Let all the children come: Preventing exclusion at church

A 2017 U.K. study revealed that adopted children are 20 times more likely than their peers to be excluded from school classrooms, usually for emotional and behavioral reasons.

What might that statistic be in church?

We all hope no children—regardless of whether they were adopted—are excluded from church. Yet the emotional and behavioral challenges adopted children may manifest in the classroom can certainly also arise in the church environment, presenting similar concerns for staff and volunteers.

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In academic settings, exclusion—both temporary and permanent—results in students falling behind academically and experiencing impaired social relationships. When children are excluded in the church setting, they experience rejection from a church community where they shouldbe learning (and are likely being taught verbally) the unconditional love of God. This results in spiritual confusion—or worse.

The environment of Sunday school classrooms (and mid-week programming) are necessarily structured to maintain order and ensure safety for each child—something for which all parents are grateful. Yet some rules, and the related disciplinary practices, may not foster a sense of emotional safety for an adopted child. Feeling conspicuous, particularly for negative reasons like being disciplined for a classroom infraction, often exacerbates the deep-seated feelings of shame and rejection many adoptees experience.

What can children’s ministry directors and youth leaders (and their teams) do?

  • Employ a special education mindset. Find ways to make attending possible for the adoptee by modifying policies and rules to accommodate them. Involve the parents to assess what needs can be accommodated and how. For example, adoptees who were food-insecure may have an emotional need to carry food with them. Even if it’s contrary to general policy, consider allowing it unless doing so creates a health risk for someone else in the classroom.
  • Discipline differently. Instead of removing a child from the activity, allow him or her to participate but move them closer to a staff person. Even better, move the staff closer to him or her. Avoid drawing negative attention to the behavior which will exacerbate shame. View discipline as specialized instruction, scaffolding for the child until he or she can self-monitor more effectively.
  • Value the one. Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalves confers immeasurable value on each of us. Yet some adoptees question their value because they don’t live with their birth parents. By maintaining the posture of Christ, who demonstrated concern for the marginalized and tended to their needs in the midst of so many, we convey the love of God and His value of those to whom we minister. Not every need can be met but operating with an attitude that each person matters can guide effective responses to the emotional and behavioral challenges of adoptees.

Though 79% of adoptees feel confused or worried at school, we can make church a place of welcome, safety, and hope by fostering an inclusive environment that values individuals for their inherent worth as an image-bearer of God.

Kirsten Holmberg is a writer and speaker based in the Pacific Northwest. Her TEDx talk, “Your adopted child experienced trauma, now what?” chronicles the impact of trauma and Reactive Attachment Disorder on her family. She speaks regularly at church and community events, encouraging others to step closer to Jesus and better know His love for them through His Word. Find her online at www.kirstenholmberg.com.