"In asking teens to lead others, faith formation is magnified for our youth in ways that I never could have imagined."
VBS Needs Teens; and Teens Need VBS
At our church in Pittsburgh we invite many teens to help with Vacation Bible School. With our teen and tween helpers – always with adults for safety and oversight – we've created a wonderful multi-age program that fosters a sense of ownership and connection among young people. Best yet, in asking teens to lead others, faith formation is magnified for our youth in ways that I never could have imagined.
Basic Directions for Teen Volunteers
Safety is always the first priority when hosting VBS, both for our campers and for our volunteers. It is essential that we review safety policies and procedures not only for teens, but often for adults as well. For teens and tweens, helping at VBS often precedes being allowed to care of younger children on their own; adults need the reminder because providing programming for groups of children is different than tending to your own children. Certainly the safety protocols we teach will serve them well.
Each state has its own guidelines for background checks (which may or may not be required for volunteers under 18); and each diocese has guidelines for who is required to complete Safeguarding God’s Children. In addition to that training, I repeat safety basics every day:
1. Leaders are never alone with a child
If a child needs to leave the group for any reason, another child should accompany them as a buddy.
2. Follow the schedule
Everyone needs to stick to the schedule and be in their assigned location. If there is a need to go elsewhere – weather forces a group inside, for example – then I need to be informed. If an individual needs to go someplace (a child left a backpack behind, for example) then the group leader needs to let the other leaders know they are taking that child (and a buddy!) to retrieve it.
3. How to help a child use the bathroom
If children need supervision when in the restroom, the doorway “straddle” is a way to keep an eye on the proceedings without being alone with a child. A helper literally stands in the hall door leading into the restroom (assuming a multi-stall restroom). They are not alone in the restroom with the child but can supervise. If there is a need to more intimately assist a child in the restroom, then the teens are instructed to get an adult (who also need to follow the safety protocol of having another adult present).
4. Call for first aid
Everyone needs to know who is the designated first aid responder and where that person can be located at all times. It is important to regularly talk through first aid protocol, including what kinds of injuries should not be moved, and how one leader should run for the first aid responder while another stays with the victim (and yet another makes sure the rest of the group is safe and out of the way).
4. No horseplay or carrying
We specify no horseplay, no piggyback rides, no carrying younger children - all actions teens are likely to engage in at the request of young campers. My standard line is “You are all big kids and can all walk on your own two feet.”
5. Set boundaries
If younger children become physically aggressive – climbing on teen helpers, for example – the teens need to give the child clear instructions to stop or get an adult to help redirect. Teens often need help learning to set boundaries - which is a good life skill.
6. Give positive directions
Directions to children should be given in the affirmative, not the negative. “Keep your feet on the sidewalk” is better than “Don’t go in the street.” In other words, helpers must make it clear what they want the child to do.
7. Use the phrase "I need you to..."
If a child needs to be told to stop doing something or to modify their behavior, “I need you to…” is a good way to give the direction.
8. How to call a child
To effectively communicate with a child, the helper needs to go to the child rather than yell from a distance.
9. Allergy issues
Reminding everyone who is a helper of allergies or medical issues is essential. The best protocols are repetitive and layered – allergies should be clearly highlighted on rosters and attendance sheets. Make some sort of mark on name tags of children with allergies. On a snack schedule given to kitchen helpers, flag groups which have members who have allergies.
10. Respect the space, and clean up
Everyone is expected to show respect for each other and for the materials – i.e., to clean up after themselves at snack, to assist in organizing craft materials, etc. Teen helpers are not there to pick up after children but rather to direct children to pick up after themselves.
11. Serve all the children
Remind teens that although they will no doubt have favorites, that they are to serve all children equally in a way that is inclusive, inviting, and welcoming to all of the campers.
12. Role models = Rock Stars
Remind teens that they are role models, better yet, that they are ROCK STARS in the eyes of younger kids. As such, they are expected to be intentional in how they interact with children. Sarcasm, teasing and certain kinds of language are not to be used.
13. Focus on the campers, not your friends
Remind teens that their focus needs to be on the campers rather than interacting with one another. Some friends (or siblings) work well together and some are best given different assignments so they are not distracted.
14. Put cell phones away
Helpers need to keep their cell phones out of sight (other than to keep track of the time).
15. No drinks or snacks in front of campers
Helpers are not to eat or drink anything other than the snacks campers are eating. This means not carrying around soda or coffee, and not snacking in front of the children.
16. Rules for posting pictures
Helpers do not have permission to post images of campers on personal social media. Permission to post campers' images to social media is only given to church accounts (and should be spelled out on the permission and/or registration forms). Teens may, however, post pictures and tag each other if they are already active on social media.
More VBS Planning Wisdom
Lisa Brown recently accepted a position as the Director of Digital Ministry with Membership Vision. Building on her work in Children’s Ministry and Communications at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA, she helps churches connect to people and to God in the digital space. An active member of Forma and Girl Scout leader, Lisa is passionate about enriching the spiritual lives of people. Her book “The Best Do-It-Yourself VBS Workbook Ever” was published in 2017.