Breaking through the wall of silence at Youth Group

There is nothing worse then asking great question to a great group of kids and having the room go silent…You can hear a pin drop. Then there’s the kid who always speaks up with an answer or opinion. “Relief,” I think. But then I realize the other kids just check out because they know that kid will always fill the silence.

Most of our youth are unwilling to speak in front of others—especially if they don't know each other well. Plus they’re used to being asked questions in class that only have right or wrong answers. So how do we get them to find their voice and be in conversation with the other youth?

First remind them it is all confidential, and that what they share in youth group is not leaving the room. The only exceptions are if what they reveal make me believe they are a danger to themselves or others, or that they themselves are in danger. Establishing what confidentiality means up front, and keeping to it, will give them the security to know they can begin to share.

Community building is huge. Silly games, share food and doing things outside the class together; silly games allow all of them to laugh together. Food – not not just a quick but a real meal together, often with the adults out of the room but near by, also helps. Once we gather back together I find the youth are more open to talking.

But there will still be a few kids who never speak. Are they bored? Shy? Thinking about the homework they have not completed? Or are they really letting the others fill in the space? 

So if establishing that this is a safe place to share and community building hasn’t broken through the wall of silence, here are a few tips I use to mix it up.

1.  Movement 

  • Use the game we suggest at the start of each CnC class: Ask a question and get them to move along a continuum to where they have their answer – strongly agree on one end of the room, strongly disagree on the other end. Kids can all share their opinions without speaking, plus it allows each youth to see that all ideas are ok!
  • Each week have new set up for the room. Use pillows. Put chairs in a different formation. Take all the chairs out. After a snack or at the end of some activity, ask them to all sit in a new chair. Breaking the established patterns can also establish new patterns of behavior.

 2. Focus

  • Pray for each person entering the room, both youth and adult leaders.
  • Place a candle in the middle of the room. Ask kids to lie on their stomachs in a circle facing the candle. Hold the discussion in this position. It is very calming which helps them speak up.
  • Let each other know that we will go in a circle and all will answer.

3. Humor

  • I often ask for the joke of the week. 
  • I will share with the youth that this is a different set up from school, with no right or wrong answers. Then I ask them to tell a time that the teacher called on them and they did not know the answer. They all have one, if they are being honest. I share one too. Releasing the tension and anxiety about getting it wrong can help break the logjam.

4. Tactile / Sensory

  • Try using a stuffed animal to pass as each talk. The tactile comforts the kids -making it easier for them to share.
  • Use play doh. Give a piece for each or one that is passed around the room as they speak. Having something to manipulate really helps.
  • Pass a spice in a bag or plate. Have them smell it before they talk. Peppermint, lavender and licorice work well.
  • Smudge the room with sage as they arrive. 

5. Break into smaller groups

  • Give each small group a list of discussion questions. Tell them that they will all come back to the bigger group and share one of their group ideas. Often if kids feel they are speaking for a group, not just them, they will get involved
  • Have youth-only small groups. Often youth don't need an adult in their small group. Adults often get in the way of real answers and conversation.

6.  Parental input

  • If there’s a particular youth you have concerns about, talk to the parents. You may want to ask the parent if the child has an anxiety issue about taking in public.
  • Ask the parents what works in other situations.

7. Youth input

  • Usually adults are telling youth what to do. Only rarely do they listen. When we say, “We want you to participate,” that’s still adults telling youth what to do. Ask youth how they want to hold their discussions. They have great ideas too.

PLEASE. Remember that kids do not have to talk to be getting a lot of ideas and opinions from the class. All kids learn differently. That is why I think it is important to use all their senses. Your actions of kindness and listening will mean lot to them.