In Their Shoes

It was 2:30 on Thursday afternoon, and I could barely stay awake. I needed to use the restroom, but I tried to focus on the class discussion and think of something intelligent to contribute.

I wasn’t the teacher; I was a student in Phoenix, learning a new method for teaching science. Our class ran from 8:30 to 3:30 every day, giving me a fresh appreciation for what my students endure.

Three insights I gained:

Groups are challenging. Though the curriculum included many hands-on activities, it was hard being with the same people every day and having little control. We worked in groups which changed every few days, and by Monday of the second week I had definite ideas about which group members I preferred. As an adult, I could tolerate annoying behavior and keep my mouth shut (it helped that this was short-term), but imagine being a moody middle schooler, knowing you were stuck with these people for a school year. While learning to work in groups is an important skill, group work can be stressful for everyone.

My vow: I will make sure I have a good balance of individual and group projects, and I will listen with empathy when students complain, rather than dismissing them with, “We all need to learn how to work together!”

School means too much sitting. My students have office chairs, but it’s still hard on one’s legs and tailbone to sit for so many hours. In Phoenix we had frequent breaks (and an hour for lunch), but I dreaded plopping into that chair every morning. Because of growing limbs and muscles, adolescents can be in agony if denied movement for too long, so I shouldn’t be surprised when they whine and ask to take another break. As a teacher in constant motion around the classroom, it’s easy for me to forget how long they’ve been sitting.

Mvow:  I will offer plenty of opportunities for movement throughout the day and will be more sensitive to the amount of time they spend in their seats. While they may look like they’re listening, odds are good they’re wishing they could get up and move.

Cell phones are both a blessing and a pain. I loved being able to check my email constantly, because our teacher trusted that we would be smart about our smartphones. When I got bored or irritated by the discussion, I could take a quick look at Facebook or Instagram to pass the time.  However, some of the teachers were on their phones too often, even hiding them behind display boards during group presentations. My students are used to being connected all day long, and while it’s good for them to unplug, it’s also important to teach them phone etiquette.

My vow: Though I will continue to ban phone usage in my classroom, I may – may – consider allowing small “phone check” periods at lunch, if they prove to me they can handle it. I still find it important to limit screen time, but I also appreciate the desire to check in with the “outside world.”

I consider myself a student-centered teacher, but it’s still easy to forget how things look and feel from their side. It’s my goal this year to keep putting myself in their shoes so they, their feet – and even their seats – are more comfortable!

Why I Like Middle School

As a middle school teacher, I am frequently blessed–literally! When I mention what I do for a living, invariably the reply will be, “Oh, bless you!” I usually smile in agreement but can’t resist adding, “I actually love middle schoolers!”

Here are six things to like about middle schoolers.

  1. Energy level   Oh, they can be slugs, especially when there are chores to be done, but when they’re excited about something, they are crazy energetic. The day I assigned skits to teach the Beatitudes, the volume of their voices (and laughter) reached a fever pitch. When I give them a choice of which movie to watch, the discussion can get pretty heated. I took my 8th graders on a bowling field trip, and they couldn’t sit down between their turns because they were so wound up.
  2. Inquisitiveness  I was trying to teach a lesson on the Bill of Rights but kept getting sidetracked by their questions. Some were thoughtful–“What kind of crime deserves the death penalty?”–and other showed their limited life experiences–”So is it legal for someone’s army dad to stay in their house, or is that considered ‘quartering a soldier?'” Though they often seem self-centered, their awareness of a bigger world out there is growing exponentially, and they want to know how it works.
  3. Playfulness   Though they’re on the brink of full-blown adolescence with adulthood just around the corner, they’re still happy to behave like little kids. Their selfies are full of silly faces and goofy poses. When faced with a large open space, they’ll take off running or doing cartwheels. And they’ll do almost anything for a donut!
  4. Sense of humor   They still love a clever knock-knock joke, but their humor is also becoming more sophisticated. While it may take them a moment to get a funny anecdote (again, because of limited life experience), they’re flattered that you’d tell it to them. Bathroom humor is prevalent in middle school, but they love to experiment with sarcasm and puns.
  5. So Much Growth   The young man in the photo grew at least a foot between the beginning of 6th grade and the beginning of 8th, and his voice went from squeaky to deep (with the predictable cracks). But it’s more than physical growth: mentally, they’re making the abstract leap. “Last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about how long eternity is!” Emotionally, they’re all over the place, but they’re developing feelings like compassion and empathy on a more adult level. Spiritually, they’re questioning what they believe and why.
  6. Passion to Love–and to Not Love   Nowhere is this more evident than in relationships with parents and other family members. On the one hand they still crave approval, but on the other they can be extremely critical. “My parents really care about me” can happen in the same sentence as “I wish my parents would get off my case!” They hate getting up early for school but love being able to hang out with their friends all day. “Are you serious!?!” can express both excitement and frustration–sometimes together, like when I tell my class we’re playing dodgeball in P.E.

Middle schoolers present a unique set of challenges to the adults in their lives, but for those who love and appreciate them, the joy of watching them unfold like blossoms in spring far outweighs the struggles!

Screen Check!

My husband and I were on our Saturday breakfast date at IHOP when I spotted something unusual. “Look behind you!” I whispered. “See that table with the young couple and two little ones? The kids are coloring; the parents are chatting, and there are no electronics in sight!”

If you do a Google search on “how screens affect kids’ brains,” you’ll get disturbing results. There’s clear evidence that interacting with phones and tablets is affecting the way kids learn. But more frightening is the impact screens have on adolescents. A PBS article, “The Drug-like Effect of Screen Time on the Teen-age Brain,” says around half of all teens feel they are addicted to their devices, and many families argue about screens daily. The good news is that self-control and less time on devices can be taught, but first it has to be modeled.

If you feel your teen is addicted to screens, check your own usage first (and consider limiting yourself), and then have frank discussions with your kids regarding your family’s tablet or phone habits. You may want to set some new rules for all of you, but be sure to involve everyone in the process to increase chances for cooperation. Some good rules are:

  1. No screens at mealtimes, whether at home or in a restaurant.
  2. No screens in bedrooms at night.
  3. No eyes on phones during conversations.

Check in with each other weekly to see how everyone’s progressing, and encourage one another rather than nagging or berating. A code word or phrase might be a helpful reminder: “Screen check!”

As my husband and I left the restaurant, I stopped and complimented the young parents, telling them they were rocking this parenting thing. They were surprised but pleased. I’m pretty sure they won’t be in a hurry to buy their children phones–and those two cute kids will be better off for it!

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

Cared For and Supported

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a seminar and shared with my class at Concordia, Tacoma, the slides I’d used with students in Loveland, Colorado. When the image of Charlie Brown and Snoopy came up, the reaction was startling:
“Yes! YES!!”
“I wish my parents knew this!”
“Could you please tell this to my mom?”
“Can I take a picture of that and show it to my dad?”

While it is a parent’s instinct to rescue or cheer up or smooth the way, understanding becomes more important than problem-fixing once a child reaches 10 or 11 years old. Middle school is full of emotional ups and downs, and relationships are everything. When things go wrong with friends or classmates, the whole world crashes down on them. Empathy is actually appreciated more than interference, so instead of calling other parents or talking to teachers, a wise parent will be understanding but hands off.

School is also more stressful than parents remember. While teens don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or aging parents, they do have to face countless opportunities to feel dumb, along with perceived judgment from their peers, sitting still all day, and more work when they get home. Instead of convincing them that their lives aren’t so bad, parents will connect better if they express empathy for the trials and anxiety that accompany adolescence.

When things go wrong in your middle schooler’s life, pause before reacting. Don’t offer solutions or try to make things better. Resist the urge to ask questions starting with “Why. . .?” or “How. . .?”  Be available, but don’t push your way in. Offer food or a blanket but don’t insist. Ask if a hug would be okay, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Your understanding and patience will be appreciated, far more than your offer of help. And even if your don’t say the words, your middle schooler will hear “I love you” coming through loud and clear.

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!

The No-No List for Parents

I originally posted this list in 2012; it can also be found in our book, Middle School: The Inside Story.

Parents tell me their teens won’t talk to them, but teens tell me their parents don’t listen to them. There’s a desire on both sides to communicate, so where’s the breakdown? While it can be frustrating to hear “Fine,” “I dunno,” and “Whatever,” it’s not all the teenagers’ fault.  Here are ten mistakes parents make when trying to hold a conversation with their kids.

  1. Interrupting. Cutting them off before the end of their story.  Or predicting how the story will end and finishing their sentences.  Even worse – interrupting an emotional story with questions about chores or homework.
  2. Downplaying feelings. Saying something like, “You think that’s a big deal?  You should try living my life!” when middle schoolers are excited about something or really angry at someone.
  3. Yelling.  Considered “going off” by middle schoolers, it usually causes them to just stop communicating.  Note:  to a middle schooler, “yelling” has less to do with volume and more to do with attitude and tone of voice at the time of delivery.
  4. Using “Always” and “Never.” Pointing out faults with language about how he always forgets to be responsible or how she never treats you with respect.  As with most adults, the moment “always” or “never” are inserted into a discussion, the listener gets defensive and starts looking for ways to justify the behavior.
  5. Criticizing. Complaining frequently about such things as clothes, hair length or style, and friends.  Expressing disappointment in behavior, attitude, grades, etc.
  6. Using half an ear. Saying “Uh-huh” and “Mm-hmm” to make it sound like they’re listening even though they’re not.   Not making eye contact while the middle schooler is speaking (after all, how many adults will allow their kids to get away with that?)
  7. Belittling in front of others. Telling friends and family members about their children’s faults and past mistakes when they’re standing right there.  Or describing a situation that really embarrasses them, and then expect them to laugh along.
  8. Being judgmental.  Asking “What were you thinking?” or “Why are you so. . .?” or pointing out how immature they’re being.  Assuming it was their middle schooler’s fault before getting all of the facts straight. Or continuing to blame the middle schooler even if it wasn’t his fault – “You must’ve done something to make him act that way toward you.”
  9. Solving their problems. Making them feel inferior by telling them what they should do.  Interfering with the growth in self-confidence that comes with persevering through a problem on one’s own.
  10. Being sarcastic. Using a tone of voice that sounds serious, but using words that are confusing so that their meaning is unclear: “Sure—buy anything you want. I’ve got plenty of money.”  “Really?”  “No—I’m kidding.” Saying words designed to belittle a middle schooler in front of others.

If you recognized yourself in this list, don’t despair. Pick one or two and make a change.  Remember that your teens want the same things you do:  to be listened to, to be taken seriously, and to be understood.

Maybe they’ll even return the favor!

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.