Equipping Your Children’s Ministry Team for Hidden Disabilities

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The KidzMatter Blog/Special Needs/Equipping Your Children’s Ministry Team for Hidden Disabilities

It’s been a busy -- but typical -- Sunday morning when a volunteer with a tone of frustration says to you, “There’s this kid…” You know what’s coming next because you’ve witnessed their classroom environment that has some issues, whether it’s a seeming lack of engagement by certain students or unwelcome behaviors.

Society -- and yes, even the church and its ministry volunteers -- can be quick to chalk up certain behaviors to bad parenting when, in fact, a child may be experiencing any number of hidden disabilities or mental health conditions. Whether or not you are aware of specific diagnoses of your students, chances are you have kids in your Sunday School classroom with hidden disabilities. Let’s educate ourselves and equip our volunteers to better reach all students – including those with hidden disabilities -- with the message of the Gospel to make disciples who can, in turn, be disciple-makers. The beauty of this approach is, while meeting the needs of a few, you might find that these tools and strategies benefit all students.

But What Are Hidden Disabilities?

Let's start with a definition. A hidden disability is a condition that is permanent and daily, but you cannot see by looking at a photograph of the child; there are no visible supports, like mobility or adaptive devices, that you would see with many physical disabilities. Hidden disabilities include ADHD and learning disabilities, as well as psychiatric disabilities such as anxiety disorders and major depression. Any of these could impact a person's day-to-day life and could potentially be a barrier to someone being able to "do church."

A few common hidden disabilities that you are likely to have in your classroom are anxiety, autism, and sensory processing disorders.


Anxiety is a very common mental health disorder that affects many families, including my own. Anxiety is an abnormal or overwhelming sense of apprehension or fear. Types include separation anxiety, social anxiety disorder, and OCD. We all have moments of being anxious, but clinical anxiety is a persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. According to NAMI.org, approximately 7% of kids ages 3-17 have anxiety disorders.

In your Sunday School classroom, anxiety might look like the child that experiences frequent headaches or stomachaches. You might see kids that are experiencing separation anxiety, resulting in clinginess to their parents when it’s not age-appropriate. Refusal to participate could also be a symptom. A child might seek reassurance with questions like, “When is this going to be over?”


Autism is a complex, lifelong, bio-neurological developmental disability that usually appears before the age of three. You probably have a student, a volunteer, or a family member with autism. The most recent report from the CDC states that one in 36 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. What does autism look like in a Sunday School classroom? Well, since it is a spectrum disorder, it can look very different in each person, but it may include social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Individuals with autism are often concrete thinkers and sometimes exhibit repetitive behaviors. It’s not unusual for people with autism to have co-morbid medical conditions such as allergies, digestive disorders, and epilepsy, any of which might be present in your classroom.

Sensory Processing Challenges

Sensory processing disorder refers to the brain's trouble managing information that is coming through the senses. It's not really a stand-alone medical condition, but it's very commonly associated with autism and anxiety disorders. Kids who have hypersensitivity are sensory-avoiding, meaning they have an aversion to noise, light, touch, or taste. You might see a child covering her ears, being bothered by changes in lighting, or trying to run out of the room. Sensory-seekers, on the other hand, called hyposensitivity, need to touch everything or even put things in their mouths.

Two of the most common triggers for those with sensory processing disorders are light and sound. To some extent, you can have some control over those two things: you might be able to turn off some of the overhead lights in the classroom or use filter shades on fluorescent lighting. During worship time, you could turn down the volume on music and avoid flashing or bright lights. But, sometimes, you can’t completely control the noise level; it’s a good idea to have noise-reducing headphones in your classroom for anyone who is experiencing sensory overload from the volume or type of sound in your classroom or worship environment.

Consider providing places and spaces for those who need a sensory break. This could be an area of the room – or a separate room -- where students have access to tools such as bean bag chairs, body socks, or fidgets. (Just remember that your children's ministry protection policy always applies. There’s never one child and one adult alone in a room together; always have at least a third person.) A sensory break could also just be a pause in the activity level of the programming to provide a sensory break for all.

5 Best Practices

You and your volunteers do not need to be experts to be aware that hidden disabilities do exist and that together, you can create a Sunday morning environment where all children can flourish. Here are a few of our suggested best practices for classroom management to address the needs of a variety of learning styles and differences and to minimize unwelcome behaviors.

1. Set expectations and stick to a routine. Knowing what to expect can help alleviate anxiety. Let students know what order activities will be in. Having the same general format each week can really help some students. Do you have classroom rules? Post them as a visual reminder and review the rules each Sunday.

2. Remember that all behavior is a form of communication. What is a student trying to tell you through their behavior? If you are a parent, you know that sometimes when someone is having a bad morning, it might just mean that they are hungry. If you are consistently having a difficult time figuring out how to engage a particular student or minimize some unwelcome behaviors, don't pull the parent out of church, but do contact them afterwards for ideas. Having consistency between school, home, and church is helpful for all involved. If there are words, strategies, or visuals that are used successfully at home or school, you can easily incorporate them into your classroom.

3. Utilize visual tools. For students who need help transitioning between activities, use First/Then. For example, first we will play, then we will have circle time. For students with more extreme anxiety, providing a social story can be helpful. We have free, downloadable samples of these tools at keyministry.org.

4. Allow for movement. Some kids just need to move. It doesn't mean they're not listening or learning. Create ways you can allow them to move or fidget and still be part of the classroom. During worship time, give students plenty of space to move and dance within a visual boundary, such as an area rug or tape on the floor. Build movement into your lessons: standing up, clapping, signing. Movement often benefits all students. Make sure to vary activities for short attention spans and have fidgets at the ready for any child who needs them.

5. Implement strategies to reduce anxiety. Communicate expectations: let them know what's coming up. Never force a kid to read out loud or put them on the spot. Also, not everyone has to do everything; when activity choices are given, provide some calm, some active, and some social. Instead of, "What do you want to do next?" give two acceptable choices: “Would you like to color a picture or work on a puzzle?” You can limit the choices further in order to get the outcome you want: "Would you like to color with the green marker or the blue marker?"

These are just a few things that your Children’s Ministry volunteers need to know to be better equipped for hidden disabilities. Share these with your volunteers so that they feel confident working with a variety of students and situations. The more we understand hidden disabilities and mental health conditions (in both our students and in our volunteers, too), the more grace we can give. One last note: by providing accommodations to meet the needs of students with some common hidden disabilities, you are, in fact, creating an environment that can benefit ALL students. I invite you to visit keyministry.org for more resources, including free downloadable visual schedules and other tools, or to set up a free consultation.

​Beth Golik is the Operations Director of Key Ministry. She hosts Key Ministry’s monthly Idea Share and the Disability Ministry Video Roundtable for church leaders across the country and is a co-host for Key Ministry: The Podcast. Beth also serves as the Director of Disability Engagement at Bay Presbyterian Church in suburban Cleveland and is a founding member of the Disability Ministry Network board of directors. She has a passion for connecting people to resources through networking and relationship building.

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