Responding to Preteen Craziness

Guest Post by Mark Friestad

No matter how fascinating we are as speakers, or how interesting the content is, or how engaged most of the preteens in your group might be, there are always students who will go off-track. It’s a mistake to take this personally, and it’s a mistake to chock it all up to misbehavior, too.

I mean, as an adult, do you sit perfectly still in meetings, or never whisper under your breath to a co-worker, or never doodle on the bulletin (or – gasp – send a text) during church? We all do. So the first step in managing distractions is to carefully evaluate, “Does this matter?” From the front of the room, nearly every aberrant behavior is a distraction – to me. And yes, sometimes that’s enough that I should act (because we do want every kid on task). But if the behavior isn’t drawing anyone else off-track, I might consider letting it go.

When there is behavior that threatens to ripple out and pull other preteens into distraction, the best response is to practice what’s called, “escalating response.” The idea of escalating response is that you want to use whatever correction will draw as little attention to itself as possible, so as not to disrupt what’s going on with the whole group. An out-of-proportion response unnecessarily brings your program to a halt while misbehavior is dealt with, breaking up the flow. Escalating response keeps the main thing the main thing.

It begins with eye contact and “escalates” from there, to interventions that are more and more obvious. Here are the intermediate steps I use:

1. Look at them. You’re looking at preteens as you speak to them anyhow, so it’s not unnatural to just shift your focus to another preteen or group of preteens. Your goal is to make eye contact, which silently communicates, “I see what you’re doing; you need to stop.” You don’t interrupt what you’re teaching, you just use an intentional gaze to draw the offender back into the action.

2. Move closer. If looking at them fails to get their attention, sometimes walking near them will, because they can hear you. Again, you’re not saying anything at this point related to their behavior. Your words are still all about the teaching. When you get close to them, they will look up, almost every time. Then you step back to #1, give them “the look”, and the problem is usually solved. But, if not…

3. Use appropriate touch. “Appropriate” touch, in any circumstance, is touch that is purposeful, communicative, and limited in duration. This goes for hugs, pats on the back – or corrective gestures. A light touch on the shoulder (or if sitting on the floor, like in a small group, on their knee) is another nonverbal way of saying, “I’m noticing you – you’re off-track – you need to refocus up here.” If touch doesn’t do it, or if it’s impractical (because the kid is in the middle, 17 rows back)…

4. Pause. Now you’ve moved to the level where everyone is going to notice. As a rule, I don’t like using stony silence as a technique of controlling a group because it makes everyone self-conscious – including the kids who aren’t doing anything wrong. But sometimes a pause is enough break in the action to draw the attention of the kid who’s off-track. Again, this is a non-verbal signal, hopefully prompting the off-track kid to notice that you notice…and by now, so does everyone else.

There are just four of the seven responses I use. I will share the rest on a follow-up post sometime next week.

Mark Friestad is the preteen pastor at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, CA. He’s got the coolest job in the world because he gets to lead a preteen ministry, Surge, full-time. You can reach him at

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Over twelve years ago Nick Diliberto lauched a preteen ministry with a handful of volunteers and about 25 kids. Over the years it grew to over 100 kids and has impacted hundreds of young people's lives. Nick is the driving force behind, Children's Director at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, workshop speaker and author of an ongoing preteen column in Children's Ministry Magazine.