Evidence-Based Practices to Welcome People with ADD/ADHD at Church

At the request of a kind friend and Orthodox priest, I have researched evidence-based practices that help people with ADD and ADHD to self-regulate and manage their attention best and have applied them here in this blog post to church learning and worship settings. I have included examples relevant to catechesis for everyone but have naturally focused on an Orthodox Christian context.

SUBSCRIBE to my Accessible Church School newsletter by March 15th to receive even more great tips on making your church truly accessible to people with ADD/ADHD. By subscribing, you’ll receive a quarterly (and special holiday edition) newsletter filled with free lessons and accessible activity ideas that will help you include everyone fully in learning, prayer, church services, and church community. In this month’s newsletter, I go into detail about how you can set up your classroom and entry prayers to engage everyone, with a special focus on people with ADD/ADHD.

Include ADD/ADHD Students and Church Members in LEARNING & SERVICES

Welcome people with ADD/ADHD at Church. Mix writing & speaking. summerkinard.com. Accessible Church School logo. Graphic of white board with text: Mix media in conversations. Write down spoken responses. Draw Responses. Get students to write on the board.
  • Invite people with ADD/ADHD to sit up front in class and church.
  • Provide activity choices, such as coloring, movement, music, building.
    • Singing (or playing music) in church helps to engage and coordinate attention.
    • If your parish has only a few options for everyone to sing, find ways to expand the practice.
    • Build in “normal” movement options like stretch breaks, skits, demonstrations, gather-arounds, scavenger hunts, tours of the space, and restroom breaks.
    • For church services, give tips on best places to move around if needed and when to stay in place (for instance, if the priest is censing or if there’s a procession).
    • Invite people with ADD/ADHD to help collect the offering.
  • Provide options for active participation in the service for men and women, boys and girls. If your church only allows male Altar servers, for instance, consider having the girls bring up flowers or candles to the front of the church at a particular part of the service (in honor of the myrrh-bearers and the 5 wise virgins). ADD/ADHD is equally prevalent among men and women.
  • Piggyback learning onto gross motor (big movement) activities to engage attention.
    • Learn a prayer or Bible verse by chalking the words writ large on the sidewalk  and then hopping to them or bouncing a basketball on each word.
    • Use balloons or floor spots to make a prayer rope/rosary that the student can walk around while praying the Jesus Prayer, Hail Mary, or other simple prayer.
    • Build a prayer garden by your church with round stones that can be walked in a circuit like a prayer rope or rosary.
  • When giving group instructions, keep things brief.
  • Use fewer, more specific words when giving instructions. Demonstrate and give simple directions first and explain later while the students are acting out instructions.
    • For example, say, “We make the sign of the Cross here. We stand here. We bow here. We call God, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This sets expectations and gives an action plan. Avoid leading with “Don’t do…” because people with attention challenges might not hear the “Don’t” part and might find the instructions confusing and disengage. Avoid long explanations before you have given the actionable tasks.
  • Break tasks and lessons into shorter parts and provide options for breaks.
    • For instance, if you want to teach someone with ADD/ADHD about the Divine Liturgy, focus on what they can DO at different parts. (My Visual Schedule for the Orthodox Divine Liturgy helps with this, as it’s broken into transitions of movement/focus.)
    • Give options for movement breaks, such as “Here you can venerate the icons. Here you can go light another candle. Here you can prostrate or make a metania (half-prostration with touching the ground while bowing).”
  • When teaching or talking, provide one on one time/discussion instead of having the person with ADD/ADHD sit alone and undirected. (Self-direction without fun/interesting  activity choices often results in attention lag.)
  • Provide planned productive physical activities
    • In services, this might mean lighting candles, venerating, making the sign of the Cross, singing, bowing, or going to a different icon along a different wall to venerate during each of the litanies.
    • In lessons, this might mean building lessons around skits or acting out scenes in the Bible, saint’s life, or instruction. (Have someone climb on a chair to be Zacchaeus or a Stylite.)
  • If you have a bulletin with space for notes for the sermon time, make the blank page in two columns: One column for bullet point notes, one for drawing and doodling to illustrate what is heard.
    • Teach catechumens to take notes in two columns in classes to normalize the pattern of writing and drawing.
    • Consider giving a blessing to parishioners with ADD/ADHD (and other disabilities) to sit and illustrate some part of the prayers in the Divine Liturgy (or Mass or Sunday services) or Orthros (Morning Prayers) in a notebook.
  • Enhance learning activities and prayers with sensory stimuli
    • When you talk about icons, obviously teach veneration. But also bring in iconography pigments and gold foil (or imitation gold foil as budget requires) for students to touch and experience with their senses.
  • Cross the midline of the body (the imaginary line dividing your body into left and right) with your hands when learning or praying in order to coordinate attention.
    • Making the sign of the cross is a wonderful prayer practice, one of the oldest parts of Christian spiritual life (and spiritual warfare and wellbeing), and it also helps to coordinate the faculties.
    • When teaching with students seated, have them pass objects around the room/table.
  • Mix the medium of prompts and responses.
    • If you ask a question verbally (speaking), have the students write their response. If you write or display a prompt visually, have students speak their responses.
    • Have students act out or demonstrate an action in response to you writing on the board or saying the prompt aloud.
    • If a student answers a question, write it on the white board or chalk board in the room. You can reinforce this by saying “Yes” and adding a checkmark to the list, too.
    • Have students take turns writing group responses on the white board.
    • Have students draw stick figures to illustrate something you’re teaching. (This can be humorous, and laughter for everyone is also great for attention.)
    • Make sure your church has adequate hymnals or service books for people to follow along.
  • Provide visual schedules and sequences in your instruction and for your learning and worship times. See my posts for free printable visual schedules for the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the Roman Catholic Mass, and Episcopal Eucharist Rite II.
  • Provide and model the use of prayer ropes, rosaries, or spinning prayer rings (aff. link) with knots in place of beads. These can be used in and out of church services.
  • Allow for and normalize walking or working with the hands while praying.
    • Medieval monasticism was built around customs of walking long distances for water, tending gardens, or walking in contemplative circuits around cloisters (covered walkways surrounding a central courtyard).
    • Working with your hands while praying is an ancient custom, whether the handwork is rope-making, prayer rope knotting, crocheting, knitting, or other repetitive work. Prayers fall into the rhythm of the work and vice versa, strengthening one’s attention regulation and weaving thoughts, prayers, and actions together.
Bubble Wrap Lesson. Want to highlight a keyword in a long scripture or prayer? Give each student a square of bubble wrap, and have them pop one bubble for each repetition of the word or idea.
Example: Read through the Divine Liturgy in class and have students pop a bubble at every instance of "mercy." summerkinard.com Accessible Church School and ACS logo

BUBBLE WRAP ACTIVITY TO FOLLOW LONG PRAYERS

You might be surprised at how many people zone out during church services and don’t know what’s being prayed. I remember leading a small group of very devout people several years ago and pointing out the references to the crucifixion and resurrection in the service. Many people were surprised. They had absorbed the feeling of church but had not learned to attend to the content of the prayers. When we’re teaching, we have the opportunity to highlight themes in scriptures, prayers, and the Divine Liturgy by associating them with actions.

For further reading, see Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability by Summer Kinard.

Here are More Insights From my Twitter connections:

Jennie S, MD, FAAP, IBCLC @DrScogs
I struggled for decades with not being able to fully attend to audible lectures/sermons. Crocheting during sermons has helped me immensely. I’d like for pastors to know/accept that someone working quietly with their fingers is probably trying to be more attentive not less.


EternallyGrowing @EternallyGrowi1
Sing. I can’t focus unless I’m singing. Worship is physical not just mental. All the crossing and prostration are helpful. If a parish has lots of physical worship it’s helpful (for kids too!) “Let us attend” is a good time to refocus.

alex the dame @adotdam
I came here to say singing as well!

Lindsay @LindsayImrie
Also singing with motions and interactive and engaging sermons!

pam white @Phwji
Take outline-form notes/doodle during sermon to keep focused. Have gum, candy, tissues, pen, paper. Allow myself bathroom break. Sit close to front so not distracted by looking at people. Follow along in Bible/hymnal/prayer book. Participate/sing. Wear layers so not hot or cold.

Father Philip Kontos @FatherKontos
I hear a lot of people saying they do hand work. This is helpful… maybe some can learn to make prayer ropes. I have sleep apnea and I have found sometimes that making prayer ropes during lectures was the only thing to keep me awake. I couldn’t help falling asleep until then.

AKshells @shelleyfinkler
Summer I train orthodox people in CGS. Last year we had 3 boys in L 2 who were undiagnosed but either on the spectrum or ADHD. We read a Montessori book called Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful. It states over and over that handwork aids children to participate

AKshells @shelleyfinkler
So we taught the children finger knitting, polishing and stitching and WOW it helped them so much to focus, to act, to listen, to find peace.

KatherineSandersIcons @sjksanders
Oh. Easy access to doors (we don’t have pews so that’s a huge help); being in choir (serving if appropriate), chotki for Jesus prayer/moving/destressing; not wearing smart uncomfortable clothing/shoes; secure cotton/linen headscarf that won’t budge; book to follow when zoned out.

Bethany Juliana Childress @Be_Thy_Grace
For me I can only think of one and that is wearing a prayer rope around my wrist most days and during church services to keep my mind from wandering so much. Thank you for doing this. I can’t wait to see what you write

Hope @orthocorvid
Give people something to do! Sing, chant, serve in the altar, set up communion, greet visitors, etc. I sing because I love it, and because it keeps me focused and engaged.

Comment below with what helps you stay focused in learning and worshipping at church! Please share this post so others can benefit, and remember to follow this blog and SUBSCRIBE to the free Accessible Church School newsletter for premium content!

4 thoughts on “Evidence-Based Practices to Welcome People with ADD/ADHD at Church”

  1. I saw someone else post about Catechism of the Good Shepherd, but I will just chime in and say it was great for my ADHD kid. I love the bit about handwork, as well. I remember one year when I was experiencing a lot of grief and anger following a miscarriage and sitting still during long Lenten services was miserable. On the night when we read the entire Great Canon and the life of St. Mary of Egypt I brought some knitting and sat in a stairwell where I could still hear the service and it was such a relief.

    1. Oh, my! What a gift to have the solace of good work to do in that time of intense grief and prayer! I’m so sorry for your loss. May their memory be eternal!

  2. I am so glad to have found this list! Its helping me process why my kids are finding covid-church so hard. We had our local priest and church board members tell us how it was not a huge thing to just go home and worship there. Well, considering its been over 1.5 yrs here in California with little to no services, and then when we are “in” church its in an outdoor tent with rain, wind, loud noises, with the prohibition of kissing icons, no candles, no godparents taking them up for the eucharist, no singing and no ability to leave our area to walk the kids. Add that to no youth group and masks which literally stop my non-speaking children from understanding anyone, further shutting them off from the church I am so desperate for them to be connected with. My heart is full of grief.

    1. Hugs. The pandemic has been very hard all around, and sensory deprivation is a big deal! Y’all are in my prayers.
      We have a couple of medically fragile family members and pray at home for now. We adults will have full immunity from our vaccinations by Pascha this year, so we’re hoping to be able to do more at in person church then. In the meantime we do hands-on lessons at our house. I am putting together some at home booster lessons now that I will share soon. They’ll be helpful after the pandemic, too, but they’re vital in the meantime.

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