We’ve all had them—the kid(s) in our small group that can’t (won’t) sit still or focus on what the group is doing. They seem bored, disinterested, fidgety and often disruptive.

So, what can you do to help keep the focus of all your kids during your small group time? Try this: plan more constructive activities to keep children engaged. When left to their own devices, children with short attention spans won’t usually choose to color a pretty picture or play quietly in the corner. As small group leaders, our challenge is to stay one step ahead of the child who struggles with ADD.

Here are some tips for creating a successful environment for children with short attention spans:

Engage all senses throughout your small group. Bring something visual—maybe a picture or an object that relates to what you plan to talk about. Play a short clip of a song or provide a mystery sound and encourage kids to guess what they’re hearing. Offer an activity that involves movement—like a game or simply getting up from the floor/chair and walking to a whiteboard. Provide them with something to hold during the lesson. For example, if the Bible story you’re talking about mentions sheep, offer each child a cotton ball to hold. Don’t worry if kids play with the item in their hands—as long as they are acting constructively they’re likely listening.

Keep a craft or small project on hand. If a child with learning differences struggles to engage with the small group, provide them an activity sheet, a puzzle, or something like a beading activity. They’re more likely to listen when they’re active. And even if that particular student isn’t engaged with the small group, consider it a win if he or she isn’t disruptive to the others.

Provide a stress ball or fidget toy when you need kids to settle down and listen.  Sensory toys are calming. Allow kids to choose a ball or toy to hold during small group or large group settings.

Offer a piece of chewing gum to older children (with the parents’ permission). As counterintuitive as it may feel, a piece of chewing gum is an oral “fidget”. Many children will pay better attention and stay regulated when some part of their body is moving. And as long as mouths are busy chewing gum, they’re less likely to be engaging in disruptive chatter.

Involve the high-energy child in group tasks. Keep the busy child occupied with constructive and helpful assignments such as passing out the take home or helping with the activity.

Initiate a motor activity. Oftentimes when a child is most agitated (and likely to become disruptive) they’re actually in need of a quick fix of active movement. Encourage the child to do 15 jumping jacks, a couple of push-ups, stack chairs, or stretch a therapy band a dozen times.

Provide a chill-out area. Kids who are out of control are sometimes over-stimulated. If a child is picking on his neighbor or acting generally uncooperative, offer him a short spell on a bean bag and away from activity. Don’t force or suggest this “time out” as a punishment. This “break” may be a way for a rowdy child to recollect. You’ll be surprised how often kids just need their own time out, especially after loud, bright, and high-energy large group settings.

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