I learned quickly when I started in middle school ministry that disruptions were par for the course. Outbursts, fidgeting, non-sequiturs, and awkward smells were a normality. It was like the moment we got into a groove with a lesson, someone would yell something, another would ask an unrelated question and through it all, the entire back row would fart. And like clockwork, as soon as we turned back to somewhere close to “on topic”, everything would start over.
Some of this is simply what it’s like to work with middle school students and all their glory, some of it is also preventable. With a few easy changes, you can shape and direct the energy in your space to be more conducive to focus and learning. Through my educational training and years of working with these delightful middle school creatures, I have developed several preemptive steps you can take to ensure the best possible experience in your ministry meetings. They are not silver bullets, but a set of tools that can help to minimize distractions, develop an environment of order and lay the foundation for deeper, more meaningful connections with your students. Unfortunately, the smells thing is beyond my help.
Interact with students beforehand.
Whether the ministry is 5 students or 500 students, the time it takes for people to arrive can often be under-supervised and under-utilized. This is a great time to make small talk, check-in with newcomers, touch base with potential overly energetic youth and set the tone of the meeting with a handshake, high-five, hip bump or a hug (side hug, obviously). This is an opportunity to take the pulse of the group, looking for students struggling with something, youth that might be nervous or anxious, or youth that are already uncharacteristically energetic. These are all signs that your strategy as a leader or team of leaders may need to focus on these individuals before they have an issue. The best way to help your students with their specific quirks and needs is to get to know them.
Create a team-approach model.
Even if it’s just you and a single volunteer, a coordinated effort will always have a greater impact than working independently. Find time to talk through the group dynamics and specific individuals as a group so you can strategize the best way to help and engage the students. I meet with my team regularly in preparation of meetings, retreats, trips and larger events and discuss major issues going on with specific students, behavioral, social or educational limitations that may exist, and the plans I have for the event itself to strategize how to best execute those plans as a group. A team can see things from multiple angles, spot issues before they escalate and work together to keep the momentum going forward. Create a team and equip them with the information they need to thrive.
Have a seating strategy.
Middle-schoolers are social by nature and sitting with friends and co-conspirators is a recipe for escalating outbursts and tomfoolery. Have a plan to get students up and out of their seats to redirect those trouble pairings. Multiple times in a lesson I will create an opportunity for people to find a partner through numbering off, answers to a question or something as random as drawing slips of paper. They find that partner and discuss a question, then sit there as the lesson resumes. This shakes up the cliques, builds a wider social interaction and can dissolve problem-prone pairings.
Employ reminder cues into your routine.
Teachers and schools use reminder cues all the time, but for some reason, we forget about this tool when it comes to ministry. Reminder cues are helpful ways of indicating things like “it’s time to quiet down” or “it’s time to go sit down” using nonverbal stimuli, like flickering lights or ringing a bell. These cues take time to develop as tools, but when implemented uniformly, the result is a more fluid transition. Routine is your friend with middle schoolers, and they are already used to these sorts of cues in school – lights off means be quiet, the bell means to leave or to sit down. And if you are worried about the coolness factor, then tailor the cues to your ministry. I’ve used colored LEDs to signal what the next thing is, snippets from popular songs to signal to sitdown time and even used a World Market gong for a myriad of crazy cues. It can be fun and cut down on the transition time and lack of focus.
Consider your space.
When I first began in ministry, I had the TGIFriday’s equivalent of a youth space – every crazy, colorful and odd thing I could find was on the walls, shelves and hanging from the ceiling. It amped up the energy and created a space that was over the top, but it also set a tone of overly energetic, over-the-top behavior as well. The environment in which you teach and meet will have a profound effect on the behavior of the students in it. Is your space busy? Cluttered? Flashy? There are ways to create an atmosphere of welcome and whimsy without overload. Clutter and chaos do not equal fun and welcoming, usually it just communicates a space that anything goes. Consider what your spaces and environments communicate with the students and what tone they set for your lessons. Getting this right can have a surprising impact on your behavior!
Use your words.
Setting clear, focused expectations and communicating them succinctly is probably the best tip on this list. Instead of listing behavioral rules, discuss expectations and why they matter. These expectations are still rules; “Don’t swear, yell, interrupt or name call” becomes “There is an expectation of respect when it comes to what we say here. We listen when others talk, respect opinions that are different and use appropriate words.” One of the easiest things to do to middle schoolers is to talk down to them or treat them like children. Explain what you expect in a deliberate, direct way. Understanding the expectations is the first step to respecting them. I use this expectation format for my rules for each meeting and outing for the past 6 years, and there has been a notable shift in the culture of my group. They behave better, self-correct discipline issues and are overall more considerate in the areas I have outlined for them. If you let them, middle schoolers can impress you.
None of these things on there own will solve all your problems, nor will the implementation of all of them guarantee you a problem-free ministry. But, in my ministry experience, each of these practices helps to draw your ministry to a more healthy, functional place and will better serve your middle school students. They need the love and care each of these special actions require, and as their ministers, mentors and the adults that order them pizza most often, it’s the least we can do!