Middle School Kids

If you’re the parent of a middle school child, you have already discovered that they don’t come with an owner’s manual, and that there may be some questions for which you want some input. We’ll look at a few items of information, and maybe even some suggestions!  We’re looking essentially at kids in grades 5-8, but 4 and 9 may also benefit.

Why don’t they listen to me?

Actually, several  years of data from the Youth Risk Behavior Study indicate that regardless of how the child seems to react, even negatively, to your guidance, an overwhelming majority of children of this age really do pay attention, and really want to please you. But the child is struggling with the task of becoming independent and of finding his/her place among the peer group with whom they will mingle throughout the rest of their lives. You see, up to about age 10, major decisions were made for them, they didn’t have to think about the decision or the consequences. You laid it out, and they responded.

Now, however, they are trying to perceive the structure of the world, of right and wrong, of black and white, of good and bad, on their own. As adults, we have learned to approach life quite regularly with “shades of gray”—-you pull into a parking space at the post office, one that says “no parking, loading zone”, and your kid says  “Mom, you can’t park here, see the sign?” and  you say, “it’s okay, I’ll only be a minute!”. The child is attempting to discern the rule, you have learned how to bend it, or even break it. So, at the onset of these middle years, they tend to think very concretely in terms of right and wrong, and generally do not appreciate the “nuances” until around age 14, when the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget says they become able to think abstractly. As a long time middle school principal, I was always excited to see “the new dawn in their thinking” around the second half of 8th grade.

Try to explain the reasons for your own actions, when they question, and try to always follow the rules when you’re with them. For instance, always wear your seat belt when they are with you in the car, and insist that they do also, even if you’re one of those who doesn’t use it just to drive a few blocks to the grocery store when you’re alone.

What’s important to them?

A big factor of course is their peer group, as they try to see where they fit in the social hierarchy. The influence may be so strong that I’ve seen teachers “lose” the whole group, and even lose their jobs, by ignoring the social relationships. If a student does something to deserve a reprimand, doing so in front of the group embarrasses the child and if the teacher already has a shaky relationship  with the class, the students may side with the culprit, irretrievably,  for the rest of the school year. Another example is that of a teacher checking in the textbooks at the end of the year, and finding some damage. Not knowing who did it, she “fines” or punishes the whole class. As an administrator, it was a situation which needed to be overturned and, in general, I could always find out who the perpetrator was anyway, at least in grades 5 and 6. They were usually willing to rat on each other; older kids don’t, having achieved some degree of solidarity.

The social pressure to “fit in” often emerges through various fashion fads, from haircuts and coloring through jewelry to clothing styles, and woe betides the adult aggressively interfering. Most of these don’t last, so be patient. The big thing for parents to watch is who the child is hanging with, in 8th grade. During the earlier grades, their little social group has constantly shifting membership, as they like this person and don’t like that one. But whomever they are with as 8th graders seem to be their main social group throughout high school.

Beyond concerns with fashion, there are the problems with physical and mental maturity. Over the years of being a principal, the students who had the most problems were the early-maturing girls and the late maturing boys. The latter were treated like elementary children by adults as well as by peers; the physical development of the girls made them easy targets for high school boys, since the girls had not yet developed the protective social skills to deny the flattery they were receiving.  Later maturation is a bonus for girls, as they develop the social skills appropriate to their developmental stages. A good middle school program must have opportunities for all kids to practice leadership and maturity, whether it be through clubs, hobbies, academic competition or, as in one case I saw, two diminutive brothers were co-World champions of Cup Stacking!

A study of several thousand middle level male athletes in the Southeast, by Conrad Toepfer, revealed that those young men who were the athletic studs in junior high sports generally faded from the scene before the later years in high school; they had achieved their early success due to early physical maturity, and tended to be placed in leadership positions by adult sponsors. Many of them did not grow any taller or stronger, and were passed up by their later-maturing peers. This is an excellent argument for not eliminating kids from participation in middle school athletics; they can all learn the necessary skills at this early age, and apply them successfully as they grow. But not learning them puts them at a big disadvantage when they try to compete later on.

With the flood of technology throughout our culture, there are many new areas needing research. For example, thirty years ago it was discovered that  7th grade girls like to read mysteries and loved horses; boys liked to read stories about athletes and to play games. Now the question is, how many kids are still reading? How obsessed are they with electronic diversions—I knew of one student back in the early 90’s, a 7th grader, who won the World Nintendo Championship in Oakland, CA. He refused to do any school work, and remained a major discipline issue until almost dying from a session of Russian Roulette and becoming institutionalized.

Who’s in Charge?

Everyone likes to have some area of their life when they feel that they are in charge, and this is an important factor in the middle school child’s development. As mentioned earlier, they are seeking to understand the world around them, and to learn the consequences of their decisions. An important concept for adults to apply, whether they are teachers, parents, or both, is to provide several choices for the child to consider, and allow the child to make that choice. Of course, any of the choices presented must be acceptable to the adult, but you are allowing the child to gain “some power” over his life, no matter how minor it might seem. This approach is much more effective than power struggles, it is a “win-win” solution to potential conflict. It provides the child with a sense of ownership of consequences; the thoughtful adult will of course have described the consequences of each choice, or at least have led the child to them through discussion prior to choosing.

“Ownership” is an important element with adults, particularly within human service organizations. I will write a brief note on that topic at a later time.

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