(Family Magazine May 2012 4th Issue)
The other day I was watching my eleven year old daughter’s volleyball game. One of the girls was serving. Each time she successfully served and scored a point for her team, I could see the physical and emotional changes taking place within her. She stood a little taller, smiled a little broader. She was more determined with each serve, and as the ball zoomed over the net, she was bolstering her self-confidence. As I observed her reaction, it made me think of the many transformations that students her age go through as they move from elementary school into middle school or junior high.
I spent a decade with seventh and eighth grade students. As the saying in the educational world goes, “You either love them or hate them.” I loved them! These adolescents were still young enough that they looked up to me (although they may never admit that). They try to act grown up, and many times accomplishing this goal, yet, they still cry like a child when things do not go their way. They still play with toys, act crazy without caring, and appreciate a compliment or the occasional hug.
Academically, they have outgrown tattling (for the most part), have learned that they should do their homework, and understand what grades are and the importance of grades (most of the time). They are beginning to develop friendships that are deeper than the playground variety, and they are eager to fit in and share their newly formed opinions with those around them.
Elementary school has built a foundation, and middle school is there to polish the rough edges that ultimately prepare a student for high school. It is the middle school teacher’s job to make sure that everything comes together for his or her students; they are learning facts along with the essential tools of survival for the next phases of their lives. Students will have new expectations put on them. They will be expected to memorize more facts, actually have to “study” to ace a test, be given more homework and less time to do it. The teacher may not give as many chances to get assignments done correctly or in on time. Note cards, note taking, term papers, projects, footnotes, etc., are all new concepts that are being taught to the middle-schooler. These things may be second nature to adults, but to them, each is new and foreign and sometimes difficult to comprehend. Students will not always be successful. This allows them the opportunity to learn and reevaluate. This is a principle that parents need to understand. Learning from one’s own mistakes at this level is done with fewer consequences than waiting until high school or college to figure this out. While we all think our children should listen to us as the final authority on everything, but if you think about it, many of us learned the hard way as well—it’s part of the process. Teachers may use the “tough love” technique to get students to be prepared and do what needs to get done. Parents of students at this age should carefully evaluate a situation before coming to the rescue on behalf of their child. Each time a student accomplishes a new task or overcomes a hurdle, it builds confidence. Confidence builds confidence. It is a chain reaction.
Adolescents are constantly changing at record speed, both emotionally and physically. Physically, there are hormones raging that most cannot control or truly understand. Bodies and voices are changing rapidly. One day, clothes fit; the next day, they are too small. These children live in a state of emotion that is worse than the wildest roller coaster. Everything is dramatic and constitutes the end of the world. The once emotionally stable child may cry at the drop of a hat, yell and scream over the smallest of things, or rant and rave for what, to the onlooker, is nothing but trivial circumstances. A comment made in passing becomes a direct hit to their character and is earth shattering to their psyche, at least that is how it appears. As a junior high teacher, this fact was one that I had to keep in my constant thoughts in order to understand all of the emotion that these children go through. It puts their life (for me as their teacher, or you as their parent) into better perspective.
Girls and boys both begin to change physically. Girls begin their menstrual cycles and develop breasts and hips. They become self-conscious about all of this, even though their friends may be changing in the exact same way. Boys begin to grow rapidly and their voices begin to change. Some may begin growing facial hair. Boys experience the physical effects of sexual feelings. Pimples and blemishes begin to creep up overnight. These physical changes cause a sense of self awareness that may not have been as prevalent in the past. Simply stated, these young ones don’t know who they are any more. Some want to retain the innocence of childhood, fighting tooth and nail not to grow into this next phase. Others fight to get through it, wanting to become more grown up and be recognized as a young adult. Without guidance, these young people will not develop the necessary confidence needed to survive. Parental sensitivity is essential to let these children know that they are OK.
In the Lutheran tradition, we ask, “What does this mean?” It means that it is very important that educators and parents keep in mind all of the above as each deals with the middle school student! As students transition from elementary school to middle school, we must remember that they are like walking time bombs. The educator’s job is to break through the hard shell in order to mold the soft student inside. These students are in the process of formulating their own opinions on everything from what their parents are doing wrong (usually everything in their perspective) to world politics, and everything in between. Students struggle with trying to fit in; they listen to what their friends think is cool, what the media says is acceptable, and what magazines say about topics they really don’t understand. Many are using social networking to develop their image, and allowing comments made by others who do not know any more than they do to control their opinions and sense of what is right. They are making snap decisions on important topics, when in reality they are unsure of what to eat for breakfast or whether or not to wear the jacket out in the rain.
As parents, it is sometimes difficult to watch as our baby that we held in our arms is almost as tall as we are. At that moment, we look them eye to eye (or close to it), and wonder where the time has gone. Parents go through transitions as well. No longer will the child believe everything we say. They may not laugh at our jokes. We compete with friends and media as these children create their own place in the world. It’s difficult on everyone, but as parents, our job is to hunker down and move forward. Learn to enjoy new activities with our children other than playing blocks and reading stories. Embrace each new challenge and try to help guide these youngsters however possible.
The way we discipline changes as a student transitions into middle school. When a child is in elementary school, a teacher can reprimand a student in front of his peers, and it can significantly change a behavior. Once the student crosses over the “Great Middle School Divide”, a good teacher will never use negative peer pressure to discipline an individual child. The textbook method is to discipline one on one with the student, completely away from his peers. Sometimes reasoning with a student works; other times setting firm and consistent guidelines is the key. I know it may not appear so, but all children appreciate guidelines. Having parameters help build their confidence, even when they fight the process. If this model of more individualized discipline is not adhered to, and a student is embarrassed in front of their peers, a wall goes up and it becomes increasingly difficult to teach or deal with this child. Be consistent. Use consequences that fit the infraction, ones that you also can live with and possible for you to enforce. Be realistic. Be firm. Above all, be loving.
Developing confidence is an important factor in the process of transition. As I illustrated in my opening paragraph, each time the volleyball player’s ball crossed successfully over the net, confidence was boosted. She shined and the world was hers for the moment. Educators and parents can create self-confidence opportunities for adolescents. Teachers begin to expect more from their students. They are given extra responsibilities in and beyond the classroom. Multi-stepped instructions are given. Taking home classroom pets, creating campus clean up opportunities, setting up tables for the school picnic, or anything else that is viewed as a responsibility that younger students don’t get to do becomes a privilege and a confidence booster. At home, parents give chores, not always a favorite, but can be used as a tool to build confidence, if marketed properly. Responsibilities that are fun, yet meaningful, such as helping to supervise younger children, sell tickets at school events, having responsibilities at church, etc. make young people feel grown up, and as they accomplish the tasks given to them, their confidence is lifted and made stronger.
Attitude is important, and I am not talking about the child’s. A parent’s or teacher’s reaction or attitude can either create confidence or tear it apart in children of any age. As an adult, being positive is vital. Using words of encouragement whenever possible allows the child to fail or falter without fear of being rejected. One can express disappointment, frustration or dismay without putting a child down or making them feel worthless. Sharing your feelings about a given situation can be done in a way that gets your point across and makes a child understand. There may be a time to yell, but those times should be limited to the dangerous situations and for the extremes. Being respectful, as you would be when addressing a peer at work, teaches your child that you respect him. In turn, he will respect you and learn to value your opinions.
We were all there once. Think back to your junior high days. I imagine you can think of one traumatic moment, one moment of failure, one “end of the world” scenario. Think on these things when you are dealing with a child in this fragile stage of life. Take time to listen to them and give them positive, not critical feedback. Let them know you love them, even when they act crazy or do silly things. Love them. Help them build their confidence one accomplishment at a time.