How to Lead Through a Regression—AKA a Rough Patch - Life.Church Leaders

How to Lead Through a Regression—AKA a Rough Patch

by Amber Siany

What is going on with my student? Things were great last week. Why is she running away this week? Why is she crying so much tonight? Ugh. If you work with students for more than a few minutes, you will become aware that physical growth might be linear, but developmental and spiritual growth is not.

Wait, what?

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 teen years.

Changes in schools, classes, homes, medications, therapists, and sleep are all common contributors to regression. But what would regression look like at Switch? It might look like:

Here’s a list of ways to lead your student through a regression!

  1. Check in. As much as possible, communicate with your student. Ask if they’re okay. Ask if they feel safe at Switch. Ask how people at school are treating them. Ask how people at Switch are treating them. Maybe there’s something more going on that you can be sensitive toward.
  2. 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 do small group tonight? I understand. I don’t want to push you too far. Let’s see if you can sit together for 5 minutes, then we’ll take a break if you want. Your friends are so happy to have you in group.”
  3. Adapt. Try moving your student to a new place in the building. Maybe you’ve been watching the experience in the main auditorium, but things are getting to be too much. Try watching from the lobby or Nursing Mothers room. 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 listen to the message with your friends, we will take a break and play on your phone for 5 minutes before small group starts.”

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 Switch Support leaders on your campus for advice.

If you’ve encouraged your student to keep trying, you’ve offered some incentives, you’ve brought out sensory calming and focus items, but your student still seems uncomfortable and out of sorts, then it’s time to adapt further. Maybe it’s time to tag team with another Switch Support leader at your campus. It could be that your student 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 student. It’s a sign that you’re doing a wonderful job at meeting your student’s needs. Teens sometimes respond better to one parent 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 student’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 student 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 experience from the back each week might stop and ask to watch from the Nursing Mothers Room for a month, only to open up and share a personal prayer request 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 student—and their parents if you can!

Remember: When a student is working through a regression, it does not mean you’re doing poorly as their Switch Support leader. In fact, it means they need your support more than ever. It will take patience, love, and wisdom to lead your student through this phase. And God’s got plenty of wisdom to share with you whenever you ask Him for it!