When I was starting a middle school ministry at an inner city church, there was not a single student that came from a “normal” family. There’s no such thing as a normal family of course, but in this case I just mean one that has both a mother and a father at home– an intact family. Many of the kids had multiple parents, absent parents, step-parents, dad’s girlfriend, or mom’s boyfriend… sometimes living together, other times not… half-siblings and step-siblings.

I realized that part of the problem for these kids is that they had grown up in chaos. They’d never really experienced stability. Although everyone is responsible for their own decisions, these kids had a much bigger hole to dig out of than most kids. I’d say 80% of the issues they faced were caused by the responsible adults in their lives. That’s not to minimize the 20% for which they were responsible though, so we tried to focus where we could make a difference.

I quickly realized I had to build in some values and guidelines to build in so we could move forward as a group. I settled on three words: respectful, focused, and responsive.

We defined respectful as treating each other with respect and listening to one another when other people were talking. We focused on things like not talking over people or interrupting.

By focused, we simply meant staying with the same activity and not raising a completely different topic in the middle of something else. Many of these kids, even if they did not have ADHD, had been habituated to an ADHD lifestyle. They grew up in chaos, so changing focus or activity was frequent. Getting kids to stay with one activity was essentially impulse control.

Responsive meant following directions and responding to God in light of what he wants you to do. It was about having the right kind of heart– a heart that responds to direction, a desire to grow and learn, and respond to direction from a leader or from God.

I thought later of adding a fourth guideline: responsibility (following through on what you say you’re going to do). But I decided to start where I could. And– in slow, incremental steps– it did make a difference. Once when Janet asked me after a meeting how it went, we had a celebration because I had the middle schoolers’ undivided, focused attention for a full two minutes. That was a huge win.