I love middle schoolers and I love leading our Edge program. But when you fill a gym with sixty 6th, 7th, 8th graders, there’s always a huge mass of noisey energy. This is definitely overwhelming, especially for the new Edge leader. I’ve often wondered how many times I’ve “Shhhh’d” or “Hey guys, can I have your attention” in one Edge meeting.
When I first started working with this age, I was really frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t hold their attention for very long at a time and that I spent more time trying to get their attention and get them quiet than anything else.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned that help keep the students engaged:
- Change activities often. Don’t expect them to stay tuned in for more than 10-15 minutes on one activity. They just don’t have it in them at this age. Especially if you hold your meetings in a gym, like I do. The gym represents to them a place for high energy and lots of activity. They walk in thinking “yeah! Time for some fun!” and take off running, jumping, screaming etc. This is just what middle schoolers do! So I can’t expect them to just sit still in one spot and listen all night.
- Plan activities that allow them to move. Start the night with a game. When ending the night with a prayer, ask them to move into a large circle around the room. When moving from large group activity to small groups, spread the small groups out so they have a chance to walk (or run in most cases) from one area to another. Once in small groups, ask them questions about their favorite things so they have a couple minutes to just chat before you start the small group activity. Meet them where they are at rather than where you are at. Work with them and their middle school brains instead of expecting them to suddenly act like we would expect adults to act.
- Edge nights should be structured and consistent; more so than Life nights. Students should know when they come in what they do first, because it’s the same every Edge night. For example, in our gym, everyone has to take off their shoes before entering the gym, to protect the new gym floor. Once they enter, we have games going on, so they join right in. They know when they hear “HEY” over the microphone, they respond “HO” and immediately get still and quiet. (This is sometimes followed by the song, “Hey Ho I receive your mercy. Hey Ho I receive your grace . . . etc.)
Then we move to the same area of the gym, sit on the floor and a leader welcomes and opens with prayer. They know this routine because we do it the same every Edge night. As the youth minister, you come up with your own routine, but do the same, as much as possible, each week, so the students already know what to do and what is expected. Routinely keep the proclaim talk down to just a few minutes. They will learn that the talk is never too long and that some fun activity follows, so they will tune in and listen.
Plan for consistency from week to week. How will you transition from one activity to another? When do you serve the meal or snacks? What about bathroom breaks? Send and dismissal? When the middle schoolers know the routine and what is expected, they will come through. Be flexible, but consistent, and remember they need structure.
- Give specific directions, but only one command at a time. If you tell your students, “Now we are going to our small groups, grab a box of markers, think about your favorite scripture, look it up, read it to the group, then write it on the poster.” Wow . . . they will never remember all that, and you will be overcome with “What are we supposed to do now?” questions even though you’ve repeated it 55,000 times. Give one instruction at a time. Then once they’ve completed that task, give the next instruction. Simple. Clear. Easy.
When I first started Edge nights and the crowd would get loud, I would instinctively raise my voice as the student did, trying to be heard over them, pleading for their attention. But over time I learned a trick that works every time and is much more effective than yelling.
When they get loud I get quiet . . . . I whisper. At first, no one seems to notice. But after a few seconds, a few students near me will notice and will stop talking in order to hear what I am saying. Sometimes they begin to lean in closer. Then a few more will notice followed by a few more. The quiet spreads much faster than the noise. When someone whispers that means they have an important secret, right? And we love secrets, right?
When an Edge student hears whispering, their middle school brain is intrigued . . . and they tune right back in to what you are saying. Their instincts tell them you have something important to share and they don’t want to miss it. Works like a charm every time. So now, instead of coming home hoarse from screaming “Can I have your attention please?” I simply whisper . . . and regain control.