In my nine years of Youth Ministry, I have read and heard over and over again about the limitations of students, specifically Middle Schoolers, when it comes to issues of attention spans and what they can understand. It's been explained to me how Middle Schoolers can only handle a maximum of 10-15 minute talks or else we will loose them and bore them. I've been told by a parent that their 8th grade daughter wasn't intellectually capable to handle a talk in the 30 minutes range. Yes...her own parent said that...
To back that view up, I have witnessed many times a speaker or leader wrestle through a 15 minute talk because kids kept talking and giggling and being disruptive. I have seen an attempted small group discussion fail miserably because all the kids wanted to do was go back to their game of Call of Duty.
On the other hand and despite the recurring theme, I have seen the exact opposite of this aspect as well. I have watched a group of middle school students have such an engaged and deep conversation that the group pushes past the hour set aside and parents begin impatiently looking into the room. I have watched students take notes on a talk that went 45 minutes and then have a great conversation afterwards. I have watched kids give their lives to Christ at camp once the speaker wrapped up after his 30 minute sermon.
So, what's the appropriate time to engage students with and why does it seem to work in one setting and not in another? Based on my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question isn't so much about our students and their limitations but instead it has to do with how we ourselves treat them and what kind of environment we set.
Almost every time I have seen a leader struggle through a 15 minute talk has been in settings where the environment is really built around games, entertainment and pleading with kids to just give 10 minutes of their time to listen.
My first thought is that this kind of setting builds and builds the energy in a room and then expects the kids to settle down. Sometimes this works, and it's easier with older students, but more often than not I'd say it's unrealistic to expect kids to go hard for an hour and then to just settle down. Our bodies are simply not wired that way. They are wired to either continue or increase in energy or to eventually crash down once they are tired. Thus leading either to disruptive behavior or kids falling asleep.
Second, I would argue that simply by pleading with students "just to give me 10 minutes" unconsciously communicates to the students that it's really all they can handle and they they don't really want to hear what they have to say. So, they act accordingly. They "try" to give 10 minutes but they know they are just kids with too much energy and ADD so they barely make it through the time.
These are things we have to pay attention too because I think sometimes we set ourselves up, and our kids, by setting an environment which tells kids, "You can't handle the truth."
During the times where students are engaged for longer periods of time, I have seen the environment and settings set up exactly the opposite way. The meetings maybe start with games but then are designed to diminish in energy, getting the students to a point where they are winded down when it's actually time for the talk.
Also, there is no apology or plea for time, instead the speaker just dives in a goes for it. The kids are treated like mature students, with the capabilities to handle things bigger than themselves. And more often than not, I have watched students rise to the occasion. I mean, they handle it every day for 6 hours at school, why can't they handle that in our churches and ministries. With creative teaching and treating them like the young adults they are instead of like children who need to be handled with care our students can actually go much farther than we think.