5 Strategies for Teaching Neurodivergent Teens

With 15-20% of the population likely being neurodivergent, it is important for youth workers to reconsider some of the ways that we have traditionally done youth ministry in order to be more inclusive to all abilities.

I can distinctly remember a moment five or so years ago, when a volunteer in my youth ministry pointed out that the themed night that I had for middle schoolers had a lot of overwhelming activities. Actually, this volunteer shared, a lot of my activities weren’t friendly to students who were neurodiverse. This leader volunteered to be someone who could host a station with calmer activities, buddy up with students, and stand in the hallway with kids who needed breaks. And over time, we realized that just a few simple tweaks to our programming could help neurodivergent students succeed in our ministry.

And ultimately, prioritizing the needs of neurodiverse teenagers fosters a positive and inclusive educational experience for all teenagers. Here are 5 strategies for teaching neurodivergent teenagers.

Clear is Kind

Many students who are neurodivergent like to know what is expected of them, when, and where. Consider taking the time to go over the plan for the day at the beginning of a youth meeting or posting a schedule in your space. This helps anxious students ease their concerns and focus better in each block of time. Before a retreat or overnight, email a “parent packet” that includes the full schedule, packing list, sleeping assignments, and a list of FAQ.

Take the time to provide clear instructions for games and activities. Assure time for students to ask questions before you start the activity. Partner that student up with an adult buddy for tasks that they might need more guidance in.

Engage all the Senses

When teaching, use different techniques to help students pay attention. When I first started out in ministry, we would say that you have to change up the activity or vibe every 15 minutes for students to keep engaged.

These days — I feel like that’s more like 5 minutes. So if you have a 20 minute lesson, ask yourself how you can break it up in ways that feel fresh: a video, a turn-to-your-neighbor and discuss, an object lesson, etc. And always have small groups or discussion after the lesson.

Additionally, have some kind of physical way for students to respond to the youth lesson. In kids ministry, they do this well — there is always a craft or a coloring page following the Bible lesson. Think about the equivalent for youth — can they write something down? Act out the lesson? Find another passage in the Bible using the concordance that fits the lesson? Go around the circle and each choose a to-do for the week? Practice a memory verse? Take home a spiritual memento of the day? Get creative and help students learn things hands-on.

Promote Fidgeting

Fidgeting has long been thought of by adults as a distracting behavior by someone not paying attention; but fidgeting is actually a person’s way of fighting to pay attention.

Stock up your youth space and/or leader’s station with fidgets for students. Some of my favorite fidgets are playdoh, legos, squishy balls, marble in mesh tubes, and scrap paper and markers. Consider offering fidgets to all of your teens and volunteers — fidgeting promotes mental stimulation. There are easy starter packs on Amazon to help your group figure out what fidgets work best for them.

Recognize that neurodivergent teens may have difficulty sitting still for extended periods. Offer regular movement breaks or incorporate physical activities into lessons to help them release excess energy and stay engaged.

Partner with Parents

At the beginning of each school year or when a new teenager joins your ministry, create the habit of having parents register their child for youth that year. On this form, include this question: “Does this child have any special considerations that we should be aware of? This includes the use of an IEP, 504, special accommodations, medical needs, etc.”

Follow up with each family, and ask questions. I have done this in a questionnaire format, and usually talk with the family through it. Here are some of the questions you might ask:

  • My youth has the following diagnosis or learning difference:
  • My youth’s behavior may indicate a medical problem requiring immediate attention when:
  • My youth’s main mode of functional communication is:
  • The goals I have for my youth while at church are:
  • My youth has the following areas of interest and hobbies:
  • My youth can do these things independently:
  • My youth needs assistance with:
  • A trigger point for resistance, frustration, or behavioral problems may emerge for my youth when:
  • When/if my youth experiences a period of frustration, they can regain control when:
  • My youth (choose one) would/would not enjoy a large group worship music experience.
  • Describe the optimal setting for your youth to feel most comfortable (number of people, inside/outside, quiet/busy, dimly lit/bright, etc.).
  • My youth does well with the following supports during a small group discussion setting:

Seek out Additional Support

Some teens will need additional support, so consider bringing on a few additional volunteer leaders to serve as buddies for those teens. These buddies can help the teens get breaks, remind them to use fidgets or other materials to pay attention, or advocate for them as needed.

Of course, understand your limits. I have heard from parents of students with special needs that they want churches to be honest up-front about how able they are to support their teenagers. Do your best to include teenagers using these techniques, but don’t promise or advertise more than you can realistically or reasonably provide.

Heather Lea Kenison

Heather serves as the Diocesan Youth Minister of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and three pet children. Heather is the Founder of Women in Youth Ministry and is passionate about women finding community so that their voices will be heard. A certified leadership coach, Heather’s first love is youth ministry and her second love is youth ministers. Follow her cats and Enneagram 8 things on social media @heatherlea17

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