Characteristics of Middle Schoolers

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As you teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, you’ll soon get to know what they’re like. But even veteran leaders find it hard to analyze and categorize this age group. One reason is that kids in middle school are in transition from childhood to adulthood. Somewhere, probably at widely different points on the developmental continuum, you’ll find each of your students taking halting lunges forward and painful slips backward.

The preteens in your group can vary all the way from the boys who profess to hate the opposite sex to the sophisticated young teen whose thoughts have turned to make-up and boys. The differences in physical maturation alone can be stunning. And physical changes are matched by intellectual, social, and spiritual changes that are every bit as dramatic.
 
Here are a few reminders for you to consider as you prepare to teach your middle schoolers.

Intellectual Characteristics

Children at this age

  • are gradually acquiring the ability to think abstractly and are no longer limited to “concrete” experiences from which to draw conclusions; older “middlers” have a developing ability to conceptualize, understand metaphor; think logically, speculate about ideas and propositions, and entertain lots of questions while toying with a variety of answers. However, keep in mind that many middle schoolers are just beginning this process. Some may still need very concrete examples to help them cross the bridge to more abstract thinking.
  • like to flex their new-found mental muscles by pointing out inconsistencies in what they’ve seen, heard, and learned about their faith.
  • are becoming increasingly capable of working out their own system of beliefs and values.
  • need a lot of variety and “hands on” learning experiences to maintain interest and attention; are willing to explore many different ways of learning; most are visual rather than auditory learners; respond best to frequent changes in pace, activities.

Tips for Leaders

  • Be aware that youth may be at widely differing places in their ability to handle abstract thinking; include some questions and activities that these youths can successfully handle; at the same time; move your teaching beyond facts and information—you need to help students move from childlike thinking into adult understanding.
  • Ask questions that help youth put information into concepts that reflect their opinions; give them plenty of opportunities to draw conclusions from Scripture, to raise questions of their own, to apply the insights gained from Bible study to the way they live from day to day.
  • Establish a personal relationship with your kids; be there to stimulate, challenge, and lovingly guide them as they challenge old assumptions and entertain new ideas; create a warm, friendly environment for learning where kids are free to ask questions and be themselves.
  • Make a strong effort to vary your teaching approach and methods; use activities that cover the range of all eight intelligences (see introduction to your leader’s guide and individual sessions).
  • Avoid lecturing as much as possible; try some of the more unusual and creative activities suggested in your leader’s guide; frequently change pace and activities.

Social Characteristics

Children at this age

  • struggle with the task of establishing their own identities; many tend to move away from families and teachers toward their own peer group, who help them shape their beliefs, test their values, and provide support.
  • may show their identity struggle in ways that startle and irritate adults (garish trends, abrasive music, exclusive groupings), but out of it will eventually emerge a healthy self-consciousness.
  • often feel an almost desperate need for acceptance, especially by their peers; friends become all-important, though research shows that families continue to play a vital role in influencing the values and beliefs of this age group.
  • ride an emotional roller-coaster, with unpredictable ups and downs; can be spirited, reckless, energetic, especially in small groups; may also experience for the first time the low feelings of isolation and loneliness (despite hectic schedules and much busyness); need much affirmation, acceptance, and support.
  • may occasionally behave in disruptive ways to gain peer approval; girls may giggle and whisper; boys may be loud and argumentative. You’ll have to judge just how much noise is detrimental to learning, how much bothers the group, how much bothers you.
  • are often hugely concerned with their appearance; some may become self-conscious, especially girls who may tower over some of the boys in the group; many are sensitive to their strengths and weaknesses; they don’t want to be embarrassed.
  • may appear totally self-absorbed but they are now able to take the perspective of other people; this new ability gets a good workout as the kids try to see themselves as others do; eventually this will blossom into a an adult-like sensitivity to others.
  • may spend long hours playing video games, going online, instant messaging, watching TV.

Tips for Leaders

  • Build relationships; let kids know you like them, enjoy their company, and want to be with them; listen to them; let them know you take them seriously; if possible, try to attend at least some of their games, concerts, plays, and other special events.
  • Emphasize the positive; look for opportunities to affirm individuals privately (public praise can embarrass them); avoid sarcasm and criticism; help kids feel loved, accepted, and valued.
  • Work with the kids to create classroom rules and consequences (rule #1  is that nobody laughs at or makes fun of anyone else—kids need to feel safe to question assumptions); be fair but flexible, consistent but caring; deal with individual rule-breakers individually, apart from the group.
  • Avoid disruptive behavior by making learning fun, by varying the pace and activities, by building personal relationships.
  • Provide lots of opportunity for group interaction and working together on assignments or projects; make sure no one is left out or feels rejected; soften the impact of cliques by varying the make-up of small groups.
  • Be patient with the kids and with yourself!
  • Provide clear instruction for projects and activities, while encouraging kids to be creative. They need to have some idea of what’s expected of them, some parameters within which to work, without squelching creativity.

Spiritual Characteristics

Children at this age

  • are moving from “doing good” simply to avoid punishment or to return a favor to the “conventional” level of faith and morality, where the key is conforming to what the group or culture defines as “normal” and acceptable; kids are developing their own beliefs and values but do so in the context of peers, school, media, and church; belonging to the church and participating in its rituals and ministry become increasingly important.
  • are able to commit themselves to Christ and to understand what it means to live a life of Christian gratitude and service; public profession of faith is a very real possibility as some have arrived at the place of making commitments in their own right, apart from peers and parents.
  • are able to deal with moral questions in terms of motives as well as consequences; can think about questions of ethics and morality in the context of love, loyalty, promises, and so on.
  • are idealists, quick to point out faults and failures at home and in the world, quick to spot injustice, eager to become involved in worthy causes; need to know they’re important to God and to the church right now.
  • often admire and seek to imitate adult faith-models as a way of establishing their own identity.
  • may well be struggling with doubts and questions about their faith, feelings that often intensify with older adolescents; some reject the faith of their parents and teachers out of rebellion or a wish to think for themselves.
  • can find it difficult to integrate their religious beliefs with their everyday attitudes and behaviors; dealing with their failures in this regard often becomes a heavy load—living Christianly can seem impossible.

Tips for Leaders

  • Involve kids in active ministry through service projects you do as a group (many are offered as part of the Walk With Me curriculum); encourage kids to participate in your church’s worship services and outreach ministries.
  • Gently encourage those who express an interest in publicly professing their faith; offer to talk with kids individually about their faith and any questions they have about the process of confessing their faith before your congregation; take care not to pressure kids in any way; you may want to contact your denominational office for materials aimed specifically at welcoming and guiding young believers.
  • Help kids think through moral issues, give reasons for their choices, get beyond “group think” to think for themselves; use lots of examples from their lives—true case studies can be an effective approach for teaching ethics to older kids; honest, open discussion is the goal.
  • Build on their idealism by encouraging them to protest the injustice and inequality they see at school or in their community; encourage them to resist the clique mentality and think inclusively when it comes to selecting friends and joining groups.
  • Think of yourself as a “faith model” for the kids; know what you believe and live it openly; admit to difficulties and struggles that you experience; then work hard to listen, accept, guide, and correct—and keep your sense of humor!
  • Assure kids who are struggling with their faith or with their failures that God does not expect or reward perfection; God’s grace is a gift through Christ . . . a comforting truth for insecure, self-searching adolescents.
  • Encourage kids to have regular devotions at home; explore various forms of participatory prayers in your weekly sessions.
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