Culture Shock: Why Mixed Age Groups Work for Children of Divorce
This series is co-written by Linda Ranson Jacobs and Wayne Stocks. Linda has drawn on her years of experience working with children of divorce in a childcare setting, in churches and in developing the Divorce Care for Kids (“DC4K”) curriculum for churches to identify and explain some major issues when it comes to ministering to children of divorce and to explain how those issues were addressed in the DC4K curriculum. Wayne has drawn on his years volunteering in children’s ministry and his work with children of divorce to provide some practical advice on how these issues can be addressed in a weekly children’s ministry environment. Together, we hope that this series will help children’s ministry workers better minister to children of divorce and help those who volunteer in divorce ministries like DC4K to better anticipate and deal with issues unique to children of divorce.
Why Mixed Age Groups Matter for Children of Divorce
Many times when parents bring their children to church as soon as the family hits the front door of the church everyone separates. Each child goes into a different classroom, and the adults may even go to a different building for their time of worship. While I understand there are good reasons for this type of arrangement, for the child of divorce this can be a daunting experience.
The majority of couples heading toward a divorce have pulled away from the church and, at the very least, their attendance becomes sporadic. Some people after a divorce find it difficult to attend the same church they had as a couple, so they will find a new church to attend. So the entire “church thing” can be a frightening experience to children of divorce.
During a divorce many siblings learn to rely on each other. Some older siblings become a “surrogate parent” to younger kids. For children who live in two homes, or who visit the other home periodically, they will turn to each other during travel times. When they come to church, they have already lost a parent and in most churches we separate the children from the only other person they feel they can rely on – their sibling that travels with them.
Many children of divorce experience learning delays or jumps in their learning levels. Learning may stop; social development lags; and many revert back to younger years and behaviors. It is not unusual for a child to lose an entire school year during the divorce process. Other children will turn to their schoolwork in hope that it will impress the parent that left. Due to more responsibilities, some children will become older than his or her years.
Because of these issues when ministering to children of divorce, I decided when children came to DC4K I wanted them to have the optimal learning experience. I wanted them to be able to heal in a stress free place; to feel safe and even comfortable and to feel family within the group. Mixed age grouping seemed to be the solution to accommodate these issues.
How We Accommodated Children of Divorce By Using Mixed Age Groups in DC4K
Mixed age grouping is when all elementary age children are in one room. The rooms need to be a good size and stations are set up to accommodate smaller gatherings within the room. For some churches, several mixed age groups will need to be set up, as children from divorce should not be placed in large groups. Usually for DC4K it is recommended the group not go over twenty children in one room; fifteen is even better. Remember these kids are hurting children and the agenda is to facilitate healing of their hearts and to draw them into the Kingdom. For children with behavior problems, because smaller groups feel safer, they lessen the need to act out.
Younger siblings can see their older brother or sister. The surrogate parent child can keep an eye on their younger siblings to make sure they are okay. It doesn’t mean they have to spend all their time doing the same thing but just being in the room together accommodates some of their fears and worries. The third grade boy, who stopped reading when his dad left, and is now behind in his learning, can move to the table where second grade boys are working in their activity books. The second grade girl who is wiser and older than she should be can migrate to a fifth grade girl where she can feel accepted and comfortable in her new role. Leaders then have an opportunity to minister effectively to these children when the kids are enjoying their place in the DC4K family.
Many DC4K leaders have found that older children volunteer to tell their story when younger children are present. Perhaps they don’t feel threatened by a group of younger kids. Younger children who get to serve snack to an older child in the room find their self-worth shining through. Self-respect and respect for others grows in mixed age groups. Ministering to each other flourishes in a healthy family environment. Mixed age grouping mimics that healthy family environment.
Many children will be thrust into a stepfamily long before they are ready. In this new family arrangement while the third grade boy had been used to being the oldest child, now he has older brothers in the house. The baby of the single parent family now might very well be one of the older kids in the family. After being in a mixed age group at DC4K, they will feel more secure being with older or younger children.
Children with no siblings in their family will find an entire group of DC4K siblings. Many will take on the responsibility of adopting a younger child as their brother or sister in the group. This gives everyone the freedom to minister to children of different ages within their DC4K family.
How You Can Utilize Mixed Age Groups in a Traditional Children’s Ministry Setting
While DC4K was written specifically to accommodate mixed age groups in its very structure, you may find it harder to incorporate mixed aged groups in your traditional children’s ministry setting. That said, there are some things you can do (these suggestions are based on a typical large group / small group setting but can be easily adapted to other settings).
1. Encourage Mixed-Age Interactions: Sometimes, the kids in our ministries will gravitate to other kids their own age. Sometimes this is because we encourage it by placing them in age based small groups, and other times it is just natural for kids to desire to be around children their own age. Encourage the children in your ministry to interact with children older and younger than them. Encourage older kids to help younger kids with games and questions. Encourage younger children to seek out an answer from an older child before they approach an adult volunteer. Encourage kids to play together before or after service regardless of their ages.
2. Mixed Age Large Groups: Even if your small groups are segregated by age group, allow the kids to interact in the large group setting. Let siblings sit together, so long as they want to and are not disruptive. Children of divorce will find comfort in close proximity to their siblings.
3. Utilize Older Children: Allow older children to assist you in serving younger children. This allows them to spend time with their younger siblings and also gives them control over something. Younger kids will love interacting with, and learning from, the older kids in your ministry.
4. Mixed Age Group Games: Sometimes it is easier, and quicker, to play games based on age groups – “all the first graders get together!” However, consider creating teams which include children of all ages for things like trivia contests or relay races. For children of divorce, this will allow them to be on the same team as an older or younger sibling.
5. Create a “Family” Environment: If we have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, then we are all brothers and sisters. What better place exists to show children of divorce what real family should look like? Treat each other like members of the same family with one Heavenly Father rather than adopting a teacher/student type relationship. Help children to understand that they should treat one another like siblings. Create an environment where kids will feel safe and welcome.
6. Don’t Be Rigid: I know that in children’s ministry when you bend the rules for one kid every parent will want you to do the same thing for them. If your options are bend the rule to allow the child of divorce to feel safe and be able to participate or stick to your guns and rules, choose love and make an exception for the child of divorce. We would do as much for a child who lost a parent to death, why not do the same for a child of divorce?
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on August 24, 2012.