Summary: Radical Acceptance of Children & Youth in Quaker Meetings
Conversation Circles: November 28 & 30, 2023
Quakers are called to look to that of god in everyone, including children and youth in our Meetings, all of whom are in the process of exploring their identity and place in the world.
This conversation focused on how we, as religious educators can fully accept and include children and youth whose interest, behavior, energy level, or identity may make adults Friends feel uncomfortable; how we can foster a culture of radical acceptance in our Meetings, especially to nurture and include children and youth who don’t fit easily.
- How do we live in radical acceptance of the children and youth in our Meeting?
- When do we guide, how do we set up healthy boundaries without shaming?
- How do we embrace varieties of energy level, interest, and behavior?
- When a child has an interest, how do we, as religious educators, go deeper with them, even if the interest makes the adult uncomfortable?
- How do we help adults in our Meetings support children in this way?
- What is the importance of imagination in play?
- How do we help children explore power dynamics in self and in relation to others? How do we recognize the ways our Meeting may disempower children and work as adults to empower them in community?
- Elizabeth Freyman, Albuquerque Friends Meeting, IMYM
- Sita Diehl, Madison Friends Meeting, NYM
Kristin Simmons, in addition to serving as Youth Engagement Coordinator for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Kristin is also a social worker, a therapist who works with neurodivergent children. She is also a member of Old Haverford Meeting. Watching her two teens grow up in her meeting was wonderful. To help children be successful in the world we need to honor who they are. Kristin came to PhYM with a heart for this work. They are recognizing that families are coming with children who perceive the world in different ways. She heard stories of parents who were not bringing their children to gathering for various reasons. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is discerning how to proceed with making youth gatherings more accessible to all. Kristin is also working on this with Friends in her small meeting.
A few ideas on how to welcome and include children with diverse needs:
If the meeting wants to include families, especially those with neurodivergent children and youth, we should be explicit in our welcoming. The website can say that we actively welcome all kinds of children, what we offer for religious education or care of children and youth, and what accommodations are available in RE spaces and the worship room.
All of our children are different and have different needs. Especially now as they are coming out of the pandemic, some may need to catch up on missed social skills. We may need to do things differently for a while.
What works with children and youth who are neurodivergent also works for adults in the meeting who may have needs we may be missing.
It’s not just the job of the parents or First Day School. It’s the job of the whole community to decide what welcome we want to extend. If a meeting is clear to proceed, will it look welcoming to children who have needs we don’t think about?
When people walk in, do they recognize things that will help them feel comfortable? Is there a quiet space in or next to the worship room with a bean bag and soft, quiet toys, books and supplies to give children space?
Are there sensory materials, which can be used as tools for those who need them to focus, not necessarily as toys? Examples: a basket of soft stress balls, fidget toys, sparkly settling jars, pipe cleaners, kaleidoscopes, picture books, quiet toys, drawing materials.
Is there a visual schedule on the wall with what happens and when?
Consider routines: Some children are very routine oriented. If you are going to change the routine, prepare them by telling them what will be different today.
Plan different kinds of activities within the class time: gross motor, outside, in addition to quiet time working at a table together. Kids need a lot of breaks. Quiet activity, then running around outside.
Consider alternative ways of doing things. A holiday performance-oriented program may not be easy for people who don’t like to be up in front of people, or for whom it may be overstimulating. Her meeting has a children’s lunch in November when the children and youth make and serve stone soup to the Meeting. Some kids want to be serving, others want to be back in the kitchen doing prep.
Art can be calming, but a parent said her child found open ended art very overwhelming. We like open ended, but some kids like a structured activity.
Programming – Quakers are a people of wondering and listening. Children may have trouble with abstract concepts. Rather than ‘draw God’ ask specific questions that would have concrete answers.
Kids have different energies and behaviors. Some kids have personal space issues, either don’t want anyone near them, or they are in other people’s spaces. Set group norms at the beginning so it’s about everyone. Then that person is less likely to be called out. Examples:
- We will commit to personal space in this group. We will have our own space and will not touch each other.
- Be proactive, what could the issues be and how can we accommodate them? Pay attention.
- We won’t meet all needs, but if families know we are trying, that’s a big piece of being welcoming. Be flexible and ready to listen, “We will do our best.”
Meghan Goldman, is a member of Goose Creek Friends Meeting, Baltimore Yearly Meeting. She had been working as an engineer in the power industry, but her children needed her present. They live with PANS/PANDAS, a virus that triggers neurological symptoms. Right before the pandemic going to Quaker meeting, reached a point where challenges outweighed the benefits. The pandemic was better because the family could worship from home.
Meghan recommends Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A guidebook for faith communities, by Sally Patton. The chapters describe different types of accommodations, using a tone of inclusivity.
Making a safe space for children, including those with special needs, creates a safe space for the wider community.
Parents of kids with special needs spend a lot of time following their kids around to make sure the environment is suitable for them. When we leave responsibility for making the space suitable with the parent, rather than taking it on as an RE committee, it’s exhausting. It’s helpful to develop relationships with parents and kids, and to build community where the kids are so included that they enrich the lives of all members of Meeting.
Meghan shared a pew card from the Lutheran Church listing children’s activities and accommodations, so parents know what is happening. On the front it has a statement that describes concretely how we want and hope to invite children. This also communicates to people in the community who don’t have children how we expect adults to treat children.
Some churches and meetings create a ‘prayground’ a special place in the worship room where children can sit, see better, and play quietly while engaging in worship. Some meetings have ‘Meeting for Wiggles’, a blanket in the middle of the worship space with soft, quiet toys and activities. This welcomes children into worship.
Schools are different these days. Religious education spaces are often not as accommodating as modern classrooms in terms of welcoming and openness to diverse children’s needs, so, when children come to Meeting, they may not see what they do at school such as bouncy ball seating, fidget toys, etc. We would do well to update.
Online store for sensory toys (even if just for ideas): https://therapyshoppe.com/
It’s helpful to have different types of activities to offer during First Day School. Then you aren’t relying on the kids to malfunction first before you take another approach. You also aren’t relying on the kids to express their needs aloud.
Friends at Goose Creek Meeting created a ‘Mud Club’, a way for children to play together without a lot of expectations. It’s fun and healing for children and great for adults. Mud Club meets monthly after meeting for an hour and a half in a nearby natural area. The children play outdoors creating community with each other while parents talk. Seeing kids play with others successfully is helpful to parents.
Cameron Hughes, member of Goose Creek Meeting and mother of three children, shared:
She has come back from Mud club healed because her kids could be free and be children, while she had a chance to talk with other adults. You can’t break things in nature, so children come home calmer and able to get through the rest of the day.
Parents need guidance and support. They are learning how to be parents and need tools and support. It can be difficult to leave home and come to Meeting with your kids when you don’t know what tools you will have and what support will be offered.
An ‘anytime snack bin’ can help children who come to Meeting a bit dysregulated or hungry.
Social settings are difficult for some kids and they may not want to come to Meeting. You can’t force them to be somebody they are not. We need to accept them and understand that they may not want to be there.
Camerone recommends having conversations with the Meeting community that create openness to ADHD and neurodiversity so that parents feel accepted when they ask for support and accommodations.
Elizabeth: Thank you for lifting up that children can be disruptive but that is part of who they are and what they offer.
Friends settled into brief silent worship.
Including children in RE who have a range of needs and interests:
- Recently a child came into class very upset and other children were rolling their eyes. How can we help children be open and accepting of others with diverse needs, yet maintain respect and privacy?
- The point is to build community and relationships with each other. What’s most important is safety and our connection to each other. Talk with the other kids and share that everyone has a hard time sometimes. Talk about how to show love and support when someone is having a hard time, “The last time you were upset, what would have helped you? What is going on? How does that person feel? Look at the feeling, not the behavior. Do you ever feel that way?” Kids are good at naming what they are feeling. If you make it that this person has a special condition, it becomes ‘othering’.
- When a child is upset, one of the RE teachers can take them aside and do an individual activity with them until they feel ready to re-enter the group.
- A Friend taught physically challenged kids in kindergarten. It was important for other kids to know what was going on. It was good to talk about it.
- Once at yearly meeting session we did activities from Children’s Creative Response to Conflict. We planned how to include children who were coming into the group after it had started.
- It’s helpful to have safe spaces and calming corners, adjacent spaces where kids can be in parallel with the class, so they can hear and see the class and get comfortable with the class without having to commit to it.
- A Friend has used a jar with glitter and water as a settling metaphor. The lesson idea is from an FGC RE book from the 1990s. Small jars for individuals might be a good settling tool.
- A Friend mentioned children with different interests that may not fit easily into the Quaker frame of reference (military toys, violent video games, etc.)
- When people, including parents, feel like their needs are being considered, whether they are met at that time or not, it is less painful.
Adults with neurodiversity in Meetings:
- Friends who are diagnosed with autism as adults tried to mask themselves in Meeting and expressed relief when accommodations were provided in the Meeting Room. It’s more than our children, it’s also the adults.
- Please share a source for resources for adults who are neurodiverse — as our culture becomes more aware of these needs, adults are also realizing that they need some accommodations, and meetings need to be educating themselves on these matters. There is a Quaker group in Britain Yearly Meeting for neurodiverse Friends: https://quakerdisabilitygroup.org.uk/
- For people of all ages who have needs, whether invisible or visible, it is good to think about the spaces and programming. Quakers are known for sitting quietly, talking conversationally, and eating politely at tables. It may be helpful to have other activities, like puzzles and chalk. Allowing kids and adults to come next to each other without trite conversation. Low cost of entry activities is helpful.
Discerning the Meeting’s readiness to welcome children and families:
- Not every meeting is ready to be welcoming to children & young people. What if they aren’t? What is an alternative?
- Meetings may need to discern where they are in terms of fully accepting the challenges children bring. The whole meeting needs to have this conversation, so it isn’t carried by the parents, teachers or the RE committee. We need to discuss how there is a process of bringing the children along so they can learn how to adapt. Include how you will invite adults to Children’s Meeting such as Godly Play/Faith & Play or mud club. Treat that as an honored invitation to the adults.
- Inclusivity is a feature of Quaker meetings, regardless of age. The question of how to include children in adults’ lives and adults in children’s lives, is sometimes easier than how to include children in Meetings. Children will need to learn how to be in worship if we want to have meetings that worship in the future. Adults Friends need to interact with young Friends. How can we create ways and reimagine how we are together for these various types of interaction?
- Faith & Play and good religious education materials hold the value of welcoming children. Use those queries or convene an adult education session on welcoming children. Both sides: With children we say, “If you run during community time, will the adult who is using a walker be safe?” Britain YM has a curriculum: How to care for the children of the Meeting. Not just children, but everyone. We may need listening sessions to truly listen to a complaint. Go back to parents and say, “WE really need your children in our meeting.” To a complainer, “What did you need when you were that age?” There is creativity where you least expect it.
- Queries can be used to pull children and adults together. How can we care for each other, so that we are safe around each other? For instance, running around people with mobility challenges can be dangerous. We can help children understand how they are welcomed and how they can welcome others. We can also ask older Friends who complain, “What did you need when you were that age?” as a way of turning the question on its head for some folks who may resist.
- A Meeting has started a wonderful practice of “Family Sharing” when there is a 5th Sunday in a month. People are invited to bring items or stories around a theme and share. The kids are incredibly engaged and there has been an amazing response from the adults! They’ve done a cozy Meeting (wear pajamas and bring a stuffed animal to share about), sharing about nature, travel, special items…
Including Children in Worship:
- It is important to include children in worship, not exclude them. Children who don’t attend Meeting for Worship don’t understand how to be in Meeting for Worship.
- A Friend has been impressed with children’s ability to be in Meeting. In Tallahassee meeting they started to keep the kids in Meeting for Worship. They had someone who would supervise silent play. Parents were told, “It is not your responsibility to decide when to take a child out.” Members of Ministry & Counsel Committee would accompany any child who needed to go out and the children knew that if they needed to leave the worship room, they could take an M&C member by the hand and lead them out. The adult Friend would sit in worship in a separate room. If more kids came out, they each engaged in individual silent play. After a while children learned how to be in the silence.
- We had a cloth bag with “silent” toys in worship when I was growing up and a young adult. It may take a while for kids to adjust to a meeting, but I find they get into meeting and are very quiet. Soft cloth toys or books or other soft items can occupy their hands, but we didn’t have any problem with sound. Put the children’s space in the opposite side of the room from Zoom and see if it works.
- A Yearly Meeting has organized “worship mentors” to encourage friendships between generations. Youth “choose their adult.” Often a child or youth is really looking forward to learning how adults other than their parents/guardians “do” Quakerism. Conversations can happen in community group settings so there is no “isolation” of adults and children.
- We talked in our religious education committee about quaking; how original Quakers would quake, aka wiggle and squirm when God was talking to them. So, what if we flipped the script? What if, instead of inviting children to the adult meeting for 15 minutes, the adults joined the Mud Club for the last 15 minutes?
- Mud Club is for all ages. Adults enjoy joining everyone outside and seeing the kids interact and play.
- If the Meeting is led to include children in worship, there will be some noise, but we are teaching the children how to listen.
- How do you manage a quiet prayground that will not be too loud to disrupt Zoom participants, where noises can be amplified? And for Friends with hearing aids, it can be difficult when the hearing assist system picks-up children’s sounds.
- Children’s needs should be balanced with others, such as those with hearing difficulties or anxieties.
- “The problem always holds the solution.” It often only takes one person (not the parent) to say, “I think we can find a solution to this challenge.” It helps when all feel heard and are engaged in problem solving.
- Zoom updates can help to deal with the tendency to pick-up background noises.
- We need to include educating the adults to accept the children. The noises children bring to meeting are a blessing to all, so focusing on disruption is more an issue of working with adults.
- Autism and Faith: A journey into community, Editors: Mary Beth Walsh, Ph.D., Alice F. Walsh, M.Div., William C. Gaventa, M.Div.
- How to Retain Young Families in Quaker Meeting, by Ami Corleto-Bales, Christine Barnaby, David Corleto-Bales, David Keiser-Clark, Janaki Spickard Keeler, Kat Griffith, and Maya Wright, Friends Journal, February 1,2022.
- Neurodiversity in the Classroom: creating a more inclusive Sunday School, by Alison Bird Treacy in Building Faith.
- Welcoming Children with Special Needs: A guidebook for faith communities, by Sally Patton.
Resources for welcoming adults who are neurodiverse:
- Britain Yearly Meeting group for neurodivergent Friends: https://quakerdisabilitygroup.org.uk/
- Quakers, ADHD and Me. Openings, September 10, 2021
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