What is going on with my little buddy? Things were great last week. Why is she running away this week? Why is she crying so much today? Ugh. If you work with kids for more than a few minutes, you’ll become aware that physical growth might be linear, but developmental and spiritual growth is not.
When we grow physically, it usually happens on a fairly predictable timeline, with only forward progress until we stop growing, whenever that may be. You don’t grow an inch one year only to shrink a foot the next. You grow until you reach your full height, then you stop growing.
But developmental growth (just like spiritual growth) does not follow the same pattern. For starters, there is no limit or stopping point for our development. You can be 101 years old and still learn a new depth of God’s love, and a new behavior or skill that will help you to mature even further. But unlike physical growth, developmental growth can spend time in reverse. A difficult life circumstance can make even the most independent, high-functioning person need to seek literal retreat, rest, and recovery time. It can cause people who are otherwise calm and collected to experience emotional outbursts and fear. Developmentally speaking, it’s known as regression. It can happen at any phase in life. But, it can be a bit more difficult to manage in the childhood years.
Changes in schools, classes, homes, medications, therapists, and sleep are all common contributors to regression. But what would regression look like in a LifeKids room? It might look like:
- Avoiding doing something they had previously attempted or mastered
- Asking for more breaks than usual
- Increased defiance
- Increased sensory discomfort (sometimes manifests as increased “stimming” behaviors; refusal to join loud, bright, or dark environments; seeking more input by playing very roughly; avoiding input by hiding or trying to escape your room; etc.)
- Increased crying
- Decreased social interaction
- Decreased verbal expression
- Toileting accidents or refusal
- Asking to leave early or not attending at all
Here’s a list of ways to lead your little buddy through a regression!
- Check in. As much as possible, communicate with the child you’re working with. Ask if they’re okay. Ask if they’re having fun. If possible (and if it’s applicable) ask how they’re doing at school. Maybe there’s something more going on that you can be sensitive toward.
- Encourage! Try saying, “I know it’s hard to use kind words all the time, but when you do, your friends feel so happy.” Try saying, “You don’t want to sit for small group today? I understand. I don’t want to push you too far. Let’s see if you can sit with your friends for 5 minutes, then we’ll take a break if you want. Your friends are so happy to have you in group.”
- Adapt. Try moving your student to a new place in the room. Maybe you’ve been watching the videos in the front of the room, but things are getting to be too much. Try watching from the back or side of the room for a change (and to get away from the other kids for a bit). Try a new tool to address the behavior that’s headlining the regression. Defiance? Try lightening up and adding some humor. Physically acting out? Try adding some sensory stimulation like jumping or sensory blocking agents like headphones or sunglasses. Difficult language? Try ignoring it and quickly changing the subject to something you know your student likes. Student acting bored or disinterested? Try offering a reward for the behavior you’re looking for. Example: “If you watch the video with your friends for 10 minutes, we’ll take a break and play on your phone for 5 minutes.”
Check out this article for more ideas on new ways to handle a behavior you’re trying to lead through. And definitely talk to other LifeKids Buddy leaders and the LifeKids staff on your campus for advice.
If you’ve encouraged your little buddy to keep trying, you’ve offered some incentives, you’ve brought out sensory calming and focus toys, but they still seem uncomfortable and out of sorts, then it’s time to adapt further. Maybe it’s time to tag team with another LifeKids Buddy at your campus. It could be that the child will respond better to a different leader for a while. Important note: This is not a sign that you’ve done a poor job with your little buddy. It’s a sign that you’re doing a wonderful job at meeting this child’s needs. Children sometimes respond better to one parent for a season than another. It has nothing to do with how much they love their parents, but everything to do with how they are able to respond due to their developmental phase and needs.
4. Persevere! You might not get to know what the cause of the regression is. That’s okay! And that’s typical. It can be almost impossible to know why a child’s development is showing some outward signs of retrograde. Mild illness, fatigue, stress, physical growth spurts—just too many variables. So, hang on. Trust that God is using you to help the student you’re supporting reach their next developmental milestone. It takes a long time to grow up, right? Be patient. As they say, keep calm and carry on!
5. Celebrate! There’s something really cool that sometimes happens alongside a regression: a breakthrough! A child who had developed some great communication phrases might stop talking for a month, only to resume their verbal skills with an upgrade of using full sentences. A student who had begun watching the video from the back each week might stop and ask to take a break for a month, only to join in with saying a Bible verse with their friends in small group the next month. Look for the development that might be happening underneath or alongside the regression, and celebrate what God is doing with your little buddy—and their parents if you can!
Remember: When a child is working through a regression, it does not mean you’re doing poorly as their LifeKids Buddy leader. In fact, it means they need your support more than ever. It will take patience, love, and wisdom to lead your little buddy through this phase. And God’s got plenty of wisdom to share with you whenever you ask Him for it!