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The Swings of Middle School

Do you know any middle schoolers who at times are eager to learn, joyful, and can giggle uncontrollably for hours with their friends? At other times do these same children seem resistant, contentious, confrontational, or disengaged? These swings are all a natural part of child development as they move through, what Betty Staley calls, the Vulnerability Gap.

During our 4th semester in our online Handwork Teacher Development Program, we are working with Betty Staley and her book, Tending the Spark: Lighting the future for middle school students.

To explain the Vulnerability Gap, Betty uses the metaphor of children walking a tightrope over a marsh. Their open hearts, enthusiasm, curiosity, and desire to aspire to high ideals and share their thoughts, are what drive them forward to get to the other side. But as they walk this tightrope their steps are awkward and erratic. They may wobble and almost fall off. Adults must be there to catch them, support them, and believe in them until the time comes when they can catch themselves and find their own balance.

Middle school, the ages of 11-14, is the biggest growth spurt since infancy. It can be a very exciting and tumultuous time in child development. Their bodies are changing shape and are suddenly flooded with hormones. Brain development brings new capacities for thinking. Language development opens new opportunities for self-expression. Children at this age have a natural open-hearted interest in the world. They are eager to explore and try new things, to aspire to high ideals. They are no longer little children, but they are not yet adolescents either. They are in between.

And at the same time, children today have so many external messages from culture and social media telling them what they are “supposed to be”. Girls are “supposed to be” delicate, pretty, and quiet. Boys are “supposed to be” strong, tough, and never cry. But in reality, boys, girls, and children who find themselves somewhere in between these two polarities, feel they can never meet these narrowly imposed social constructs.

At this age, children are struggling to find themselves, express themselves, and seek role models they can relate to. They are trying to find a balance between what they think they are “supposed to be” and who they feel they really are. For some children, this can lead to hyper-self-consciousness, self-censoring, and masking. They may be hiding in plain view behind baggy clothes and big hoods. For others, it can lead to passionate outbursts in an effort to express themselves and be seen, be heard.

Questioning, challenging, and arguing: A vital step in child development:

The question is: Where are we providing safe spaces for children to express themselves? Where can we provide a safe space for children to be real and not always perfect? How do we respond to children who seem to argue with us all the time?

As children walk this tightrope, questioning and arguing are a natural and healthy part of their journey towards learning how to express themselves. At this stage, adults set rules and middle schoolers continually challenge them. One of the most important things we can do is remember to breathe deeply and have a sense of humor! Outbursts and arguments are nothing personal. It’s all part of the process.

Changes in the body and brain can make feelings and reactions more intense. As their thinking and language skills develop, words become a new tool that can be used for good or ill. There is a new power in the words they choose and a desire to experiment with this. And above all, children at this stage have a strong need to express themselves. They long to be seen for who they are (although they are still figuring that out) and to have their ideas and feelings heard and validated.

At this stage, our goal is to teach children to respond rather than react. And so, we must model this behavior by responding in a healthy and grounded way. One way we can do this is to respond to an argument by engaging rather than shutting it down. Betty suggested we can help a child to really think through their feelings by responding with:

“I see you feel strongly about this, and I’d really like to understand your perspective. Can you write down your 3 main points as clearly as possible so I can see where you are coming from? Then we can talk about it more deeply.”

In this way, we can validate their feelings and help them find a healthy way to express them while also providing an opportunity for them to slow down and think it through. We can support them in practicing executive functioning. Ideally, this will diffuse the situation. We can come back for a discussion and try to find a mutually agreeable solution.

If a middle school student is being rude or contentious, could we respond by reframing?

“I really want to hear your thoughts and ideas. Can you say it in another way so I can hear you and understand?”

Questioning and challenging ideas are the first steps towards independent thinking and problem-solving. How can we find ways to channel this energy into something positive and productive for our students? How can we teach our children to use their newfound power of thinking to respond to a situation rather than react to it?

Responding vs. reacting:

If our goal is to teach children to respond rather than react, we have to practice and model this ourselves. If adults react by getting frustrated, shaming, or shutting them down, we become the middle schoolers! If we make mistakes we can go back to that student and acknowledge, “I made a mistake, I apologize. Let’s try again”. We can model that it's okay to make mistakes so long as we own our behavior and make amends.

When we react rather than respond it can quickly devolve into a battle of wills between teacher and student or parent and child. But when we respond we open a door and provide a unique opportunity for conversation and true understanding.

Questioning, challenging, and arguing are all a natural part of developing thinking, feeling, and willing in the middle school years. They are an important step towards developing a sense of self and learning how to express thoughts and feelings.

By rooting ourselves in a deep understanding of child and human development we can transform an argument into an opportunity for connection. There is no need to take it personally. This too shall pass. They are not misbehaving. They are learning and growing.

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