How To Get An 8th Grader To Act Like An Adult

I recently traveled to Tallahassee with members of the RISE program at LCS to attend the FIRST advocacy conference. The purpose of the conference was to lobby for $1,000,000 in state funding to be allocated for STEM programs like FIRST robotics. That’s a tall order! Several of these students were 7th and 8th grade boys who love coding and building robots a lot, but when it comes to public speaking, and especially public speaking in front of adults—well, not so much. As I poured over the agenda for the conference I really began to wonder how this would work. It didn’t seem like a recipe for success. Oh, me of little faith!

Imagine this scenario: Two introverted 8th grade boys walk down a marble floored corridor in the state capital with men and women in business suits quickly passing them by on either side. The boys approach a set of heavily, paneled wooden double doors closed shut, with large bronze letters above reading, “President of the Senate.” Under what set of circumstances would these boys have the courage to open the doors and walk in to speak to the staff inside? Well, the two boys, who, mind you, two short days before were thinking about this task with deep dread, squared their shoulders, threw open the door, and marched in, oozing confidence. They made their greetings with firm handshakes all around, proceeded to inform the staff of their purpose, left some literature, and requested contact information so that they could follow up. Having achieved their goal, they turned around and walked back out with heads held high. It was awesome! So what precipitated this amazing transformation? How can we get 8th graders to act like adults?

  1. Instruct them in what we think they already ought to know, but don’t – Most adults have figured out the basics when it comes to meeting people – extend a handshake, state your name, and ask the other person what their name is. Our children have seen us do that hundreds of time, so they know how to do that right? Not necessarily. It is amazing what specific, direct instruction followed by practice does for a child’s confidence in social settings. The evening we arrived, Mrs. Canady spent time explaining the intricacies of greeting and small talk. She explained hand placement, smiling, eye contact, tone of voice, along with other detailed points that adults take for granted. Then she had the group, many of whom had never met, practice with each other. Was it a little awkward at first? Sure, but soon they were smiling and exchanging names. They got the hang of it. When they met state representatives and senators the following day, they knew what to do.
  2. Give them real responsibility – One of the ingredients to the transformation of these young students into lobbyists was that fact that we were asking them to be lobbyists. This wasn’t role-play in the classroom. This was an adult looking at a young person and saying, “You’re old enough to make a difference in the way government functions, so we want you to speak to your state representatives.” In fact, one of the speakers suggested that these students might even be better at this than adults because they were willing to listen to advice while many adults were not. These students simply believed what the speaker said. Too often, as parents we try to make things easier for our children, continually paving the way ahead. Apparently, what really accelerates growth is healthy challenge with real risk!
  3. Let someone a little further down the road (but not too much) show them how to do it. The middle school students on the trip were paired with older high school students who had more practice speaking to adults in this type of setting. In the meetings with the representatives, the high school students lead the way while the middle students watched. Once they saw that it was quite possible to speak with confidence, they followed suit. Seeing the older peers do something that seemed so hard with success gave them the confidence to try themselves.

Now, as parents we probably won’t all have the opportunity to take our children to the capital, but we do have opportunity to put some of these principles into practice. We can take some time to instruct in the basics, we can orchestrate some challenging situations for our children to navigate, and we can put them alongside good role models to show them how. Then maybe we’ll see them begin to act like adults!

– Viking View written by Geoffrey Stabler, MAR, Director of Biblical and Worldview Studies, Senior Class Sponsor