Reaching At-Risk Kids

Reaching At-Risk Kids

by Jennifer Hooks

Recently, a friend took a small group of preschoolers and volunteers to a local indoor pool for a day of fun. Everyone had a blast — except for the 3-year-old boy who frantically paced the ledge of the pool, screaming obscenities, and flipping off anyone who approached him. The boy, red-faced and frenzied, was finally restrained and calmed, but not one of the adults present had a clue about what had just happened — or why.

After the incident, my friend discovered that the boy’s mother was addicted to methamphetamine. The boy’s home life included neglect, drugs, and rampant sexual abuse — not only from his mother, but also from the string of boyfriends and house­guests who frequented their home.

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If you minister to more than five children, odds are that at least one of those kids is considered “at-risk.” Regardless of how large or small your children’s ministry, it’s likely that a child facing significant challenges is in your ministry or will be soon. As teachers with limited time to connect with children each week, it’s our challenge to transform limited-quantity time into high-quality ministry.

In 2000, more than 500,000 kids were in foster care due to repeated abuse and neglect, parents’ drug use, and other problems. Today, that number is growing exponentially with the epidemic of methamphetamine use spreading and fracturing families. Millions of children today are considered at risk. Statistics tell us a lot about the issues kids face, and they’re helpful when we need a grim shot of reality. But the truth is no statistic can ever quantify a child’s heartbreak. At-risk children often come with a loaded knapsack of barriers they face daily, ranging from habitual neglect to drug addiction to social problems and more. As an influential adult demonstrating God’s love to children, it’s important to know some basic keys for relating to at-risk kids and how you can maximize your time with them.

What Is “At-Risk”?

The short answer to this question is a child who’s vulnerable to life-impacting social, psychological, and educational problems. This includes — but isn’t limited to — children who’ve experienced repeated abuse and neglect. At-risk children typically live in high-risk family environments that may include drug and alcohol dependence, don’t have stable homes either emotionally or physically, and don’t experience healthy, nurturing relationships with adults or peers. Kids at risk don’t come only from low-income families — they come from all backgrounds and socioeconomic levels.

How Will I Know?

Children at risk gain our attention for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common.

  • Atypical Behavior. An at-risk child habitually displays atypical behavior, ranging from angry, disruptive, hateful, and violent to withdrawn, sad, reticent, and fearful. A child may constantly seek attention for any reason — whether appropriate or inappropriate. Some children at risk disappear; others act out. The key point is that the child’s behavior is atypical over an extended period of time. If a child consistently displays disturbing or abnormal behavior, pay attention. Talk with the parents, talk with the child, and dig deeper to find the root of the behavior.
  • Known History. Jill was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome at birth, and later with attention deficit disorder, attachment disorder, and mental issues. Jill’s uncle adopted her when her mother was deemed unfit, but his own drug use, addiction to sex, and transient lifestyle denied her any kind of stability or values system. By age 6, she’d been kicked out of every school she attended because she attacked other children. Her history was well known in her small town, and her uncle willingly talked about her challenges. You may already be aware of a child like Jill when he or she enters your ministry.
  • Notification. You may be notified that a child in your ministry is in foster care or living with relatives due to domestic issues. There are legal and confidentiality issues related to these children, so check with your pastor or ministry leader if this is your situation.

Relationships and Responsibility

At-risk kids are often threatened and inexperienced when it comes to relationships and responsibility.

Understand resistance. Children at risk have typically experienced a great deal of loss in their lifetimes — losing their parents and even siblings, losing loving relationships to neglect or abuse, losing predictability and routine. And many of these children have experienced these catastrophic losses repeatedly. It’s no wonder that some react by becoming resistant to relationships — no matter how warm and well intended. For a child in this circumstance, be consistently kind, warm, gentle, genuine, caring, and interested.

Require responsibility. Adults tend to coddle struggling kids and attempt to shield them from further distress by not holding them accountable. Yet one of the most effective ways to help children build self-esteem and learn coping skills is to intentionally create roles of responsibility.

Give kids purpose. Children at risk, who often feel invisible and unimportant, will flourish — like any child will — when given a sense of purpose. Create opportunities for kids to be accountable to you, their peers, and themselves. Give kids responsibilities that’ll lead to personal and public successes.

Be a relational teacher. Relationship building is like running a marathon. It takes commitment and time. Often, a child at risk has experienced a succession of broken relationships. You can’t make up for a lifetime of heartbreak, but you can be a consistent, loving, predictable presence in the child’s life.

Don’t wait for a child who’s at risk to “warm up” to you. A child who’s been routinely hurt and let down isn’t likely to be compelled to initiate a relationship with you. The child who causes the most problems and elicits the least amount of nurturing from you is the child most likely to need your love, compassion, and care. Above all, remember that “relationship is an action, not a feeling.”

Help at-risk kids help others. One of the most beneficial things you can do for a child is to give him or her a chance to serve someone in need. Caring for another nurtures a sense of importance, responsibility, and love in the giver. It allows a sense of control in a child who otherwise may not feel control. It helps children see that they have something to give.

Labels and Love

At-risk children are often labeled, and labels can hinder their ability to find the love and care they need.

Show kids they matter. I remember listening to a 12 year old who was in juvenile detention for molesting a younger cousin. Between tears and the hiccups of hyperventilation, she screamed, “I know I’m a monster! I know I’m no good!” She, too, had been molested by a family member, and to counteract her feelings of helplessness and rage, she’d become the predator in control.

Imagine being thought of as a “throwaway.” These children feel worthless, problematic, a nuisance, and of no value. Sadly, our society attaches this unspoken label to thousands of at-risk kids. These kids may have discipline issues, social challenges, and much more. They may require more love, patience, and nurturing than the “normal” kids. But rather than embrace them, our tendency is to be exasperated by them. Eliminate the “throwaway” mentality by establishing these four filters in your classroom environment.

1. Stay positive. Create a positive, inviting classroom. Be encouraging, friendly, helpful, and patient, and require that all your kids treat each other in these same ways.

2. Defeat the Pygmalion Effect. Other­wise known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, the Pygmalion Effect holds that when we’re given negative expectations, we’ll fulfill them every time. So don’t expect that an at-risk child will show up late, cause problems, or ditch your class. Instead, expect that this child will be the best classroom assistant you’ve ever had, will learn more than any other child in your class, and will one day be teaching others about Jesus — and express those admirable expectations to the child.

3. Discipline — don’t punish. There’s a big difference between the two. Punishment meted out as retribution sends a defeating message to any child. Discipline is a tool that proactively prevents problems, respects all individuals involved, provides natural consequences for actions, and reinforces or builds on a child’s developing inner values. Punishment, on the other hand, is reactive, expects unquestioned obedience to authority figures, relies on control by rules rather than inner values, and has arbitrary consequences.

4. Banish boredom. Make your time together an adventure. Stimulate kids’ imaginations, challenge their spirits, and get them physically moving. Children who are stimulated and challenged won’t find their entertainment in challenging you or acting out. No child thrives in boredom. Make creative, active learning your standard of teaching.

Don’t label. Tossing around labels is a lot like name-calling. We don’t allow our children to call each other “stupid,” “lazy,” or “liar.” Why then does it seem acceptable for an adult to call a child “disruptive,” “hateful,” or “aggressive”? A child may exhibit these behaviors, but they don’t make up the child’s being. Good labels such as “beautiful,” “smart,” and “created by God” are the only kinds of acceptable labels for kids. Anything else is a characteristic, behavior, or demeanor exhibited by the child.

Discipline, Deeds, and Disagreements

The way you handle a child’s discipline, deeds, and disagreements will largely determine whether you’ll ever connect with that child.

Monitor your behavior. David was a self-proclaimed teacher’s nightmare. He interrupted, mimicked, name-called, and randomly walked out of class. One day, he threw a pen at a classmate’s head. The teacher, Mr. Adams, blew up. In a rage, Mr. Adams punched the chalkboard and shattered it. To the other kids’ dismay and fear, he hauled David out of the classroom by his shirt, calling him worthless, stupid, and “out of here.”

All over a thrown pen.

Adults are more likely to overreact to a child’s behavior when that child has a history of poor behavior. Don’t fall into this pattern. With each instance of misbehavior or conflict, assess the infraction independently and follow your discipline policy as you would with any child. For a sample discipline policy, go to Web Extras at

• Don’t be indulgent, permissive, or indifferent. Kids can’t build healthy self-esteem when they don’t understand which behaviors warrant value because everything they do is praised, rewarded, or ignored. Poor behaviors typically increase if adults constantly award “another chance.” Kids’ aggression is viewed as appropriate when it’s paired with an adult’s retaliatory aggression. A child’s inattention becomes status quo when it’s constantly overlooked.

• Don’t be lured into conflict. Often, children at risk initiate conflict as a self-protective mechanism. Rather than entering into conflict, use the issue to make a personal connection. Earn your kids’ trust. Wield your power selectively and compassionately. Be predictable. Set fair limits and maintain them. Show kids respect, and you’ll earn theirs.

Friendship and Fun

Every child craves friendship and fun — and at-risk kids will often thrive when they experience it.

Make joy an integral part of your curriculum. Give your kids thousands of reasons to exercise their “smile” muscles. Use your activities, lessons, games, and crafts as an excuse to inject joy into kids. Use activities that build a caring classroom. Celebrate. Intentionally create genuine joy.

Invite kids to belong. Don’t assume that a welcome sign on your door is enough. Literally invite a child at risk to become part of the action. Tell the child how important he or she is in your class. Get on the child’s eye-level, smile, and encourage him or her. If a child experiences failure or rejection and retreats or acts out, privately encourage that child. Create opportunities for success and laughter. Use interactive learning where kids work together cooperatively to achieve a goal or complete an activity. This is a non-threatening way to help kids connect, and it’s one of the most effective methods of education. Give each child tasks, responsibilities, and a role in the group.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau said, “Far from disheartening your pupils’ youthful courage, spare nothing to lift up their soul; make them your equals in order that they may become your equals.” There’s no question where God stands on our care and love for little children — especially those facing life-impacting issues. You’re uniquely equipped to share God’s love with a child at risk — so risk everything to show God’s love!

The View From Our Shoes

We’ve opened our home to 19 children, many brought to us due to the scourge of methamphetamine. Since we’re also pastors, we’ve seen what happens when foster children come to church. Here are a few reflections and suggestions for children’s ministry leaders.

Foster parents have special needs. Foster parents are part of a team to help children manage their losses and move on to their “forever” homes. Because time is of the essence, foster parents are called upon to do more than open their homes to deprived children. We take kids to visitations with parents and other relatives. We take them to doctors, dentists, and therapists. We’re sometimes subpoenaed to appear in court hearings to review the children’s cases. There are conferences with social workers, the children’s attorneys, and the birth families. There are continuing education requirements each year, and written progress reports to be prepared and medication logs to be kept. And then there are all the normal needs to meet for children. Consequently, foster parents are often exhausted and emotionally drained. By welcoming foster children into the life of your church, you’ll also minister to the special needs of foster parents. Provide foster parents with children’s clothing, diapers, furniture, toys, and games. Invite foster families over to your home so the children can have playtime with other children. Offer childcare.

Foster children have special needs. These children are grieving the loss of the only life they knew. By being brought into the state’s custody, they’ve lost everything: their parents, sometimes their siblings, their toys and clothes, their school, their friends, and their routines. Foster children often lack the capacity to understand why they’ve lost everything familiar in their lives. Even if their parents abused them, the kids invariably love and miss them terribly. We’ve had children weep for days and beg us to take them home to their mommies and daddies. They’re uncertain about whom they can trust — everyone is a stranger. So when new foster children arrive at your church, realize that chances are very high that they’re intensely sad and may not be receptive to your warm welcome. They may be withdrawn and nonresponsive, or they may indiscriminately go to anyone for attention.

Prepare to cry — often. Foster children will usually blossom when given the love, safety, and boundaries they need. They get into your heart, the heart of your church, and they never leave, even when they’ve moved on to their forever home.


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