I love to people watch in when I’m out for coffee, and just watch people interact with one another and imagine their life stories. Moving back into teaching and working a lot with youth in Rochester I get to observe a lot of different interactions. Something I’ve noticed is a lack of self-worth.

It plays out like this. One student will rip another student to shreds with their words and criticisms. That student in turn rips apart someone else. This negative trend never really ends. Anger and frustration boils over and an adult almost always needs to intervene. Questions get asked about how it started or why someone would make such harsh comments. They don’t even know. I believe that the continuation of this negative comparative nature, these negative competitions between one another actually breakdown natural relationships and undermine the psyche of kids.

I am not sure if there are studies that have been done on this (I am sure there are) but keen observation and reflection have shown me this. That because of a students lack of self-worth and lack of dignity they then put a label of “less than” on themselves. That, in order to rise above this label, a student feels that they need to bring someone else down lower than their level; That the only way for them to rise above is to bring someone else down below. So, my brain starts churning.

It is my belief that all students are worthy, simply because they are people. That all people are capable are worthy of dignity, respect and love. That all people, no matter their intelligence level or their socio-economic status, are gifted and talented in their own unique ways and destined to use those gifts and talents to do good things. How do we bridge this gap then?

Intervene and Model

As adults in a situation where we see this behavior we must intervene. Just step into the situation and tell the offending student to stop. That this is not the expectation for behavior and how we treat others. Address those students who are watching and empower them to step up as well. Model with students how you treat one another. Be fair and kind to them. Look for moments to celebrate successes and give room for students to work things out on their own, stepping in when you must. Most students are simply bystanders and realize when something is not right. Yet, there is a fear that them speaking up will also put a target on their back. This is where you, as the adult,  can empower students and help to intervene and model behavior.

Build a safe community

When you can build a safe community, whether in your classroom or student ministry, these situations naturally begin to diminish. Students feel that they have a place to belong. That they are loved and cared for and are a valued part of the community. Students begin to identify that this community is where they belong, where they feel secure to be themselves, and they are driven to do their part. Build a safe community by having high expectations of behavior. Empower students to own those expectations. Show value to everyones thoughts and believe that all students are capable of success.

Discover Strengths

I love giving opportunities for students to discover their strengths and passions in life. You see a student come alive when you are able to come alongside them, where they are, and show them their unique strengths and how they can use those strengths in a way that fuels their personal passions. I have a 6th grade student who is below proficient in reading. Yet, when this same student walks into any room it comes alive with joy and happiness. I love to work on his reading with him and then leverage his natural gift of connecting with people by celebrating his successes with other adults. When students have a champion who believes in them, who can show them their self-worth, who can simply say “I am with you and I’m for you” students begin to be empowered and thrive in their environments. Give students choice in where they will help, in how to complete a task, leverage their strengths even when you are working on their weaknesses.

This isn’t perfect, there will always be some level of negativity towards one another, some hostility that I believe is natural in teenagers (doesn’t mean we have to like it). Yet, the weight of those words is lessened when students believe in themselves, feel they belong in a community, when they have someone who will stick up for them and show them the way to go and when students are able to be empowered to use their strengths, anything is possible.

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