessons, games and in everything. Also, don’t let your heart lead you into the “savior trap.” You can’t save children. You’re aren’t the answer. God’s love is!
In some cases, you might find this child over-friendly. She may act inappropriately towards you. Correct the behavior, without embarrassing the child and make another teacher aware of what is happening immediately.
Create roles of responsibility. Most at risk children are beyond the realm of bringing them back to an average childhood. Sex abuse survivors, for instance, have experienced a level of grief that encroaches upon their innocence. They may never have the patience to sit and play teatime with the rest of the group. These children need empowerment and responsibility. Create roles for kids to demonstrate their strength and leadership. Some ideas are line leaders, handing out snacks or sweeping the floor after crafts.
Avoid making allowances for bad behavior. There can’t be two sets of rules within your children’s ministry. At risk kids need to follow the rules too. It’s time to stop making excuses for kids by saying, “Well, you just don’t understand,” or “He’s been through so much.” That kind of leading will cripple the at risk child, keeping her forever in “helpless” mode. Have compassion, but don’t have double standards.
Build relationships with all children. If you think remembering a child’s name is a high bar of excellence, you might be in trouble. To reach this group, you’ll have to go way beyond getting a name correct — relationships are required. Get to know kids, parents, foster-parents and grandparents. Follow the important days like birthdays. Show up to watch the child play ball. Be the pastor and love your kids by having a good, reliable relationship with them.
In children’s ministry, you’ll have children with a mish-mash of personalities and life situations. The chances that you’ll lead an at-risk child is pretty high. Don’t be afraid to love, but be prepared!
Visit Mimi’s blog Encouragement for Christians to learn more about her ministry.