What If They Won't Participate?

Jun 22, 2021 9:00:00 AM / by Amber Lappin

It’s happened to everyone: you’ve planned a great activity for your children’s ministry group. All the kiddos are gathered around except one. Maybe they’ve found a spot against the wall or under a table or they’re hanging out near the door, looking like they’d very much like to escape. You are surprised and, frankly, a little offended. Why won’t they just have fun? What should you do next?

One of the best strategies for deciding how to handle this situation is to put ourselves in their little shoes. Imagine walking into a room full of a bunch of people you didn’t know well. The teacher calls you over to participate in something you’re not sure about. How would you like to be handled? Would you want someone to physically pick you up and bring you over to the group? Would you want to be sternly admonished? Or would you prefer an approach that respects your boundaries?

Turns out, children are not that different from adults in that they behave best when they are respected. Another similarity is that each human approaches uncertain situations differently. Some kids will just dive right in, ready for anything. Some would rather watch from the sidelines for a while. Still others may handle that uncertainty by hiding or by causing distractions. We are at our best when we look at the situation as a child trying to work something out instead of a willful rebellion.

Here are three simple ways to approach children who don’t want to join in:

  1. Look around: Is it one child, or several? If this is a common issue, chances are it’s not just “kids these days;” the problem may lie somewhere in the program. Are your activities developmentally appropriate? Are they engaging? How long are children being asked to sit still and/or be quiet? Young children are created to be active and involved. Make sure your expectations are reasonable.
  2. Try to find a why: Is there a reason they can’t join in? Perhaps the sound is loud and they are overwhelmed by the noise. Maybe they had a rough morning and just need some time to finish waking up. Could it be possible that they’re just introverted? Perhaps they are learning English and feel nervous about communication. Is separation anxiety at play? There are so many reasons—but you won’t know until you take a moment to find out.
  3. Make accommodations: Once you’ve figured out the why, you can find a way for the child to be compliant even if they can’t conform. For example, if a child is hiding in an unsafe place, you can offer them a special “watching chair” and let them choose a safe place to sit and watch. If a child is overwhelmed, maybe they can participate outside the group or use noise-dulling headphones. Other options may include giving them a buddy to sit with (this could be a child, teen, or adult volunteer), offering something tactile to use quietly at a table (ex: playdough or a puzzle), or giving them a job to do while they listen from afar.

No matter which tactics you employ, remember that anytime you give grace and honor to a child who is feeling iffy at church, you are doing kingdom work! Children who are loved and respected in their children’s ministry classroom get a glimpse of a God who loves and respects. That’s a pretty awesome lesson plan.

Topics: Children Ministry, Early Childhood Ministry

Amber Lappin

Written by Amber Lappin

Amber Lappin, M.Ed., is a speaker and writer with three decades of experience in early childhood development and children’s ministry. She works as a professor in the School of Education & Teacher Prep at Riverside City College. Amber enjoys her small farm in Southern California with her husband of 30 years, Jason. They have three adult children and an ever-growing assortment of weirdo animals.


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