Meeting Them Where They Are

Do you remember developmental theory?

Piaget, Erikson, maybe even Zev Vygotsky … Surely you remember? Or maybe Jean, Erik and Zev have gotten lost in the day-to-day swirl of an active ministry to adolescents and their families. If they are lost, or if you’ve never heard of them before, it’s too bad, because their work and that of other developmental psychologists can do a lot to inform our practice as servants of the Gospel among the fascinating, challenging demographic group of youth. The following is a quick review of some of the major theoretical principles. See where they might fit in with your ministry.

Theories are sketches. While there are general tendencies that can be used to describe members of any group, each individual is different, a unique member of God’s creation. We also know that age makes a difference: You deal with middle school students differently than you do high school students. We also know that development usually follows the same sequence in most kids, but the actual age of accomplishment for certain developmental milestones can vary greatly within a group. They can even vary within the individual. Just because Johnny is physically more mature than his peers does not mean he is emotionally or intellectually more mature. Finally, we know that early development sets the stage for later development. What you do with your freshmen will have an impact on how you work with them as seniors.

Erik Erikson was among the first to describe one of the major tasks of adolescence as a search for identity. As adolescents mature, their search for identity can result in erratic behavior as they try on different personas and check the response they get from not only their peers, but also from the influential adults in their lives. Your feedback, and your understanding, can be critical in helping young people develop a healthy real-world view of the sanctified life.

This identity search also gives adolescents a heightened interest in finding potential career paths. What a great opportunity to point out positive Christian role models and to talk with students about finding God’s plan for their own lives. It’s also a great opportunity to spend some quality time with Martin Luther. Luther’s understanding of vocation and the call has much to offer our youth and can be a blessing for the struggling youth leader looking for engaging and meaningful topics.

Much of Luther’s work, and that of other church fathers, can be difficult for younger students to digest and may not work well with junior high age groups. Jean Piaget, the great Swiss psychologist, explains that this is true because older high school students have begun to develop the ability to think in abstract terms and to handle formal logic and complex ideas. This opens the door to a great variety of higher-level topics that work well with high school students including ethical issues and philosophical questions that have troubled mankind for centuries. Adolescents also develop the ability to engage in metacognition (thinking about thinking) that allows them to make a much deeper personal application of those basic Biblical concepts learned in childhood.

Zev Vygotsky, a developmental theorist of the 1930s, was recently “rediscovered” by the educational psychology community. Vygotsky’s contribution to our ability to work with high school age youth comes from his understanding of the importance of social interaction in the process of learning. He believed that open, guided group discussion of complex topics (think youth Bible study) was an important, meaningful way for kids to learn. And it’s not just interaction with peers; the role of a mentor in explaining and shaping the exploration of more complex topics is also extremely important. Pastors, youth workers, teachers and parents have an important role in the spiritual development of our youth, even though the kids may not want the adults to know how great that influence really is.

Vygotsky also spoke of the importance of “self-talk” in learning. As a good Lutheran, you’re asking, “What does this mean?” What it means is that you don’t want to forget to build in time for personal reflection (that’s the “self-talk”) after the Bible study, servant event, or other learning experience. Structured reflection and debriefing of the feelings and thoughts experienced by your high school youth brings clarity to obscure ideas and lets youth hear and use the language of peers to understand their own feelings and experiences. It’s as though all those individual brains begin to function as one big brain to the benefit of all.

But all this higher-level thinking is not without its challenges. As your high school age students discover their newfound abilities to think more logically and abstractly, they begin to discover that our sinful world can be incongruous, that justice is not necessarily for all, and that rules might not mean exactly what they say. Handled poorly, kids can become embittered by these challenges and lose hope for the future.

There is also the lure of heresy. Look and see how frequently the mysteries of the faith are explained away by the false logic of a heresy. Where will your students learn heresy? Modern American media offers TV preachers who tell us that our material wealth comes as a result of our faith. There are newscasters who tell us that the “true meaning of Christmas” is to do nice things for each other. There’s a culture that tells us that God is whoever you think he (or she) is. Your students can even be led by other Christians to the conclusion that communion is only a symbolic representation of the death of Christ or that one needs to make a decision to seek God before they can be saved. This is why it is so absolutely critical that, no matter what else your youth group does, you have to be in the Word regularly Developmental psychology offers insights that can be used to help our students learn. It’s a useful tool, which when used in the shadow of the Cross, can bring clarity to obscure ideas and allow our youth to experience the elegance of the inspired and inerrant Word of God.

(A good review of basic developmental theories including those of Erikson, Piaget, Vygotsky and others can be found in Educational Psychology, [4th ed., 2001] by Anita Woolfolk. ISBN 0-205-28995-9.)

Bernie Tonjes serves as registrar and guidance counselor for the students of Lutheran High School of  St. Charles County.

In conjunction with this article, check out our special interview with DCE Leon Jameson about his new program, The Freshman Underground.

Published March 2005

Published March 1, 2005

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