What do you do when you’ve had a bad day, things don’t go your way, you misunderstand what someone said and thought they were being nasty, when there’s too much noise and busyness and it’s giving you a major headache, you can’t sit in your usual seat, it’s not your turn, or you don’t know how to cope with someone else’s behaviour?
As typically developed adults we have usually developed socially appropriate strategies for dealing with all kinds of difficult situations. All of us have emotional responses to things that happen that we don’t like. We feel fear, anger, anxiety, stress and even excitement as strong emotions. Emotions often drive our behaviours, we react to a situation based on our emotions much of the time. This is tempered with logical thought processes which have enabled us to learn to regulate our responses with reason.
For example “I won’t throw a tantrum on the floor of the supermarket / punch that guy because he drove over my foot with his trolley.” Instead we might ‘tut’, grumble, make a comment or ignore it completely…and if we are truly British, we might even apologise to the man for being in the way of his trolley!
Adults with learning disabilities can sometimes find a situation that many of us would be able to easily regulate our response to, overwhelming. For them, the emotion is so strong that they can only react – with fight or flight. In other instances, a situation that to them seems so unfair or not what they wanted can lead to upset, distress and inappropriate reactions.
In our Good New Group we have learned that sometimes the behaviour of our members can be a challenge for us. (Behaviour in all congregations can be a challenge for the leaders – how many churches have split because of people’s behavioural responses to each other?!) For us, however, the challenge is to understand and support the person so that they can feel calm and safe, relationships can be repaired and our safeguarding procedures are as effective as they can be. Along the way we hope to share something about Jesus’ love with the person so that as we pray with them and for them their responses can become more loving and kind from within themselves, rather than imposed from outside others.
I’d like to share a couple of anonymous examples. The aim of sharing is to help others who may be supporting people with learning disabilities in their church to be prepared, have safeguarding measures in place and understand how to help the person express themselves appropriately. Be very clear – I am not meaning that we impose a ‘right way to behave’ onto people because that would take away grace and our acceptance of people’s individuality – but rather sharing a sense of what being a community is, where we love, forgive and serve one-another under Jesus’ guidance.
We have had some instances of our members reacting to something someone said to them and feeling very angry. Once I was punched in the stomach as a result and often we get tears and assertions that they are never coming to the group again because of what someone said. We’ve had tears and wailing because someone sat in the ‘wrong place’ and someone swearing at another person because they were complaining at them all night.
In other instances we have had blossoming relationships that continued outside the group which began to suffer due to inappropriate texting and sexual suggestions. We’ve had a member flirting with two or three members at once and all nearly came to blows over who was going out with who.
We’ve had people suffering with grief, illness, fixations on issues, shouting out and swearing in the middle of the Bible story…and generally being human beings.
There are some practical steps we have had to take as a team and here are some of the things that have helped…
- Have a safeguarding policy, know what it says and follow it’s guidelines. Have all your helpers DBS checked.
- Know your members as well as you can. Make sure you have their basic details recorded. We have a sheet they fill in with name, address etc and also has a section for any information about their physical, emotional and sensory needs if they wish to tell us about them. We take time to sit and get to know our members. That is why the first part of our meeting is social time and then a light meal together.
- Trust and communicate with carers who come with the person or who collect them. When incidents have happened with members whose carers are there, we have asked for their advice first.
- As a team we discuss any behaviour issues at our half-termly team meeting. This means we can share experiences and most importantly what strategies we have used that help. We establish routines for toileting or moving and handling and other such issues as a team.
- If it is a serious issue don’t talk to the person on your own. We always speak to the person in two’s and one person writes down what we have said. We can then read it back to the member so they can agree that is what we have talked about and agreed. Then we pray with them and make sure we reassure them, find everything positive we can in the situation and have a clear plan for moving forward.
- Demonstrate forgiveness. Teach forgiveness and how God can restore all things.
- Pray in all circumstances, seek God and ask for his wisdom.
Our group is a congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ like any church congregation. It is my greatest joy in the week to be part of this group, seeking to learn about the Bible together and having great worship and fellowship. Because some of our members can react to situations in a challenging way because they don’t understand, feel very emotional or don’t have the skills to deal with it differently, the behavours can be immediate and overt. In one way that can be easier to deal with than the back-biting, gossip, subversive behaviours of some non-learning disabled people!!
I hope you find something in this post to empathise with or understand. I would be proud for any of our group to read this (or have it read to them) and hope you can understand that I trying not to disrespect them as people. I only hope that my honesty will help others who support people with learning disabilities in churches might be prepared and compassionate when behaviour is a challenge.