Navigating the Awkward in Middle School Small Groups


Have you ever walked into a room full of middle schoolers, and they just stared at you? 

Or avoided eye contact? 

Or pretended not to notice that you walked into the room? 

Or immediately looked down at their phone? 

Or started whispering?

Have you ever tried to talk to a group of middle schoolers that you didn’t know very well? 

You asked a question, and nobody wanted to be the first one to answer. 

And if they did answer, it’s with only one word. 

Middle schoolers are weird. And awkward.  All of them are weird and awkward.

They can be very judgmental. They’re looking for peer approval more than they’re looking for your approval. They don’t want to look lame in front of their friends. (Except in the middle school talent show! A lot of them are unaware of how lame they look in front of their friends in the talent show.) 

For the last 14 years, I have walked into a lot of rooms full of middle schoolers. Sometimes it’s hundreds of middle schoolers in one room, and sometimes it’s five. Sometimes the room is buzzing with talking. Other times, you can hear a pin drop. Either way, both equally have their challenges.

But here is something I’ve learned about walking into a room with middle schoolers. 

Yes, it’s scary; just embrace that. The more confident you are in embracing the awkward, the better they will receive you. 

So try this: When you walk into a room of middle schoolers, don’t try and take control of the room right away.

Let’s use cell phones for example. 

When I walk into a Small Group room and everyone's on their phones or looking at their phones, I take a moment and get my phone out, too. I join in with what they're doing and spend the first few minutes meeting them where they already are. It’s a way to show them that I think they’re cool and that what they want to do is cool, too. It’s only after that I try to take control of the room. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times I would say, “Okay girls, this is a really serious topic. We want to all be focused. Let's all agree to put our phones in the middle on the table for the next 15 minutes, and then we will take 1,000 selfies when we’re done.” 

Figuring out how to navigate those dynamics and understand the why behind what’s happening in your groups is a great place to start engaging your students. There are a million other ways. That’s why you should probably read the book Crystal Chiang and I wrote together called The Art of Group Talk for Teen Girls and the book Tom Shefchunas, Jeremy Zach, and Brett Talley wrote together called The Art of Group Talk for Teen BoysTrust me, they’re great places to start!


Ashley Bohinc