Whenever adults are asked to remember their years in middle school, their memories often include feelings of stress and anxiousness. “Oh my gosh, middle school was horrible! It was so awkward and embarrassing!”
Could it be that your middle school years were the last time you allowed yourself to be vulnerable and you, unfortunately, got hurt from it?
I’ve been observing and considering experiences of middle schoolers my entire career. Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked hard to understand this awkward stage of development. In this post, I want to propose that these tweenage years are, in fact, some of the best years—a time for everyone to be their true selves. A time when emotions are raw, beliefs are forming, and bodies are doing things that are completely out of anyone’s control.
What if your tweenage self could have had more control over the issues caused by these changes? Would you be any different in handling stress and anxiety today?
The adolescent years see the largest rate of change both physically and mentally since infancy. Emotions can be unpredictable due to a developing prefrontal cortex and a surge of hormones throughout the body. Friendships change as interests change. Communication of new ideas or feelings are hard to articulate due to that developing prefrontal cortex again. Learning gets ramped up every year. As more subjects are introduced, engagement requires more strategies to keep the skills and information organized. Things that once seemed uninteresting often become important with the positive reactions of peers: “Oh that shirt looks good on you” or “All of my friends wear Under Armour.” Feedback from friends can also discourage interest in things that were once important: “Legos are for little kids.”
Middle schoolers are vulnerable and fear exclusion. This may be why your adult brain has been stained with these memories of awkwardness and embarrassment. I, myself have visions of pegged jeans and headgear.
I believe that middle school is wonderful and can be for all, if we create an environment that addresses and embraces the human fear of vulnerability—the fear of providing others access to our truest form of ourselves. In Daring Greatly, social-emotional scientist, Dr. Brené Brown, points out that the human brain is most susceptible to vulnerability in the following areas:
- Hard conversations
- Problem solving
- Ethical decision making
Vulnerable moments may result in:
Dr. Brown’s research affirms why middle schools have traditionally been the “perfect storm” for so many heartbreak memories. But how do we quell these storms? How do we help our students to manage stress and anxiety?
Schools need to create a space that is safe—a space for middle schoolers to stick their necks out, to show their underbelly, a place where they can be (simply) emotionally accessible. At Lowell, we do this by making the sense of vulnerability the norm; we don’t preach “growing thicker skin” or building emotional walls. We ask middle schoolers to be who they are and be that well. We hire teachers who understand the complexities and functionalities of the adolescent brain and create lessons and classrooms that build confidence, identity, and independence.
How much support is too much?
Tweenagers may be growing into independence, but it does not mean that we take the training wheels off yet. I would argue that this is actually the time in our students’ lives that they need parenting and coaching more than ever! WARNING: please don’t think that I’m promoting helicopter parenting. I’m actually proposing the opposite.
Our children need to learn by facing their personal school challenges head on. Research reported in Stixrud and Johnson’s new book, The Self-Driven Child, informs us that “when kids are constantly shielded from circumstances that make them anxious, it tends to make their anxiety worse.” Parents need to work through their fears of allowing their children to fail. This is really hard, believe me, it really is. That’s what our middle school teachers and I work hard on with our students (and their families) each year—to accept and become more vulnerable, to take responsibility for one’s own learning and development.
A Safe Environment and Modeling
Our middle school consistently works to provide the safest environment to allow this personal growth. Our DeltaU advisory program centers its curriculum on the development of emotional intelligence. We support our students by helping them to learn how to deal successfully with stressful situations–to gain a high (but not toxic) stress tolerance. That’s how our students develop resilience.
According to Stixrud and Johnson, adolescents have less stress tolerance than adults: “they are much more likely to develop stress-related illnesses such as colds, headaches, and upset stomachs.” This means that teens tend to respond both physically and emotionally with flight rather than fight in stressful situations. They are more vulnerable to stress and have fewer tools to deal with it. Our role as teachers and parents is not to force our children to follow a track we create for them; it’s to help them develop skills to figure out the track that’s right for them. As adults, we need to help our students to approach these challenges with a different mindset. We, honestly, need to do some work ourselves, too: we have to model patience, reflection, and grit for our children.
When my students (and now my daughter) come to me with anxiety or a stressful problem, I turn to the most recent mind-brain research for support. I’ve learned to follow these simple steps:
- Validate–Emotions are real and personal feelings are one’s truth (i.e., I use a scale to determine the depth of the emotion: “Where are you on a scale from 1 to 10?”)
- Reflect–Help the middle schooler process the problem by asking questions for clarity (Seek to find fact or distinguish observations from inferences, for example: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how much of that statement is true?”
- Empower–Help brainstorm reasonable strategies, options, and/or actions for the child to fulfill on their own, “I am able to support you in x,y,z ways, but you’re going have to try this out on your own.”
Developing Self-Help Skills
Research informs us that the best way to help lower anxiety, shame, or uncertainty is to shape resilience and confidence through the development of metacognitive skills. In their book, Four Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed, Fadel, Bialik, and Trilling confirm that learners need “knowledge, skills, character, and meta-learning.”
By approaching vulnerability with meta-learning, we can strive to build advocacy and efficacy skills in all of our students. That’s why we conduct student-led parent-teacher conferences in the Middle School at Lowell. In these conferences, students use a framework we have developed to reflect on their learning and progress toward their goals. Parents are asked to be active listeners. The conference is a safe environment for parent and children to have those challenging conversations as well as moments of personal award and recognition. By the end of the conference, all in the room should have a common understanding of the strategies the student will be using to move forward.
Even if your school does not conduct student-led conferences, parents and teachers can engage middle schoolers in meaningful conversation, goal setting, reflection, and strategies for success. The book Parents as Coaches is an excellent resource to explore your “changing role as the parent of a middle schooler—how to have powerful communication and a strong connection with your child.”
If we can help middle schoolers acknowledge what they fear, what they’ve worried about, what they need work on, what they’ve learned...we can build the reassurance they need to overcome vulnerability. “Am I anxious? YES, and you know what? It’s okay. This is what I’m going to do to get the result I want!” Self recognition leads to resilience. Resilience leads to confidence. Confidence leads to independence. Independence leads to intrinsic motivation. Drive leads to the control of one’s life. This can all certainly start in middle school!
So next time when someone asks you what grade your child is in, you can confidently say to them that “they’re in middle school—literally (and scientifically), it’s the best and most transformative time in their life."