When I think back to my early middle school years, I often cringe first and then immediately become thankful that phase of life is over.
I have to believe that most others feel the same way when they think back on their tween years.
Because of that, I think it’s worth asking ourselves how we can help the kids we work with have a significantly different preteen experience than we did.
My answer to that question is that we can help prevent cringe-worthy tween years by helping kids realize their gifts—and own their influence.
Tweens Can Be Incredible Leaders
Everywhere we look there is something new being shared about GenerationZ (GenZ). There’s all sorts of information about who they are and what they are looking for.
However, when we are looking at how we cultivate preteen leaders in our ministry, it’s less about when they were born and more about what their brains and bodies allow them to do and process.
I believe that every tween is capable of becoming an incredible leader. In order to do this well, we have to understand how their brains are developing.
To understand this more, let’s take a look at three areas that each one of us can use with any of the tweens in our lives.
This is more than the cliché that being a middle schooler is tough.
So, when we hear about a tween and even a teen’s brain development happening, this is really the idea behind it.
According to raisingchildren.net.au, a child’s brain has massive growth spurts when they are really young. At six years of age, our brains are usually 90% of the size of our adult brains.
Furthermore, kids’ minds are being renovated as they enter their tween years, and this process can oftentimes go into their 20’s. All of this change is impacted by their experiences, hormones, and age.
So this is when we observe the “use it or lose it” principle in our kids’ lives.
The front part of the human brain is the prefrontal cortex, and it controls decision-making—this is the last part of the brain to be remodeled.
But, because this is happening during the tween years, they tend to use their amygdala—which is directly tied to their emotions, aggression, and even impulses.
As indicated by its Latin roots, “to empower” means to “put in” or “to cause” power .
So, what happens when we start to empower the tweens in our ministry?
When you encourage them to feel and to be empowered, tweens will want to reflect this newfound feeling of power within their spheres of influence and truly believe they are powerful.
Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to empowering your tweens:
- Encourage positive behavior.
- Promote good thinking.
- Help them find and know their place in leading.
- Don’t try to force them into being small adults.
- Maximize their brains exactly where they are. If they have ants in their pants and like to move around, let them lead games & hang time
When it comes to the brain in preteens, we simply need to keep in mind the idea of logic over emotions.
Be on the lookout for means to tap into their emotions for positive change and not mold them to be an adult.
Recognize that behind every exceptional kid is a great adult and help them discover their place while you walk alongside them.
When you do this, you will maximize their brain exactly where they are.
Equipping Preteens with Skills and Confidence to Lead
If you’ve made a decision to pour into the lives of tweens and cultivate them into leaders, it’s important to understand fundamental characteristics of leadership and what works best for the tweens in your ministry.
Some of the major components that most leaders possess at all times are honesty, integrity, confidence, inspiration, commitment, passion, effective communication, accountability, creativity, and innovation.
You can see more on these here.
While it is unrealistic that most preteens even hold half of these characteristics, it is an opportunity pick a couple to highlight those that your kids do have.
Above all of those characteristics though, we need to continually nurture preteens’ identities as children of the King.
When we give them permission to begin the process of truly asking themselves the questions of identity, they will not only begin to explore who they are in Christ, but who they are in relation to the people around them.
I don’t say this to be naïve in the fact that this is not easy. But I will say with 100% confidence that it is doable.
Seek opportunities to create mentor relationships for each of the kids that you are interested in having step into a leadership role.
If you don’t have volunteers who are willing to do this, I hope you will step up to do that for them. Get some ideas here.
They deserve it!
Help Kids “Own” Their Influence
So now that we understand the why’s around preteens brain development and have looked at some of the ways we can equip them, you might be wondering what’s next.
This is precisely where we put the practice of cultivating preteen leaders into the hands of your preteens.
If you are anything like me, this is the place I love and get a little scared about the most.
What if they mess up? What if you do?
One of the programs that we have with our students at my church (Mountain Springs Church—Colorado Springs) is called Propel Student Leaders (PSL). Each semester we have 5th & 6th grade students apply to be part of this program.
Here’s How Propel Works:
- Each 5th & 6th grade student and a parent make a full semester commitment.
- PSL volunteers commit to showing up 30 minutes before and staying 30 minutes after worship and attending a monthly 2-hour meeting for training.
- One of the primary responsibilities of each PSL volunteer is to keep younger students safe during large group time. The PSL boys escort the younger boys to the bathroom and the PSL girls stay with the younger girls. PSL volunteers also mix in with the other kids and continually look out to make sure no one is doing anything they shouldn’t be and that no little one is all alone.
- PSL volunteers also rotate through different positions to see what they love and what they want to learn: making announcements, interviewing guests, running lights, running sound, and helping lead worship.
Leading through PSL is often a source of pride for the tweens because they see that their roles are significant. Yes. What they are doing are really simple things, but they are also really important things.
Time and Space
It’s important to make sure we are giving our tweens the time and space to be heard.
By demonstrating the skill of listening, you are offering them the chance to learn and apply what they’ve learned as they grow.
We ask PSL students to come 30 minutes before children’s ministry starts and to stay until all of the kids have been picked-up. This gives our PSL students time to debrief their week together and with their mentors.
One of the most beautiful elements of their debrief time is when the students have time to recognize and describe their highs and lows.
I have a 12-year-old nephew serving as part of PSL. It’s been incredible to watch him be able to identify and own his mistakes.
Part of creating leadership within this age group is nurturing the idea that mistakes are okay and that tweens aren’t alone. This gives preteens continuous opportunities to learn and grow.
It’s important to acknowledge that not every kid will want to share their lows, but this is an opportunity to lean into making sure your program is a safe place for them to discover, share, fail, and find forgiveness and love.
Lastly, it’s essential to make sure they understand part of being a leader is being accountable.
Whatever that may look like for your program, it should be something you have in place before you launch and that is shared regularly with the students.
Accountability is yet another one of those pivotal leadership traits that we get to nurture in the lives of the students we love.
You Can Do This
Remember to check in regularly with your leadership team. Make sure you aren’t pushing your tweens to be something or someone they aren’t.
Equipping preteen leaders isn’t a short-term project for you children’s ministry to take on. This type of program will take time to cultivate and sustain.
As your students learn, develop, and further understand their roles in the Church and their identity in Christ, remember that their roles as a leaders should never surpass the importance of their personal growth in both learning and in worship.