Less Anxiety; More Success

 

In a recent radio interview I was asked how students were different from when I began teaching over 30 years ago. One major change I’ve observed is that students suffer more anxiety today. It impacts their learning if they miss school, and when they are in class they struggle to focus. For those with serious anxiety disorders, professional help is a must, but for many students some changes at home can make a big difference. Here are four strategies to help your teen or preteen reduce anxiety and increase learning this year.

More reading. We live in a visual world, where we turn to YouTube for instructions instead of reading the manual, and we video chat instead of writing letters. But there are still benefits to reading words on a page, whether in an ebook or on paper. As readers create images in their brains, imagination and visualization skills increase. Mentally visiting other worlds, both make-believe and real, can reduce anxiety by providing a distraction and a chance to forget one’s problems for a while. Reading also builds vocabulary and writing skills. Non-fiction increases knowledge and can make one an expert on a favorite topic (“Did you know. . .?”). In my classroom I turn on soft instrumental music and turn down the lights, and the atmosphere becomes calm and peaceful. Students actually sigh with pleasure as they settle in to read.

More sleep. Because they’re still growing, teens need 8-10 hours of sleep a night, which they rarely get. But sleep is important for more than just growth. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “Mental health is both impacted by and impacts how well a person sleeps.” Teens who don’t get enough sleep are more prone to anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, the biggest robber of adequate sleep is technology. Teens who take their phones to bed with them can be up past midnight using Snapchat to text–or sext–their friends, or they’re watching videos and playing games. Phones should be handed over to parents or parked in a designated spot at bedtime. Getting enough sleep also helps with focus, learning, and appearance. The latter might be enough to convince self-conscious teens to go to bed earlier, as a lack of sleep affects skin and hair quality. Because of changes in their circadian rhythm, teens may not fall asleep until 11:00 or later, but bedtimes should still be earlier, as even resting in a dark room has benefits.

Less social media. There’s growing evidence that more time spent on social media means more unhappiness for teens (check out an article from Child Mind Institute), often caused by feelings of insecurity and inadequacy when comparing one’s life to others’. Young teens also absorb information from Tumblr or Reddit without the experience or maturity to filter fact from sensationalism. It’s an interesting paradox that while social media keeps them more connected to one another, it also increases feelings of rejection if their posts are ignored or don’t get as many likes as their friends’ posts. Stalking and trolling (leaving mean comments) can also lead to hurt feelings. All of these emotions and relationship issues carry over into the classroom, making focusing on classwork difficult.

Less conflict. What are your battles? Homework? Chores? Appropriate clothing? Arguing and anger produce stress, which causes physical changes, including a rise in cortisol. Among other things, too much cortisol can interfere with learning and memory. Yelling and threatening will never result in a teen saying, “You’re right. I’ll change.” Okay, nothing makes them reply that way, but staying calm while holding firm to your values will get you further. Refrain from sarcasm and statements like “What are you thinking? You’re hopeless! I’m done with you!” that only cause defensiveness. Making your point is more important than issuing consequences or angering your teen, and stiffer penalties can lead to rebellion rather than compliance. Begin with clear expectations and don’t overreact to their responses. Expect respect, but if your teen glares at you or walks away muttering, just let it go. Regardless of how it appears, assume you’ve been heard. When you have to ground him or take away her phone, do it calmly and with few words. As Cynthia Tobias says, “Issue more tickets and give fewer lectures.” Years ago I compiled a “No-No List” of common mistakes parents make in trying to communicate; you can find it here.

 

Anxiety affects students regardless of their capabilities. Anything we can do both at home and in the classroom to ease their way can have a lifelong impact. But if you’re going to make changes, be sure to do so with the cooperation of your teen or preteen. Instead of demanding they read more, go to bed earlier, and spend less time on their phones, involve them in a discussion and invite their input. Problem-solve together and come up with a plan. That way, you’ll also have less conflict–and more success!

Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, Washington; she and Cynthia Tobias are co-authors of  Middle School, the Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available online and in bookstores.

10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know (Shared Blog)

Kari Kampakis has written a wonderful article offering encouragement to middle school students during some of the toughest times in their lives. She addresses technology concerns, choosing friends wisely, identity issues, and more. I highly recommend reading the entire article, which you can do by clicking here: 10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know.

Briefly, her 10 truths are:

10. Today’s most awkward moments will be tomorrow’s funniest memories. Keep a sense of humor whenever possible.

9. You don’t want to peak in middle school (or high school or college, for that matter)

8. Technology makes it easier than ever to ruin relationships and reputations.

7. Surrounding yourself with good company is imperative.

6. What makes you different is what makes you great.

5. It’s OK not to have your life planned out. It’s OK if you haven’t discovered your “thing.”

4. Your uniform is not your identity.

3. Applause can be misleading. You can make a huge mistake and still get cheered on wildly.

2. There’s a difference between helpful advice and criticism that holds you back. Be careful who you listen to.

1. You’re AWESOME.

See her detailed explanations and insightful comments here: 10 Truths Every Middle Schooler Should Know.

 

What Middle Schoolers Do–and Don’t–Need for School

It’s a rare parent who can find the school supplies list at the end of summer, let alone remember to take it along to the store.

And some strange items have shown up on lists recently; I’ve heard of potting soil, gluten-free paint, and Q-tips, to name a few. You may be the parent who follows the list to the letter, even confirming with the teacher which brand of pencils is preferred. Or you may be the “close enough” parent who says, “What does it matter which kind of calculator you buy?” You may wonder how much on the list is essential and how much is fluff. Here are what I consider necessities for a successful start to the year, along with what you can leave out, including items you won’t find on any supply list.

Needed: New Supplies. My husband and I argued every year about buying new pens and pencils. “There’s still a drawer full of them downstairs!” he’d complain. Having shiny new writing utensils and a binder picked out by the student can be inspiring at the beginning of a new year. Opening packages of pens or sharpening new pencils helps build anticipation, and getting everything ready to take to school is satisfying. Don’t wait until the last minute so that your child has to open things at school; the mess can be embarrassing, and it takes time away from socializing.

Not Needed: Expensive, Fancy Supplies. They’ll either be lost or stolen, which will create conflict at home. Or they’ll be borrowed constantly, which can be distracting or annoying to the owner. Buying one expensive item (fancy pens, cool binder, snazzy lunch bag) isn’t a bad idea, but don’t go overboard on everything.

Needed: A Form of Organization. Whether it’s a planner, a calendar, an electronic system, or several pads of Post-Its, every student needs to develop a system that works and then stick with it. It’s not just the teacher’s job to make sure it gets used; be sure you’re asking to see the method at home. “Show me where you wrote your assignments, please” is a valid request.

Not Needed: Your Preferred Planning Method. In our book, we tell a story about a mom who set up a beautiful notebook for her son with color-coded dividers for every subject. When asked why he wasn’t using it, he admitted he’d lost it. Your method does no good if they aren’t invested in it, and not all kids are planner people. Maybe Post-Its with page numbers stuck right in the math book work better, or writing everything on a whiteboard calendar. The point is that they find a method that matches their learning style, and they acquire the discipline to stick with it. Be ready for a trial and error period!

Needed: Accountability. Getting to school on time, completing homework, respecting authority–these are examples of non-negotiables that develop into important life skills. Don’t be too quick to blame the teacher or anybody else when your child struggles in these areas, but do be ready to make a fresh start with a new plan every time it becomes an issue. Use incentives if it helps: “What’s it worth to you to have no tardies for a week?” and consequences when necessary: “I’m sorry, but this F due to missing assignments means you’ll have to miss that party this weekend and catch up.”

Not Needed: Overparenting. When middle schoolers complain about unfairness in the classroom or low grades on tests, they should be the ones talking to the teacher. Resist the urge to shoot off an email or make an angry phone call. Ask your middle schooler, “How are you going to handle this?” and encourage a before- or after-school meeting between teacher and student. If a report card surprises you with less-than-desirable grades, begin by asking your child what happened instead of ringing up the teacher. If your middle schooler is having social issues (“Olivia won’t sit with me at lunch”), hold off a bit and encourage her to work it out with her friends. Involve the teacher only when there’s bullying involved or it’s causing serious depression or anxiety or at home. The key word is “serious,” as in lasting for more than one day or causing eating disorders or other health issues.

Needed: Support. Because of growth spurts and body changes, hormones and social upheavals, these are tough years for all kids. Speak encouragement when you can, share stories of your own middle school years when appropriate, use empathy as often as possible, and give hugs when you’re allowed. Middle schoolers are tough on themselves, often feeling like they don’t measure up to their peers, and they need to hear from you that they’re okay and everything will get better.

Not Needed: Discouragement. Be judicious with your criticism, saving it for important moral and safety issues. Don’t like the way his hair sticks up? If it gives him confidence at school, let it go. Wish she’d clean up after herself more? Keep asking politely and realize it’s more lack of awareness than laziness or defiance. Frustrated by school behavior or grades? Put the responsibility for change back on your middle schooler and work with him to improve. Middle schoolers crave control over their own lives, so give it where you can (negotiable bedtime) and you’ll find it’s easier to hang onto it where you need to (no riding in cars with teenage drivers).

As you stock up on gel pens, ear buds, Kleenex, EOS lip balm, and Sharpies, take some time to think about what you can’t buy at Target, like accountability, encouragement, and empathy. Those may be back-to-school items your middle schooler needs the most!

A Tale of Two (Moody) Middle Schoolers

It was a pretty chill Friday until the last two periods of the day, when I got to deal with two guys with attitude.

I heard student #1 (let’s call him Sam) yelling before I entered his classroom:  “What’s your friggin’ problem? I can’t believe you just did that! What’s wrong with you?!” I didn’t wait to find out what the issue was; I walked in and sent Sam to another room to cool down,  knowing he’d only get more worked up if I gave him a chance to speak. It turned out someone had backed a chair over Sam’s poster on the floor, and Sam unloaded on him without giving him a chance to apologize.

I went to Sam and let him tell his side. I then told him his response was inappropriate and said when he was calm, he could return to class. I also said he needed to apologize at some point. He was back in 5 minutes, not ready to apologize, but sulking quietly in his chair.  I ignored him for 20 minutes until he raised his hand, ready to participate, at which point I called on him like nothing had happened.

During the next class, I had a student (let’s call him Liam) get testy with me because he didn’t want to be in the front row in a dance number we were rehearsing for graduation.  When I pointed out that he’d already rehearsed with the front row and couldn’t change because the back row’s routine was different, he got sarcastic, “Oh, no! I would go this way instead of that way and mess everything up!” I calmly said he could drop out if he wasn’t happy, and he turned and left the gym. I let him go, knowing he was headed to another classroom to vent to a staff member.

Minutes later he was back with a sincere apology: “I’m sorry; that was stupid. I shouldn’t have said that.” I told him he was forgiven and said we could’ve worked out something, but when he chose sarcasm, I got defensive. He apologized again and held out his hand. We shook hands, he got back in line, and the rehearsal continued.

I’m often asked how I deal with “all that attitude” in middle school.  The reality is that I don’t face much of it, because if it appears I stay maddeningly calm and defuse the situation as quickly as possible. I first avoid an open confrontation and then I pretend it never happened, allowing students back into my good graces as soon as they stand down (regardless of my feelings at that point). I want us both to get back in the Blue (cool, peaceful) Zone and out of the Red (hot, angry) Zone as soon as possible so life can go on.

Middle schoolers are emotional creatures, often embarrassed by the lightning speed at which their tempers flare, tears flow, or uncontrollable giggles erupt. As the adult, it’s my job to ride out their feelings and give them every opportunity to save face. It’s how I keep good relationships with my students, and it’s more effective than a tirade or a lecture from me.

On Friday when school ended, both Sam and Liam wished me a good weekend as they went out the door. They knew I bore them no grudges, and we ended the week feeling pretty good about each other. After all, Monday is another day!

Why Are Middle Schoolers Hard to Parent?

“I have a middle schooler now, and everything is just so hard. Every day it’s a new struggle!” This comment on my Facebook page was quickly liked by several parents. What is it about the 10-to-15-year-olds that makes parenting them so challenging? Hormones get the blame, but it’s more complicated than just changes in their glands.

Grown-up children.  Childish grown-ups.  They may be thoughtful one moment: “I can carry that for you,” and selfish the next: “I need my red shirt right now!”  Or they can be affectionate: “I need a hug” and then standoffish: “Don’t touch me!” Students in my class will discuss world events and then turn around and throw trash at each other. I treat them like young adults but am not surprised when they behave like toddlers.

I have key phrases to let them know  when their behavior is unacceptable. The words “In the adult world we. . .” gets their attention because they are at the threshold of adulthood and want to learn the rules. “More 8th grade behavior and less first grade, please” is a little more direct but gets the message across without a full-on attack.

Needing you less. Needing you more. It may seem like 7th graders should be able to get to school or to practices with everything they need and know the rules about chores, bathing, and homework.  They may–but other things get in the way of them remembering.. Think back to when they were learning to walk: they’d toddle off a few steps on their own, fall with a plop, and look back at you to help them up. Middle schoolers need the same room to strike out on their own with confidence that you will be there when things fall apart.

It’s a balancing act, finding the line between not being helpful enough and helping too much.  Just as you wouldn’t carry your toddlers everywhere, neither should you rescue your middle schoolers so they have no responsibilities or consequences. They won’t learn to take a lunch every day if you take it to school each time it’s forgotten, nor will they learn to clean up after themselves if you do it for them.

Your middle schooler still needs you, just differently than before. It’s not your job to make all decisions and fix all boo-boos. It is your job to provide chances to practice being grown up. Nag less; encourage more. Say less; listen more. Laugh at them less; take them seriously more. When they have complaints and questions, they want serious answers.  Don’t assume every “Why?” is talking back; sometimes they really want to know the reason behind your request.

New Bodies. New Thoughts. New Feelings. The physical growth and changes between the end of 5th grade and the end of 8th grade are enormous.  They can grow several inches and sprout hair in new places; their bodies change shape (more curves for girls, broader shoulders for guys), and so do their faces (less round, more angular). Those are the changes we can see.

Inside their heads, they’re thinking more abstract thoughts about topics like eternity or good vs. evil.  They’re also worrying about parents dying or getting divorced or smoking too much.  Such thoughts interrupt their sleep or cause them to zone out in the middle of a meal.

Their emotions are more intense and can be influenced by hormones, sleep changes, social media, and peer interactions. They may be enraged about what’s for dinner and then quickly switch to glee because of a picture on Snapchat. Such intense feelings come and go in a flash, leaving parents’ heads spinning as they try to deal with what just happened. Ride it out, respond with empathy, and brace for the next angry or joyful outburst.

Short-term Aggravation.  Long-term Benefits. Last Friday morning when my 8th graders played games with their younger buddies, they were patient as 1st graders chattered away and sometimes climbed on their backs.  Later that same day, we played a rowdy game of 9-square. The same kids shouted and jumped around, cheered for each other and stomped off when they were out.  It was a typical day in middle school: they were silly, mature, kind, impatient, quiet, and loud–all in the space of 6 hours.

Despite how it feels at the time, these years pass quickly.  Keep the big picture in sight and don’t let the emotions of the moment (yours or theirs) cloud the goal, which is to raise responsible, successful, happy adults.

And when they march off in a huff, just watch them go and remember that you were the one who taught them how–and it didn’t happen overnight.

 

Five Etiquette Rules for Teens

 

On Grandparents’ Day at school, I expect my students to greet their guests at the door, lead them to their seats, offer them refreshments, and serve them.  They don’t do this naturally; their inclination is to stay seated, let their guests come to them, and get treats for themselves only. Yet every one of them will rise to my expectations because we’ve discussed proper manners beforehand.

Teenagers are notoriously self-centered and often seem rude, but it’s usually due to lack of training rather than blatant selfishness.  Adults who work with teens should expect them to be courteous but should also keep in mind that these behaviors need to be modeled and taught.

These are what I consider to be bare-bones basics for all teens:

  1. Use please and thank you.  At some point during puberty kids think saying “please” sounds childish.  Teenagers don’t realize how demanding they sound when they begin a sentence with “I need. . .”  Rather than reminding, “Say please” or asking “What’s the magic word?” (both guaranteed to cause eye rolling), I go deaf or say, “I’m sorry?” to requests without manners.  That way they have to think of it on their own.  In my classroom this often leads to students repeating demands in a louder voice, but I just smile and wait until they catch on.
  2. Look new people in the eye, shake hands firmly, and say, “Nice to meet you.”  We practice this in 8th grade, and the students express gratitude: “I never knew what to say when my mom introduced me to people, but now I do!”  I also point out that they make a great first impression as a confident, friendly teenager instead of a sulky or awkward one.
  3. Offer your seat to adults.  On public transportation, in a restaurant waiting area, or at a family gathering, teens should stand up and say, “You can have my seat.”  Some adults may prefer standing or sitting on the floor, but at least the offer has been made.
  4. Hold the door for anyone coming behind you.  First they have to be taught to check behind them and see who’s back there.  Lost in their adolescent bubbles, they aren’t always aware of people outside their spheres.  It doesn’t matter whether they open the door and hold it to let someone pass in front, or just reach behind to hold it until the next person grabs it, as long as they don’t slide through and let it close behind them.
  5. Disagree with tact.  I tell my students that in the Adult World (a phrase that gets their attention), we don’t say, “You like that?  Gross!”  Instead we say, “Oh, really?  I don’t much care for it” and agree to disagree.

If you encounter a young person using any of these manners, don’t overreact by being gushy, “Aren’t you the nicest young man?” which will embarrass him, nor by giving a backhanded compliment, “Well, what do you know–there are some polite teenagers in the world!”  Instead, just smile and say, “Thank you.”  It’s what we do in the Adult World!

 

 

Don’t Be Helpless (Part 2)

In my last blog we discussed how to avoid being helpless when dealing with teens and their cell phonesOn her phone or talking back. (See Don’t Be a Helpless Parent.)  This time we’ll tackle two more issues that cause parents to throw their hands up in despair: social media and chores.

1. Beyond Twitter and Snapchat Be aware: most teens do not use Facebook as their primary contact with friends.  They use Instagram to keep up with friends’ activities (fewer words, more pictures), and Snapchat for conversations.  They also use apps like Kik, or Yik Yak to chat with friends–or strangers.  Apps such as Kiwi and Whisper go even further and allow users to communicate anonymously.  Think of the power that gives middle schoolers to hurt–and be hurt by–one another.

If your teen owns a smartphone, tablet, or iPod (which connects via wi-fi), you need to keep on top of how they’re using it (also see When Is a Calculator Not a Calculator?).  Ask your teen to open the apps and show you how they work, and require that they give you passwords (you can open most accounts from you computer).  Tell them you won’t be checking all the time, but they should expect you to look in once in awhile. You need to weigh the awkwardness of invading your teen’s privacy against the possibility of them falling victim to–or being tempted to start–cyberbullying, or striking up a relationship with a (possibly dangerous) stranger.

2. Doing Their Share  While it’s nice to have your kids help around the house, the benefits go beyond having clean dishes.  Children who do chores at home do better in school and grow up to be more successful adults (check out Why Children Need Chores in the Wall Street Journal).  You would think that by adolescence, chores would have become a habit, but most parents find themselves in a daily battle to get their kids to do even the most basic of tasks.  

After years of being frustrated with my children and tired of hearing myself nagging and complaining, I called a family meeting with my sons (then 10, 12, and 14).  I laid out which chores needed to be done daily and let them decide on a fair division.  They determined each job would be done for a week, switching on Saturdays.  We discussed consequences for not doing chores, and they agreed that being grounded from all screens (computer, TV, video games) for three days was appropriate.  For a second or recurring offense, they came up with the Chore Slave, who would be at the parents’ beck and call for an entire Saturday.  The key was to involve them in coming up with a plan.

I in turn agreed that if chore didn’t get done in a timely manner, I would do it myself and calmly issue the consequence.  This resulted in me sometimes preparing to load the dishwasher, only to be nudged aside by a desperate boy.  I never refused his offer, nor did I make a snarky comment like, “About time you showed up.” My goal was for them to do chores without being yelled at, so I graciously left the kitchen without a word.

Just as it was worth your while to teach your preschooler how to tie a shoe or ride a bicycle (both struggles I remember well), it is also critical that you hold your ground on major issues in adolescence.  Parents of 13-year-olds have about five years before they graduate from high school.  That may seem like a long time to fight the good fight, but you will be preparing them for decades of responsible adulthood.

Hang in there.