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Youth group used to be boring until I did this…

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We’re excited to have Gina Abbas as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations she’ll be navigating in her seminar: Middle School Messages That Move. Check out more information HERE


How long is your attention span?

Thinking about tacos already huh? I have approximately 4 minutes and 52 seconds until your attention shifts to something else. Adults can focus for about 5 minutes on a message until they check out.[1] Even the 20 second commercials before a Youtube video often seem too long. If teens are texting or updating their social media accounts while you are teaching and even your adult volunteer leaders seem ready for nap, there is help! You can create the right environment that engages their developing brain and keeps everyone tuned in and wanting more!

Here are a few simple hacks to keep students attention during youth group.

1. Think Lunchable.

Yup. Those delightfully disgusting meals you begged your mom for in elementary school. You have all the ingredients, but they are packaged in separate short stacks that go together. Break things down into small program chunks. The teaching, worship, and game segments should last no longer than 15 minutes each. Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen, is clear that “teachers should teach in small chunks, process the learning, and then rest the brain” and “under no condition, should there be more than 15 consecutive minutes of content input[2]” For students to engage and pay attention you have to keep things moving. Plan state changes switching student’s focus to keep them dialed in. Brain scans of students who are frequently bored show just how vital it is for youth leaders to create environments where differentiated learning can take place. [3] That is teacher talk telling you to present things a variety of ways but in shorter stacks of time. Remember? Lunchable. [See this article on brain based learning for more info].

Here is a sample: 

  • Small Group Connect [8 minutes]
  • Large Group Welcome  [2 minutes]
  • Fun segment [5 minutes]
  • Announcements [3 minutes]
  • Game [5-10 minutes]
  • Worship [15 minutes]
  • Large Group teaching [15 minutes]
  • Small Group Discussion [25 minutes]
  • Dismiss/Hang Out

2. Remember Pavlov and His Dogs 

I can command 100 students without saying a word and so can you. You don’t even need candy. I play the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii and all of my youth group kids immediately walk over to the student room. Every single one. They all know that song means it’s time to get this party started. It’s almost magical.  Students need colorful images, sounds, and non verbal cues to engage their developing brain. Try using program bumpers or music each week in between each program segment. If you play the same song or show the same little video snippet every single time you are about to play a game, your students brain’s will start to respond automatically without even thinking about it. It’s basically Pavlov’s Classic Conditioning used in a fun way to keep students engaged and familiar with what’s happening  Audio and visual cues will keep their attention and signals that something new is happening in the room.

3. SHHHHHHH is a dirty word.

Unless you have a newborn you are trying to calm. Avoid at all costs correcting from the stage. If you need to say “shhhhhh” from the stage, you are probably doing something wrong. Correcting from the stage means your volunteers are not using their influence to create the right environment in the room. Volunteer leaders who are sitting with and near students can make a huge difference in leveraging the right energy at the right time. If you need to correct or quiet students from the stage, start evaluating whether the game leader, worship leader or teacher on stage is actually engaging students.

4. Plan surprises.

Santa Claus walking in the student room and hiding [where only students can see] to walk unexpectedly on stage during a teaching [to the supposed “surprise” of the speaker]. Random Pillow Fights. Foam finger rockets flying through the room as a teaching illustration. I ordered a Pizza on stage during the welcome using a mic and a speaker phone. I had it delivered to the stage while I was teaching. The result? A roaring with applause crowd. I love having volunteers dress like dinosaurs or snowmen running in throwing candy. If you plan chaos…you can [if planned correctly] cultivate it into beautiful moments that capture the attention and channels the enthusiasm of your students at just the right moments. Use their energy to create environments students love.

5. YOU need to Pay attention.

I love some serious Spirit led come to Jesus moments and all, but if the student worship band decides to get a little too intellectually deep for more than 10 minutes at a time…I say no and tell them to liven it up a bit. I cue them to be high energy [or reflective] in intervals that keep the attention of teenagers. But if I am not communicating effectively with my team or looking at the setlist ahead of time…boring can happen because I didn’t pay attention. We have winter camp coming up and I had to step in and axe the idea that middle schoolers like to sing 6 worship songs in a row. I can’t even pay attention that long without daydreaming about mac and cheese.

You can up your game and design a program that captures the attention of students by thinking about how their brain is developing and the necessary state changes they need to stay dialed in.


[1] Fortune.com

[2] https://feaweb.org/brain-based-learning-strategies

[3] http://www.edutopia.org/blog/neuroscience-higher-ed-judy-willis


GINA ABBAS, the author of A WOMAN IN YOUTH MINISTRYhas been hanging out with middle schoolers since the year Mulan hit movie theaters. Gina recently joined the pastoral staff of the Meeting House in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When she’s not leading small groups, she can be found shooting foam finger rockets at her children and roaming Gettysburg with her history-loving husband.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS. 

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