There are fundamental relational questions kids need to answer as they grow and develop:

  • In preschool the relational questions surround “Am I?” (impressions about themselves and the world): Am I safe? Am I able? Am I okay?
  • In elementary the relational questions surround “Do I have?” (related to skills and competencies that equip their future): Do I have your attention? Do I have what it takes? Do I have friends?
  • In middle school the relational questions surround “Who?” (challenging authority and personalizing belief): Who do I like? Who likes me? Who am I?
  • In high school the relational questions surround “Where?” “Why?” “How?” and “What?” (refining their unique abilities and developing a sense of purpose): Where do I belong? Why should I believe? Why can’t I? How can I matter? What will I do?

Middle School Specific

In middle school, a preteen challenges authority and personalizes what they believe. The way a middle schooler resolves the “who” questions of life determines the framework for their relational stability. It affects the way they see themselves, the way they see the world, and the way they see themselves in the world. In these phases, the relational questions shift from black-and-white to grey. The answers are no longer the same for every kid, so they need to be personalized.

The best way to resolve a middle schooler’s relational questions is to AFFIRM their personal journey.

Practically speaking, here’s how to do that:

Who do I like? Who likes me? Sixth graders need an overdose of acceptance to combat the storm of changes. When adults recruit other affirming leaders and peers, kids gain stability.

In grade 6, it will help small group leaders to remember that these self-conscious preteens are wondering if they are like-able (worthy of someone liking them and who they are) and they are making determinations on who they will choose to like. This stage leads into 7th and 8th grade where identity formation starts to solidify. In 6th grade, students are “testing” out various ways of being. Coupled with HUGE hormonal changes (puberty), who do I like and who likes me takes on enormous significance. Having a stable adult who likes them for who they are (as crazy as their home or school life is) is a great gift. As a small group leader, you have the opportunity to be a consistent, stabilizing presence for these emerging teenagers in the chaos of their current world.

Who am I? Seventh and eighth graders are increasingly self-aware and self-conscious. When adults acknowledge positive qualities and strengths, kids discover uniqueness.

I have noticed that these students tend to solidify the identity they want to project onto the world during 7th and 8th grade. Now it is not set in stone or cured in concrete, nor is anything more powerful than the work of the Holy Spirit, but this is a crucial age for a young teenager. This question of “Who am I?” is so important and small group leaders have the opportunity to answer those questions consistently by acknowledging the qualities you see in them. These students don’t have the mental capability to think outside of themselves, so what an caring adult that they look up to says is VERY powerful and impactful. We know this: words matter, and we never know when the words we say are going to be the ones that stick and they remember. 7th and 8th grade students are super-fun, and they love hearing what makes them unique because this is the core relational question they are seeking to answer.

The chart above details the relational timeline from birth through graduation. You can click on it to make it bigger (or click here).

It’s fascinating to see how the questions change as a person gets older, isn’t it?! In fact, if we’re honest, most of us adults are still working through some of these same questions ourselves because we weren’t afforded the opportunity to answer them adequately when we were younger. But there is hope! It is never too late to engage with these questions!

Source: It’s Just a Phase So Don’t Miss It: Why Every Life Stage of a Kid Matters by Reggie Joiner & Kristin Ivy, pp. 106-107