Expressions-16As youth people we are interacting with all different types of students all of the time.  All we know is what we encounter when they show up.  There are portions of their stories they share, which are small snippets and views into their lives.  Yet,  I am struck with how little we actually get to truly see into the heart of a student. 


This hit me recently on three occasions. 

  1. Interacting with a student I had never met who shared her whole story with me at a church picnic.
  2. Spending a weekend with a small group of JH students who gave me insights into their thoughts on life.
  3. My own child struggling with some relationships.

It hit me in each scenario that there was a layer of the students I hadn’t seen previously upon just “seeing” students.  

Let me work backwards in each of these scenarios.

My child:

What’s REALLY going on:

The last 7 months have been REALLY hard on her.  It began when my husband had to move states without us to start a new ministry job and we had to finish out the school year apart from her Dad.  When we “finally” were all together we had to move houses three times until we were able to find a place of our “own,”  two weeks after school started. The current house has had a lot of issues so we are  still not fully “in.”  We moved back to an area we had lived in 2 1/2 years ago.  This should make it smooth right?    No.  Upon returning a “friend” told her that when she left the first time,  “A lot of people were really glad you left because they didn’t like you. But, I’m glad you’re back.”  She never knew that people didn’t like her.  She doesn’t feel like the people on her sports team like her now.  She is having a hard time navigating new teachers with different expectations from her last school.  On top of all of that our new house?  We serve in an inner city neighborhood with a lot of “struggles” of it’s own.  She doesn’t feel like there is really anyone to talk to about how she really feels about the reality of where we live being different from friends who live in the suburbs.

What others SEE:

A JH age student who is barreling through life.  She is clinging too tightly to friends who knew her.  So much so they feel smothered right now.  So much so they are moving on and asking for space.  She has become selfish and wants her way most of the time.  At home her emotions are all over the place and this is coming out in some settings where she feels “safe” like sports practices and youth group.


Small group of girls:

What I learned:

In spending time with the JH girls group I learned they are struggling with not wanting to  grow up and feeling lonely.  Some come from blended families and are navigating how to “feel like they all belong together.”

What I saw?

A group of girls who were silly, brash and wanting to all “have their own way.”  We had to figure on more than one occasion how to get everyone to work together.


Girl I just met:

What I learned:

She has had a horrendous year being diagnosed with a chronic illness, moving states,  and the death of a parent.  It didn’t take long for her to spill her story of loss and disappointment.  I also learned as her remaining family moved in with grandparents,  her living parent is ill,  and this is the first time in her life she recalls living in a house.   At some points her family has been so poor they have lived five of them in one motel room.

What We See:

A really dramatic young woman who might have been a little too at “ease” with sharing difficult details of her life. She was obviously hungry for attention and trusted adults more than her peers.  She was desperately afraid of being made fun of.  


Are you catching the pattern here?  It’s so easy to dismiss our students with a label based on the presentation of themselves they give us.  I could easily call any of these students,  “dramatic,”  “emotional” or even “difficult.”   What I am wondering is how often we are willing to stop and get to know what’s going on beyond the surface.  Could it be “more” than “just their age?”   It takes A LOT of work to look beyond the surface and ask others to do the same.  Could we be coaching them to navigate life a little better than they are? I’m not saying they are reacting well,  but perhaps they (and their parents) could use some help? Their peers don’t know to stop and say,  “Hey,  is something else going on here?”  I do wonder what friendships would look  like among teens if we taught them to be supportive instead of focused on self preservation?

We are only a month or less into the school year.  Let’s make sure we aren’t just dismissing students based on the behavior we see.  Instead let’s make sure to get beyond what we “see.”  Let’s help them learn to navigate life a  little better.

How do you dig deeper with students?