[Psst, here’s a secret: Middle schoolers are some of our favorite people. This post is part of our Batteries Included collection just for people who invest in this awkward, amazing age group. f you’re a youth leader, parent or teacher who spends time with middle schoolers, this is for you. If you’re not—share it with a friend who is!]
I often challenge our middle school students to make our group their safe place. They get cut-down and kicked around enough everywhere else. As people of God, we’re called to be different—to be full of the grace and truth of Jesus. This is a brand new concept for most middle schoolers.
Following Jesus isn’t “safe”—it’s full of risk and adventure. But fostering an accepting, loving environment gives students the courage to trust the dangerous message of Christ.
(Actually, I think this is the same for adults.)
And if we’re going to follow Jesus together, we need to build an environment of trust and kindness—the kind that flows out of mutual community.
I know, I know, this all sounds good…except that I mentioned this is middle schoolers we’re talking about, right???
You might think it’s impossible for middle schoolers to be nice to each other.
Pulling students in from the fringe
It does, however, take a lot of prayer, patience and intentionality on your part. The prayer and patience are easy enough to understand. So how can we be purposeful about helping students feel safe in our midst?
Introduce students to each other. You may know all of them, but do they know each other? Don’t assume. Play name games. Show core students how to walk over and introduce themselves to new students by doing it with them.
Play games that build bonds rather than break them. We seldom use elimination games that quickly disengage half the group. It’s not because I no longer believe in competition—it’s because students get bored when you cut them out of the game. Instead of eliminating, you can give students “disabilities” like using only one foot, running backwards or being blindfolded to penalize but keep them participating. Competition can build great bonds, especially if teams are working together toward a shared goal.
Model words of kindness, encouragement and hope, and help your other leaders guard their sarcasm. When you hear students tearing each other down, challenge them on it! Cut-downs are second nature for many middle schoolers. They need help recognizing what’s not okay to say to each other. Just be careful that the way you challenge them still models the compassion you want them to have!
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8