Often when I speak with families who are changing congregations, the reason given is their children didn’t feel accepted by the other kids. It wasn’t mean behavior usually, but just a feeling the children had that they would never be considered a part of the group. If they are teens, the word often used is cliques.
The reality is cliques and friendships are often based on having similar tastes, interests, beliefs or even personalities. It is natural for young people to feel more comfortable with people who are basically just like them. The problems start when these friend groups exclude others on a regular basis and do things that make those not in their group feel “less than”.
It’s not realistic to expect children with absolutely nothing in common to be best friends. It can happen, but it’s rare. “Outlawing” cliques at church usually doesn’t work well – especially with teens. So what can you do to make every child or teen feel welcome and accepted in your classroom? Here are some things you can do that may help:
- Provide opportunities for students to do things together outside of class. Part of the problem at church is that many times students only have a few minutes for interaction on Sunday and then don’t see each other the rest of the week. To feel more comfortable in class, they resort to creating friend groups based on the little information they have. Giving them opportunities to learn more about each other will help them discover those whom they believed were very different from them actually have more in common with them than those who superficially seemed more similar. It also gives them a chance to develop empathy for classmates who may have special circumstances making it more difficult for them to easily blend in to the crowd.
- Use different ways of dividing students into small groups. You don’t always want to separate friends when you do games or activities that require smaller groups. On the other hand, you can unintentionally reinforce clique type behaviors by always putting the boys together or certain friends together. I have even seen teachers place all of the “smart” kids together or other really negative grouping techniques. (You don’t have to announce what you are doing. Kids are very savvy and figure things out quickly.) Mix it up – especially if you do a lot of grouping.
- Reinforce on a regular basis that the church is a family. With teens, you can go more into detail about the church as a body with the different parts being equally important and working together. Younger children will understand the family analogy much better. Families need to be kind to each other and work together to do what God wants them to do. Being unkind or excluding others does not help the church – body or family. Have these discussions when you are not in the middle of correcting behavior. Also make them positive when you can – “Isn’t it great how we all worked together on that service project. We were a great family – just like God wants the church to be.”
- Be very aware of conversations between students. If there is “mean” behavior happening, it is usually under the cover of those little conversation before class starts or while working on projects. Don’t tune out when students talk to each other. Pay attention and don’t allow students to put each other down, tease each other or say excluding things like “You can’t sit here.”.
- Help students understand the purpose of the church is to encourage each other and spread the Gospel. This means encouraging words should be the most common ones spoken in your classroom. It also means students are well trained in how to make visitors feel welcome and a part of “the crowd” – even if they are just visiting for the day. This may mean you need to spend an entire class period teaching and practicing appropriate behavior if there are too many bad habits. This is so crucial you need to spend as much time as necessary helping your students develop appropriate behaviors.
- Model welcoming behavior yourself. Your students watch you in church whether you realize it or not. Do they always see you speaking to the same two or three people? Do they see you ignore the visitors sitting right in front of you? Do they know you only socialize with the people in your small group? Fair or not, your own behaviors towards others at church will determine how effective your instruction is with your students.
Taking the time to conquer cliques in your Bible class for kids or teens will help each of your students in their personal Christian walk. It will also help the church in so many ways. It’s worth taking the time and effort necessary to help students develop better habits.