Archive for the ‘Tips and Tricks’ category

Are They Deaf?

June 9, 2013


One afternoon Cynthia and I were out walking when we heard loud voices coming from somewhere nearby.  Concerned and wondering if we were coming up on a fight, we spied three freshman-aged boys about two blocks away. Definitely not fighting, they were having a good time laughing and talking – or rather yelling - at each other.

Teens are loud.  That could be the end of the blog right there, but let’s chat about why.

Like many activities that bother adults, being overly loud is part of The Bubble Effect (see “Wait. . .What?” for more on The Bubble).  Teens are still young enough to get louder as their excitement grows, and they forget others nearby aren’t sharing their enthusiasm.  This actually starts when they were four or five, but then they have higher, cuter voices.  By age 13 or 14 their deeper and stronger voices can really carry – and annoy.

When I observe this in the lunchroom, I’ll hold my hands about a foot apart and say, “She’s only this far away; you don’t have to yell at her.”  The response is always, “I wasn’t yelling!”  But the voices will be quieter as I walk away – for about seven seconds.

Sometimes I use a one-word prompt – “Volume!” – to let students know they’ve gotten too loud.  When out in public, I’ve been known to stare across the lobby with my best teacher face until a group of noisy teens figures out why I’m looking their way.  A look that says, “Really?” can be very effective.

Because until that moment, they’ve had no idea how high their volume is.

It’s An E-Ticket Ride

June 2, 2013


“She’s so emotional!  When I started talking about her new school, she burst into tears, ran to her room, and locked the door!”

It’s a familiar story at the end of the year, whether or not there’s a new school involved.  Middle schoolers are such emotional creatures anyway, and all of the emotions that come with endings and new beginnings bubble up and overflow.  The adults in their lives find themselves riding a roller coaster with blind turns, breathtaking climbs, and alarming dips.

The best thing a parent can do is to hold their middle schooler’s hand during the scary parts, high five them during the exciting parts, and try not to be caught off guard by the next outburst.

At our school, the 8th graders graduate in June and go off to either 9th grade at a junior high, or freshman year in high school.  Doesn’t matter where they go, they’re leaving behind all that’s been familiar – for 10 years for some of them – and heading into foreign territory.  Their comments throughout the year swing from “I can’t wait!” to “I don’t want to go!”  I tell them they should be ready to leave but sad to go, and they appreciate that I understand how mixed up they are.

That’s the parents’ job, too – to show they understand.  A middle schooler will appreciate a parent who shows empathy far more than a parent who belittles – or worse, who tries to change – their feelings.



May 24, 2013


As I walked down the hallway this week, Taylor and Elysia sped past me going the opposite direction.  “Ladies,” I said, “thanks for not running in the hall!”  “You’re welcome!” they called back as they continued on their way - speed walking as before.

It’s important to catch kids doing the right thing – and then to comment on it.  We raised our kids with the philosophy: the behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated.  But you have to teach the desired behavior instead of focusing on the undesired behavior.  It’s easier to teach what to do than what to not do.  When I see kids running in the hall, I say, “Walk, please” instead of “No running!”  I’ve also told them it’s okay to SPEED walk – a tip these two girls took to heart.

Our Life Skills class planted flower seeds this spring; last week they brought their baby plants into the classroom so they could take them home.  When Dirk moved his from one side of the table to the other, he left a trail of dirt behind.  Without prompting, he grabbed the trash can and brushed the dirt into it.  When I thanked him for doing the right thing and not brushing it onto the floor, he grinned in appreciation.

Tell your kids what behavior you expect from them, and then when you catch them doing it – speak up!

Eggs Over Medium – and Hold the Phone

May 19, 2013


We were out to breakfast one morning when I noticed two 12-ish girls sitting at their own table, near but not with their family.  As they chatted and giggled I realized what was unusual – neither had an electronic device in her hand!

When we go out to eat, most of the kids I see are either using their own phones, or – if they’re really little – their parents’ phones.  Or they’re playing on a Nintendo DS.  To see two girls looking each other in the eye while they talked and laughed was a nice change.

This may be one of the hardest skills for parents to model, because we’ve become so addicted to our smartphones that we check them every few minutes.  But table manners and restaurant etiquette can’t be taught just by talking about them; they have to be practiced.

The next time you take your family to a restaurant, try coming to an agreement before you leave.  Maybe phones are okay until the food comes.  Or maybe no phones out until after the meal.  Or turn it into a competition. . .

Have you heard about how college students will pile their phones in the middle of the table, and the first to give in and look has to pay the bill?  In a family, it might be whoever looks first has to do the others’ chores or put money into a family fund.  Awareness of the problem is the first step; agreeing on a solution is the second.

The bottom line:  technology should never be an excuse for being antisocial.

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

May 7, 2013


I expected it:  some parents got defensive after the last post (All That Attitude).  “But,” they said, “what if I’m speaking in a calm and reasonable tone and I still get attitude?”

That’s when you use “The One,” which is simply your index finger pointed up, as in “Wait.”  Don’t comment on the attitude and don’t reply to what’s being said (it’s probably just to bait you anyway); instead, say, “Wow.  I don’t feel very respected by your tone (or words).  Could you try that again, but more respectfully, please?”  As lame as it may sound, I have almost 100 percent success with this.

If the comment is repeated in a nicer tone, then respond pleasantly or with empathy, depending on what is said.  For example, your reply to “Why do I have to do all the work around here?” might be, “It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  I can totally relate.”

If it’s out of line no matter the tone, as in, “I said, ‘I hate my brother,’” don’t overreact.  You can deflect attitude by being neutral – try shrugging and saying, “Seems like everybody feels that way once in awhile.”  No need to lecture on using “hate” or other strong language; by middle school, they’ve heard it.  Again,  you’re being baited.

If the comment isn’t repeated because the speaker knows it’s over the line, or because not repeating it is a power ploy (“Just forget it”), then let it go.  End the conversation.  Change the subject.  Avoid getting sucked into a battle that isn’t related to anything else.

It takes patience and willpower to head off an Incident, and you may need to phone a friend to vent afterward, but stick with it and you’ll see the dreaded Attitude diminish.

(Just be sure you’re not the one who invites it back.)

All That Attitude

April 28, 2013


When I mention that I teach middle school, two things happen:  1) I get blessed, as in, “Oh, bless you – that’s not an easy job.” and 2) I get asked how I  handle all that attitude.

But the reality is, I don’t get much attitude from students.  The eye rolling, shrugging, hair flipping, steely-eyed glaring – I see very little of it.  Correction:  I see very little of it directed at me. However, I do see it directed at other adults.  So why not at me in my classroom?

It’s not because I terrify them.  Spend an hour in my classroom and you’ll pick up on that, as the teasing goes both ways.  But I do demand respect, and that, too, goes both ways.  And that may be part of the answer:  I treat my students with respect.  Teens match their tone of voice to the tone being used with them, so I try to keep mine calm.  I can’t do it all the time – sometimes I’m too frustrated – but more often than not, I keep my cool.

The other part of the answer is a little trick I call “intentional ignorance.”  For example, if I’ve had to tell a student that she can’t play in a basketball game because of low grades, and she throws herself into her seat and glares at me, I will pretend not to see her little tantrum.  Unless she gets so loud that she’s disrupting the class, I will turn a blind eye to her antics until she settles down.  If she does get disruptive, I’ll (calmly) ask her to visit another classroom until she has herself under control.

Why don’t I have to deal with “all that attitude?” Probably because I choose to ignore it – and not to return it.



Zipping It

April 21, 2013


Yesterday at the Spring Fair, I enjoyed watching little daredevils riding the mobile zip line.  A young man of about 7 or 8 shared my enjoyment, shouting as he walked by, “WOW! That is SO COOL!!”

My smile turned to a frown as I heard him whine, “Ow!”  Turning around, I saw his chin clamped in his father’s hand.  Through clenched teeth his dad barked, “Didn’t I tell you to stop yelling?  Why don’t you listen?”  The little guy rubbed his chin and looked at his dad with fearful eyes as they walked away.  I wanted to tap Dad on the shoulder and ask, “Can I show you a better way?”  Because soon that boy will be 13, and his dad will find that grabbing him will only make things worse.

In my fantasy world, I would advise the dad to stop walking, get down on his son’s level, and agree that yes, it is cool, BUT – yelling about it isn’t okay because he might disturb other people.  He could then ask his son to repeat what he’d said, but in a quieter tone.  And here’s the important part:  a few minutes later, when Junior expressed how excited he was about something else – but in a lower voice – Dad could smile and say, “That’s how you do it!”

Fast forward several years.  The son bursts in the door yelling, “I’M STARVING!  WHAT IS THERE. . . ” As he catches his dad’s warning eye, he lowers his voice, “. . .to eat?”  Without grabbing, yelling, or even speaking a word, the message has been sent and received.

And nobody’s rubbing his chin.

Baby Talk

March 24, 2013

baby talk

I was chatting with  parents who were concerned about their 5th grader’s use of baby talk:  “Is she immature?  Do you think it means she has emotional issues?”

It’s such a part of my life that I don’t realize how odd it is for others to hear it.  Middle schoolers will resort to using a babyish tone of voice when they are embarrassed or self-conscious.  Put them in front of the room for a speech or a presentation, and many of them will speak with it – especially at the beginning of the year.  It can happen when they raise their hand and are called on, too.

I went straight to the source and asked my 7th and 8th graders why it happens.  They were split between two explanations.  The first camp said that when little kids talk, everybody thinks it’s cute, so middle schoolers do it to try to be cute.

The second camp (the one I lean toward) said that they don’t want to be taken seriously in case people think that what they’re saying sounds dumb.  If it’s spoken like a baby, they can always back out and say, “I was just kidding.”

When it happens in class, I stop the speaker and ask for a repeat without the baby voice.  The tone of voice changes almost every time.  As the weeks go by, all it takes is a one-word reminder, “Voice,” for the speaker to stop – and then start over in a normal tone.

(Though I’ll be the first to admit that “normal” in middle school is hard to define.)


Two’s Company; Three’s a Gang

March 13, 2013

FeetI’m not referring to gun-wielding, colors-wearing gang members.  I’m talking about three or more middle schoolers hanging out together and uttering those fateful words: “You know what would be funny?”

It’s not an outright dare, but the challenge is implied.  And where one teen would never be brave enough, and two might talk each other out of mischief, three will egg each other on until they’ve convinced themselves to go through with it. Not only is there safety in numbers – “They can’t catch all of us!” – but there’s also bravado, which is scary at an age when good judgment is outshouted by the desire for fun.

Brain researchers will tell you that the part of the brain that says, “Let’s try that – it sounds awesome!” is overdeveloped compared to the part that says, “Don’t do it – it’s dangerous!”  I see the bigger problem as the parents who overestimate their teens’ ability to do the right thing when surrounded by friends, so they drop them off unsupervised at the mall or the movies or the skating rink.  “She’s a good kid; I can trust her,” they think.  And she probably is trustworthy – until she’s with a group of friends and peer pressure takes over.

Smart parents will realize that independence needs to be granted in small increments as teens mature.  Instead of dropping off a group of middle schoolers, go with them.  You don’t have to tag along behind, but they should know you’ll be keeping tabs on them.

And that could mean the difference between “You did WHAT?” and “You did well.”

“Don’t Read Mine!”

March 10, 2013


Middle school is the Age of Extreme Self-Consciousness.  This was evident last week when I asked students to write a short paragraph about a person or event at our school that had impacted their lives.

After several minutes of discussion, they got to work and finished in short order.  As they handed in their papers, almost all of them said, “Don’t read mine out loud!”  Curious, I looked over the papers, expecting to find embarrassing stories.  No such thing.  They’d written about learning to play an instrument, or being hugged by a teacher on a bad day, or playing on the basketball team.

So why the reluctance to share?  Because at this age, the social rules are unwritten – and unclear.  They can’t predict what will bring scorn and laughter from their peers, so it’s easiest not to take the risk.

What they don’t see is that their peers are laughing because of their own discomfort.  They’re all worried about doing the right thing, and it’s safer to mock the efforts of others than to approve of them – and risk being mocked by someone else for doing so.  It’s a scary, anxiety-ridden spiral that few middle schoolers escape, so the safest move is to be as unnoticed as possible.

It’s important for parents to be sensitive to this self-conscious time and not to belittle their middle schoolers for their feelings.  Doing so only makes them feel stuck between the scorn of their peers and that of their parents.

Be respectful of the pain they’re experiencing.  They’ll be grateful.



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