3 Ways to Help Middle Schoolers Understand What You Are Saying

July 15, 2022

“Let’s water down the high school content so middle schoolers can keep up.” Have you said or heard that before? When communicating to middle schoolers, it’s not about watering down or dumbing down the message; it’s about breaking down the message.

Here’s the difference: Why do we cut a hamburger into tiny, bite-sized pieces for toddlers? Young ones need the same foods, but we don’t want them to choke in the process of receiving the very thing they need to survive. They need the food’s nutrition but have to consume it differently than an adult. The same thing is true when helping middle schoolers process their faith: we break the abstract concepts into smaller pieces helps them digest them.

It’s not about watering down the message; it’s about breaking down the message.

Middle schoolers are smart. They can handle significant and profound ideas. And since their brains are changing fast, they uniquely process concepts and information in this phase. Because of that, we have to break big ideas into small parts and show them how they are all connected. 

Since the message we have is too vital for them to miss, focus on these three ways to communicate in a way they’ll understand, apply, and remember.

1. Categorize

Breaking it down means categorizingHave you ever felt that no matter how many different questions you ask a middle schooler, they only give you one-word answers? Or are their answers vague? Will the conversation die if you stop talking?

Middle schoolers are smart. They can handle significant and profound ideas.

Did you know that if you ask them too broad of a question, they don’t know what you are asking? Middle schoolers are still developing the ability to think in layers. They may not even be able to identify the layers to the question. Therefore, if you categorize the question, they will know what you are asking and how to think about it. 

Instead of asking, “How can you show people you care about them?” you might ask these four questions one at a time instead: 

  • How can you show your friends you care about them? 
  • How can you show your family you care about them?
  • How can you show your teammates you care about them?
  • How can you show your neighbors you care about them? 

2. Present One Idea at a Time

Breaking it down means presenting one idea at a time. Do not stack ideas or questions but ask one question or present one idea at a time. Stacking directions might look something like this: 

  • “I want you to stand up, grab a marker, and write ‘I am loved’ on the bottom of your shoe. When you are done, come to the back of the room for a picture.”

Wait. What?

A way to break down these directions so that they are not stacked might look like this: 

  • “Everyone, stand up!” (Allow time for everyone to do that.)
  • “Come grab a marker.” (Wait to give the next instruction until everyone has a marker in their hand.)
  • “Now, everyone, take one minute and write ‘I am loved’ on the bottom of your shoe.” (Give everyone one minute to do that.)
  • “Come to the back of the room for a picture after you finish.”

If you give them ten essential things to remember in a message, they won’t remember one. Breaking down these instructions allows them time to process what you want them to do. The same goes for asking discussion questions in small group time and a bottom line during a large group message. 

3. Define Words and Phrases

Breaking it down means defining words, idioms, and common Christian phrases. When speaking to a room full of middle schoolers, you want to say what you mean in a way that everyone in the room can understand, no matter their listening comprehension level. 

Keep in mind that reading comprehension is different from listening comprehension. Middle schoolers might read at a seventh-grade level, which doesn’t necessarily mean they listen at a seventh-grade level. They might only hear at a third-grade level. Just because they can recognize a word on a multiple-choice vocabulary test doesn’t mean they use it regularly in conversation. If you ask them, “Do you know this word?” they’ll say yes because they technically know the definition. However, if you use it in conversation, their brain has to go into the archives, find the academic definition, and apply it to the situation. That takes time; by then, you’ve already moved on in your talk while they are lost. So, when you’re teaching, you might feel like you are talking in a way that’s too “basic.” But if you don’t, they won’t be able to follow you. 

Reading comprehension is different from listening comprehension.

Speaking in a way that’s too complicated for middle schoolers to digest may seem deeper or more effective, but the opposite is true. Our depth depends on how we can break information down for middle schoolers. Most communicators won’t do this because it takes more words and effort. 

Middle schoolers can be the most challenging group to teach. Yet, if you master it, you can communicate with anybody. 

Ashley Bohinc

Ashley Bohinc

Ashley Bohinc serves as the director of middle school strategy at Orange, is a panelist on the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast, and co-authored The Art of Group Talk for Teenage Girls. She’s worked with middle and high schoolers in public education, athletic, and ministry settings since 2004. Known for her energy, passion, and authenticity, Ashley is a motivator, teacher, strategist, leader, learner, writer, advocate, and adventurer. Ashley is most passionate about resourcing the local church, communicating, teenagers, people who invest in teenagers, and engaging in global justice work. Additionally, she’s the executive director of Carry 117, a ministry in Ethiopia which focuses on orphan prevention and family preservation by empowering women. When she’s not trying to change lives or change the world, you’ll find Ashley hanging out with her friends, traveling, on one of her Fairytale Friday Adventures, or sorting through her massive collection of army green vests and jackets.
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