10 Ways to Build and Maintain Trust With Middle Schoolers

Trust is valuable. We all need people we can trust, especially when life is unsettled and chaotic. There’s plenty of craziness in the lives of middle school students, so they crave connections with people they can trust.

Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock/Yuriy Seleznyov

Middle schoolers are generally naive and more willing than high schoolers to trust an adult, but they won’t trust freely. As with anyone at any other age, trust must be earned. Since trust take a long time to build and can quickly be lost, it’s important that we protect the trust middle schoolers give us. Here are ten ways to build and maintain trust with middle school students:

  • Don’t make fun of them. Some of us enjoy humor through joking and giving others a hard time. Middle schoolers are incredibly sensitive about humor at their expense. I usually play it safe by not making any joking comments directly about any specific student, even if it’s a student I know well. You never know how the student will take it. The potential hurt is not worth a few laughs.
  • Don’t single them out without asking. Middle schoolers are terrified of being singled out in front of a group of their peers, even if it’s for a positive reason. I never single out a student in front of a group for a negative reason. If I’m going to say or do something that will call attention to them in a positive way, I ask them privately beforehand to make sure they’re okay with it. Sometimes they don’t want to be recognized, in which cases I’m glad I asked.
  • Admit your own mistakes and shortcomings. Share about how you messed up in middle school. For an even greater effect, be open about mistakes that you make right now as an adult! Students are drawn to adults who are real—it’s easier to relate to someone who is willing to admit he isn’t perfect. Plus, it provides students with a good example of vulnerability.
  • Show as much as respect as you possibly can. I know, I know—middle schoolers are awkward, annoying, and difficult. It’s easier for us to write them off, laugh at them, and not take them seriously. However, middle schoolers love when adults show them respect and treat them like adults, even though they don’t always deserve to be treated that way. They’ll be more willing to trust you if you show them respect.
  • Prove that you care. Listen well. Ask good questions. Remember information they tell you. Make good eye contact and pay attention to your body language. Put your phone away. Make them feel like the most important person in the world when you’re talking with them. Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

If you consistently practice those first five items in the list, chances are you’ll build trust with a student over time. In some cases, a student will trust you enough to share vulnerably about his life. It’s a great privilege when a student opens up to a parent or other adult. Here are a five things you can do to maintain trust once a student shares personal information with you:

  • Keep secrets. Assume the student wants you to keep the information private unless you are specifically given permission to share with someone else. Go out of your way to tell the student that you won’t share the information with anyone else. The only exception is if a student shares information that could be potentially harmful to himself or another person.
  • Reassure them that what they shared doesn’t define them. Students are afraid of how you’ll think about them once they share sensitive information. It’s important that we tell them we won’t love them less because of what they’ve shared. Remind them that this doesn’t define them in God’s eyes or yours. I often tell students, “When I talk to you and interact with you following this conversation, I want you to know that I won’t always just be thinking about what you shared here. I know there’s more to you than what you just told me.”
  • Don’t make them feel cornered or intimidated by your questioning. If you feel compelled to pry, do it gently. If you sense the student becoming uncomfortable, back off. Don’t push too hard. If you’re hoping for more information than what the student is willing to tell you now, if you play your cards right you could circle back and collect more information later.
  • Keep your emotions in check. Sometimes a student will say something that is surprising, difficult, or awkward to hear. You might want to scream or laugh or cry. Do your best to react casually. You can show facial expressions and give non-verbal feedback, but overall you should stay calm. There will be time for you to deal with your own reactions and emotions later. In the moment with the student, the focus is on them and what they’ve chosen to share with you.
  • Follow up. Within a week of a student sharing personal information with you, try to check back in with them. If not, the issue they shared will feel like an elephant in the room during future interactions. The check-in doesn’t have to be long or profound. Just a quick conversation or text message asking how they’re doing. Better yet, let them know you’re honored that they opened up to you! Anything to acknowledge how much you value the conversation that happened.

Focus on building trust with kids while they’re in middle school. Once they hit high school, students begin to build emotional walls and become relationally jaded. It’s easier to build connections before they hit that point.

Trust is valuable. Middle schoolers need to have adults with whom they can share personal information. Don’t take a student’s trust lightly—it’s a gift and a privilege that should be protected!