Neurodiversity – We’re all in this together
If I took a poll of my confirmation youth (ages 12-15), I guarantee more kids would fit into the category of being neurodiverse learners than wouldn’t. Realizing this was one of the most important steps forward in my position as the Director of Youth and Family Ministry in our mid-sized New England church. Opening up to other parents about our own struggles with our now 14-year-old daughter and our experiences with tried and failed strategies for her ADHD and anxiety has been helpful and fruitful in deciding how to move forward in creating the best environment and curriculum for our confirmands and their families.
Don’t take it personally
I asked my daughter what she would want adults to know about working with kids who learn differently. She said, “Don’t take it personally. If we want to learn or figure things out alone, it has nothing to do with you. It takes so much effort to listen to the ways we should be learning and rewrite that in our head in a way that makes sense. Often we just need the space to do that.”
A Need for Change
Confirmation needed a change. For years, the confirmation class was meeting on Sunday mornings between services in the Sunday school slot. Lasting relationships were difficult to build when there was never a morning when the entire class participated. We revamped the whole way we look at confirmation and have seen wonderful results meeting one Sunday per month. We gather at 4:00 with some opening mixers before digging into the lesson around 4:15. The lessons consist of digging deeper into the catechism or the gospel of the day. We rarely have lecture for confirmation time but rather move into small groups, recreating the evening lesson through skits, posters, or poems that the youth then present to the whole group. We ask our mentors to arrive at 5:15, laugh together with a mixer and then, all together, we prepare dinner and enjoy food and conversation with one another.
We have begun concluding our once a month confirmation time with a 30-minute quiet communion service. This often consists of quiet time, a reflection on the lesson and how it impacts our daily life, perhaps prayer stations, and communion. On the way into the candlelit sanctuary, youth and adult mentors switch out their phones for a candle to hold. After our first service, one of the youth whispered to me, “I don’t know the last time I went for 30 minutes without my phone and was just still. That was so nice. Thank you.” If only we received such concise feedback after every new avenue we tried! This is why it is so important to be diligent in observing every situation and how it can be tweaked for neurodiverse learners.
“Who” is just as important as “What”
We are continually striving for intergenerational learning opportunities; more caring adults in a child’s life means more chances to feel heard and have a sense of belonging. Another major change to the confirmation program is pairing up mentors/youth before they even begin confirmation. These are relationships we have seen and hope to continue beyond the confirmation years. A strong team of mentors is priceless—some evenings a mentor may not be able to attend and another gladly steps in. Planning, organizing, and working on a project together as part of the journey, another added confirmation component, creates relationships and a feeling of accomplishment and ownership.
On their own time
Nurturing faith development requires time. In neurodiverse learners, some students seek (and others need) different amounts of time and support. We eliminated “Confirmation Day” as the culmination of the process as every student has different needs. Instead, we have an open-ended process where the student, family, pastor and youth director determine a date for their Affirmation of Baptism. We discovered that by removing a predetermined end date, where students complete a checklist of requirements in 2-2.5 years, students themselves are choosing to stay in the process longer (we have two kids currently in their fourth year) because of the sense of belonging, relationships and support.
Just the Way You Are
At the end of my weekly newsletter, I always sign off with this: God loves you just the way you are, any age you are, any place in your faith life you are. If I can listen, observe, and make prayerful, intentional shifts in the way I interact with my youth, the hope is that will translate to a closer relationship between us but most important between them and God.